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Pope Opens a Personal Twitter Account

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Pope Benedict XVI (Photo: CNN, David Ariosto)

VATICAN CITY (CNN)-

The Vatican revealed the new personal Twitter account for Pope Benedict XVI, @Pontifex, on Monday, meaning the leader of the global Catholic Church will officially join millions of people around the globe on the social media site.

The pope will answer a question about faith in his first tweet, slated for Wednesday, December 12, Vatican officials said. They said that anyone could send in a question via the hashtag #askpontifex or #B16. The Vatican said the initial tweets from the pope will come on Wednesdays in conjunction with his general audiences in Rome, but that the 140-character missals may become more frequent.

The formal announcement came in a press conference Monday morning at the Vatican with Catholic and Twitter officials.

“The Pope’s presence on Twitter is a concrete expression of his conviction that the Church must be present in the digital arena,” the church said in a written statement to reporters. The pope’s account on Twitter, the statement said, “can be seen as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ that is the Church’s presence in the world of new media.”

A Vatican official told CNN the pope will be composing the tweets for the new account himself. For the first tweet from the account, the pope will also press the button to send the tweet himself, but after that others will send the tweets on his behalf.

In June 2011 the pope sent his first tweet from the Twitter account for the Vatican news site, @news_va_en, to launch the new site www.news.va. He wrote, “Dear friends, I just launched News.va. Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! With my prayers and blessings, Benedictus XVI.”

That signature had led some to guess that @BenedictusPPXVI would be the account name for the 85-year-old pope’s personal account, although @Pope would have been fitting as well. (Benedictus PP XVI is the pontiff’s signature in Latin, with the “PP” standing for papa, the Latin word for pope.)

With @Pontifex, which means “bridge builder” in Latin, the pope chose a handle with another name for the office he holds.

The details on the long-expected event were revealed at the press conference featuring Vatican officials, including spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi and Greg Burke, media adviser to the Secretariat of State, who were joined by Claire Diaz-Ortiz, who heads social innovation at Twitter. Burke is a relatively new addition to the Vatican staff, having been recruited away from the Fox News Channel, where he was Rome correspondent. Diaz-Ortiz has been influential in getting religious leaders to join the social networking site.

Other religious leaders have found great success with Twitter. The 140-character limit for tweets allows for short messages, perfect for small verses of scripture or inspiration.

The Dalia Lama (@DalaiLama), Rick Warren (@RickWarren), Joel Osteen (@JoelOsteen), and scores of other religious leaders utilize the site to spread their messages.

A Twitter spokeswoman said that religious leaders “punch above their weight” on the social networking site.

“An average religious leader has a rate of about 1 RT for every 500 followers, while a musician on Twitter would get one RT for every 30,000 followers,” said spokeswoman Rachael Horwitz, referring to retweets.

“We see a very high level of engagement with religious and spiritual content: followers respond to these topics with replies, retweets, and clicks on links much more often than they do other subjects,” she added.

While Benedict is the first Catholic pope to take to Twitter, he isn’t the first twitterized pope. That honor goes to His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, the 118th pope of the Coptic Church of Egypt. But Pope Tawadros has around 6,300 Twitter followers; Benedict has tens of thousands on his first day out.

John Paul II, who preceded Benedict, was the first pontiff to use the Internet, and the 20th century saw a string of other milestones for popes using technology to reach the masses. Pope Pius XI made the first papal radio broadcast in 1931. His successor, Pope Piux XII, made the first papal television appearance in 1946.

Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said, “The initiative comes from the Pope’s desire to utilize all opportunities for communication which technology offers and are characteristic in the world today,” according to the semi-official newspaper of the Vatican, L’Osservatore Romano.

The paper reported that Celli went on to say the pope has stressed how God communicated with mankind through Jesus, who was a “communicator who addressed the people of his time, using their own language.”

One outstanding question remains: What language will the pope use to tweet? When the Vatican sends out important documents, it often uses multiple languages to communicate with the billion-plus members of the Catholic Church. In addition to the English version, the Vatican news twitter feed also has Spanish, French and Italian versions. The appearance of eight pontifical accounts seems to suggest he will be tweeting in all eight languages.

CNN’s Eric Marrapodi and Ben Wedeman filed this report.

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