White smoke was first seen rising from the Sistine Chapel chimney on Wednesday at 1:06pm EDT. Just hours later, at 3:33pm, the Vatican tweeted “HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM,” which translates to “We have Pope Francis.” The tweet was retweeted 25,000 times in under 10 minutes.
Pope Benedict XVI made headlines back in December when he became the first pope to start tweeting via the Vatican’s official Twitter handle, @Pontifex. This wasn’t the church’s first foray into social media. Back in 2010, the Pope asked priests take to the web to help spread the gospel. That the Catholic Church has warmed to social media so quickly may come as a surprise. After all, this is the same institution that took over 300 years to apologize for persecuting Galileo in the 1600’s for believing that the earth moved around the Sun. However, if we look at the very tenets of the religion, moving onto social networks was but a logical next step.
Evangelism is a key aspect of many Christian religions, and Christians have successfully used other types of media for this purpose. (Remember the televangelists of the 70’s and 80’s?) Furthermore, the need to gain more followers has never been stronger. The Pew Forum recently reported that “the percentage of U.S. Catholics who consider themselves ‘strong’ members of the Roman Catholic Church has never been lower than it was in 2012.”
Despite having almost two million Twitter followers already, Pope Francis still has a huge, common hurdle to overcome. Religious belief is a very personal thing, and it’s one of the most taboo topics to talk about. Given the very public nature of social media, many believers are hesitant to associate with religious figures and institutions on the web.
Opening a Twitter account was clearly a PR move- a good one, but it was only a start. Pope Benedict XVI’s 36 tweets since December have mostly been one-way broadcasts. Though he invited people to start conversations with him with the hashtag #askpontifex, it quickly became a joke on Twitter and very little was achieved. Pope Francis is starting with a clean Twitter slate, and we hope he makes more of an effort to engage with followers than his predecessor. To start, he should probably look over our latest eBook on social media.