Vatican Diary / Silencing the Cardinals' Voices on Twitter

The leaders of the Catholic Church may have finally jumped on Twitter's 140-character bandwagon, but this week, as cardinals select a new pope, tweets are viewed as a sin.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

The first decision a new pope makes, once he has accepted the role, is the name under which he will now be known. The choice of name symbolizes continuity and loyalty to the legacy of his predecessors. After this conclave, the pope will also have to select a new Twitter handle from which he will tweet to 1.2 billion believers around the world.

Some of the leading names in the conclave are heavy users of Twitter and in recent weeks, as the jockeying among the cardinals about selection of the man who will replace Benedict XVI intensified, they each added on tens of thousands of new followers, eager for an indication of their intentions. The tweeting cardinals are trying to prove they are well-connected with world outside the church and close to their followers but are also very aware that these tweets are now an integral part of their image-building.

Three cardinals who have already congregated huge Christian armies of followers are Archbishops Angelo Scola (Milan), Timothy Dolan (New York) and Odilo Scherer (Sao Paolo). Since Tuesday morning, when the cardinals went into conclave, they were forbidden by solemn oath to reveal details of the proceedings. Some of them sent a farewell tweet to followers, including Wilfrid Napier (Durban) who called via Twitter on "Our Father" to hear and answer prayers but after that, couldn't resist the temptation to send out just one more tweet on a rite for blessing babies in their mother's womb that he had just discovered.

Not all the cardinals realized the importance of tweeting early enough – for example another much-talked about candidate, Cardinal Peter Turkson (Ghana) began only a week and a half ago and managed so far only 11 tweets (though he has garnered already seven thousand followers).

It's interesting also to see that while the cardinals have huge multitudes of followers, many themselves follow just one account, @pontifex, the official Twitter of Pope Emeritus Benedict, which was established with great fanfare three months ago but only produced a few dozen rather banal tweets (which were written probably by Benedict's aides). He nevertheless gathered 1.6 million followers.

The solemn oath and threat of excommunication may not be enough – the Vatican has installed around the Sistine Chapel electronic jamming devices to prevent tweets, mobile phone calls and text messages getting out of the conclave.

According to one unconfirmed report, Vatican police even checked the bags of the cardinals before they entered the Santa Martha residence where they will live in seclusion throughout the conclave. In one case, they confiscated an iPad.

Follow me on Twitter @AnshelPfeffer

The red curtains on the central balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica, called the Loggia of the Blessings, which is where the new pope will appear after being elected in the conclave, March 12, 2013. Credit: Reuters

Tags: