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.
In response to the news that the pontiff would be joining Twitter, all kinds of colorful comments were tweeted at his newly opened account, in all languages, using all kinds of untraditional and sometimes salty language. The pope's eloquent, stately presence amid the chatter and vitriol serves as an example.
"Taking your time, reflecting on what you're doing," has a place in life and even on Twitter," Monsignor Tighe notes.
Call it the new improved slower media. Msgr. Tighe likens it to the "slow food movement," in which people seek to know where their food is coming from and take the time to enjoy it.
It's cool, calm, collected, civil, and Christian. Ultimately, wherever you are communicating, you are communicating with people. "It's about relationships," Msgr. Tighe says. "There's even room for the golden rule there."
The papal Twitter account, in other words, may not be about getting with the times so much as bringing the gospel to them, distilling life to its essence, 140 characters at a time.
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