Pope takes to Twitter as Vatican woos Internet generation

Pope takes to Twitter as Vatican woos Internet generation

"The first tweets will be answers to questions sent to the pope on matters of faith. The public can start sending them starting now," Vatican communications adviser Greg Burke said at a press conference on Monday.

The account carries a picture of the pope waving and its number of followers rose from around 2,400 at the time of the announcement to more than 24,000 just an hour later, with numbers continuing to rise sharply.

An introductory message of the account based in "Vatican City" read: "Welcome to the official Twitter page of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI."

"Pontifex" is a Latin word meaning "pontiff", the pope's official title.

Benedict will only follow his own account in other languages for the moment and there are no plans for a Facebook account yet, Burke said, adding: "Twitter can be more effective than Facebook in passing on the Pope's message."

The tweets will be in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish and more languages could be added in future.

Several fake Twitter accounts already set up in the pope's name have been used to mock the 85-year-old pontiff, but the Vatican said it was not worried about the risk that hostile messages would be tweeted on the real account.

Burke, a former correspondent for US channel Fox News brought in by the Vatican in June to overhaul its public-relations operation, said the pope's Twitter account would create "a free market of ideas, and that is good".

It would serve up "pearls of wisdom coming from the heart of the pope", he said, though the 140-character messages will not be written by the pope himself but by Vatican officials who will submit them to him for approval.

"We are going to get a spiritual message. The pope is not going to be walking around with a Blackberry or an iPad and no one is going to be putting words into the pope's mouth. He will tweet what he wants to tweet," Burke said.

The Vatican said: "The pope's presence on Twitter is a concrete expression of his conviction that the Church must be present in the digital arena."

Benedict wants "to ensure that the good news of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Church is permeating the forum of exchange and dialogue that is being created by social media," it added in a statement.

The aim is to "dialogue with men and women of today wherever they are," said Cardinal Claudio Maria Celli of the Pontifical Social Communications Council.

The news of the elderly pontiff's decision to join Twitter received mixed reactions on the online community.

"Does this mean we can just tweet our sins instead of showing up for confession?" asked Twitter user Sandra Hayes.

Ryan Babel said "will he be the first priest to legally be able to follow children?" -- one of many Twitter quips on the Church's sex abuse scandals.

"The Pope's presence on Twitter can be seen as the 'tip of the iceberg'" due to a strong Church presence on "personal sites, blogs and micro-blogs of public church figures and of individual believers", the Vatican said.

Several leading Vatican prelates are already regular tweeters including Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, as the tradition-bound institution tries to reach a younger global audience.

Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, American Sean Patrick O'Malley, Italian Angelo Scola and South African Wilfrid Fox Napier also tweet -- out of 200-plus cardinals in the world, many of whom might not be quite as tech-savvy.

Benedict last year launched a new Vatican information portal with a tweet from the Holy See's Twitter account sent from an iPad. A bemused pope could be seen in images of the event being shown by prelates how to tap on the device.

"Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! With my prayers and blessing, Benedictus XVI," read his first tweet, which he signed with his formal Latin name.

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