By the time Pope Benedict XVI sent his first tweet Wednesday, the 85-year-old leader of the Catholic Church had already acquired more than 600,000 followers. Using the Twitter handle @pontifex, the pope’s first tweet was as cautious as one might expect: “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.” By day’s end, nearly 42,000 people had retweeted the pontiff’s words, and the pope had answered carefully selected questions on faith in eight languages.
For all the faithful who supported the pope’s virtual blessings, there seemed to be plenty of cynics who used Twitter to take aim at the pontiff. The official papal Twitter page only contains the pope’s tweets, but a simple Twitter search for @pontifex or #askpontifex brings up a mix of hate and creative humor directed at Benedict, the Catholic Church, and God.
Twitter, of course, is like a giant public bulletin board on which anyone can post a message. But the backlash against the pope underscored how open the pontiff is to public scorn and just how nasty cyberbullies can be. “There are no moderators on Twitter,” said Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Twitter’s director for social innovation, when the @pontifex handle was announced last week. “So it is a risk any individual who has a Twitter account takes.”
That risk was evident almost immediately on Wednesday, as some Twitter users began ranting about the Catholic Church’s sexual molestation scandal. “Popes handle @pontifex shld Ideally b called @Pontisex..Considerg de Hidden Sexual Molestations de Fathers,Brothers of TheVatican, Indulge in,” wrote one Twitter user. “What pedophiles? What Hitler Youth? What lies about condoms? What plundered treasures? What trust betrayed? Am I right, @Pontifex? High five,” wrote another.
The Vatican is well aware of the risks posed by social media. “Twitter's an open platform, and we realized that going in to this,” said Greg Burke, senior adviser for communications to the Vatican.
But in that sense, Burke said, the controversy the pope faces on Twitter is similar to what he might encounter on a papal visit. “There may be a few dozen hecklers in the street,” Burke said, “but millions of people come out because they love the pope, or at least want to listen to him respectfully.”
The vast majority of questions tweeted to the pope were moderate or expressed concern about issues ranging from poverty and AIDS to the church’s view of married priests and female clergy. “I hope and pray u will view the role of women in the church in a more fair and benevolent way,” wrote one Twitter user. Another wondered: "Should the pope wear Prada shoes while millions are starving?”
Other Twitter users posed serious questions about faith: “@Pontifex How does an unbeliever learn 2 believe? Is it lying to self to pray to god honestly don't believe listens or exists?”
Some tweets were just plain silly, like one that likened the pope’s Twitter handle to medication: “Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sexual activity before taking @Pontifex. Side effects may include guilt and damnation.”
A few of the pope’s followers even started using Twitter as a way to confess their sins—whether seriously or in jest: “Hi @pontifex, I confess I looked at a lady’s ankle all wrong.”
In the end, the pope answered only a few questions, and it’s very unlikely the pontiff is actually scrolling through the feeds himself. But when asked “how to be more prayerful when we are so busy with the demands of work, families and the world,” the pope (or whoever may be helping him on Twitter) suggested: “Offer everything you do to the Lord, ask his help in all the circumstances of daily life and remember that he is always beside you.”
One question the pope didn’t answer: “Are you sending everyone who asks you stupid questions on Twitter to hell?”