Kathryn Lopez

Rome -- "Where people are, the Word of God must be," a priest from Washington state, in the holy city for a conference on the Church in America, told an Italian media outlet.

The simple explanation did make clear why one of the most learned, reserved, holy men on the planet was dipping his toes into Twitter.

When the pope sent his first post on the popular social media platform, two grandmotherly women from the Philippines were sitting near me. "Pope -- Twitter!" they said to me with radiant smiles. "Thanks be to God!" they continued. There was a language barrier, it turned out, so I couldn't press them about the significance of the event, but the gratitude suggested an appreciation for another opportunity, for the chance to reach more souls.

In the case of the papal account, a top priority is conversion -- the work of evangelization, work that Catholics talk about a lot these days, enhancing understanding of what it is the Catholic Church teaches even -- or especially -- among those who already profess to be Catholic.

"Many people don't really understand our primary concerns," Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, says. And, it turns out, "You can say quite a little bit in 140 characters."

After an inaugural tweet that was surprisingly understated -- a simple greeting and a blessing -- the pope got down to business: "How can faith in Jesus be lived in a world without hope?" he asked, before answering: "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's decision to enter into this forum in such an interactive way, giving people throughout the world the ability to ask direct questions of the pope, is unprecedented. It may also be the most countercultural use of new media yet. The pope here seeks to renew faith and to teach, but he also promotes silence, even while he adds tweets on the feeds of more than a million followers, and counting.

"Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist," Pope Benedict XVI explained in a message earlier this year. "In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves," the message continued. "In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible."

Besides pointers for a more peaceful and fully present life, the approach could transform Twitter and social media itself.

Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, writes a weekly column of conservative political and social commentary for Newspaper Enterprise Association.