(RNS) At 5:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday (Dec. 12), Pope Benedict XVI reached out to the world of digital seekers — 140 characters at a time.
He began with a blessing: "Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart."
He launched his first tweet from a new personal @Pontifex account at the end of his weekly general audience. The text of the tweet, in Italian, flashed on the jumbo screens in the modernist Pope Paul VI Hall, where the audience was held.
Then, about an hour later, he answered the first of thousands of questions sent to him in the past nine days. It went out to someone in the U.S. who asked in English: "How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?"
Benedict replied: "By speaking with Jesus in prayer, listening to what he tells you in the Gospel and looking for him in those in need."
Later, someone asked the pope: "How can faith in Jesus be lived in a world without hope?" His response: "We can be certain that a believer is never alone. God is the solid rock upon which we build our lives and his love is always faithful."
The Vatican is not naming exactly whose questions the pope is answering. But many could find a personal connection.
Two of the 20 questions that Adam Blanchard (@blanchard_APG) sent in asked about the Year of Faith.
And Ruaiyya Noor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.V., and a freelance writer, asked, "What can we do as Catholics to use this 'year of faith' to proselytize Catholicism and Christ?"
La Stampa's "Vatican Insider" says an Italian company, Expert System, did a computer analysis of 20,000 Twitter comments and questions sent to the pope. It found four main categories: religion (41 percent); art, culture and entertainment (20 percent); economy and finance (16 percent); and crime (5 percent).
The article said researchers found that "most of the messages are irrelevant, ironic and sometimes offensive, but there are some users that ask serious questions and raise important issues, showing an openness to dialogue."
Catholic News Service, which was live-tweeting the event, said a U.S. official at the Vatican, TJ Jones from one of the Holy See's communications offices and two student interns from Villanova University set up a tablet for the @Pontifex tweet.
More than 1 million people, including 645,000 from the English-speaking world, responded to the pope's "follow me" invite to Twitter feeds in eight languages for @Pontifex. Thousands sent him questions — from sincere to silly to serious digs at the Catholic Church. Vatican staff screened the tweets, but officials said the pope's answers would be in his own words.
Benedict has launched preapproved tweets on other Vatican Twitter accounts since 2010, but this is the first time he has used this new personal account.
The social media company engineered the 12/12/12 event, encouraging the Vatican to personalize its multiple Twitter accounts. It assigned Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Twitter's manager of social innovation, to the Holy see to manage the account. She was there — and tweeting — for the big moment on Wednesday.
Twitter has 20 employees roaming the globe signing up headliners, says The Washington Post, "with promises of free marketing, extra security against impostors and training to avoid the gaffes that have embarrassed some business executives and members of Congress."
At the Vatican, Twitter met up with former Fox newsman Greg Burke. He was brought in to the Vatican last summer to offer media strategy. Vatican communications and governance were once called a "train wreck" by the National Catholic Reporter's Vatican specialist, John Allen.
Matt Archbold, who writes for the National Catholic Register, took a gently humorous line for The Washington Post's On Faith section:
"If you don't retweet the pope, is that a sin of omission? ... If you get blocked by the pope, is that a 21st century form of excommunication? Are we really about to see the birth of the excommunitweet?"
But Archbold points out that "Jesus may have been the greatest tweeter ever." All the Beatitudes — beloved lines such as "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" — are 140 characters or less.
(Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for USA Today.)