He tweets from his own handle, preaching messages like “prayforpeace” in 140 characters or fewer to nearly three million faithful followers on Twitter. Hardly half a year has passed since his election as both the first South American pope and the first of the Jesuit order, yet already Pope Francis I seems to be charting a new course for the Catholic Church. His public statements during the last six months suggest a pivot away from the more exclusivist Church of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI toward a more open and accepting Church that can serve as a “home for all.” Every indication is that this shift is already underway.
Pope Francis’s use of Twitter to reach the masses is emblematic of his efforts to create a more accessible Catholic Church. According to Twiplomacy, which studies how leaders around the globe use Twitter, Francis is the most influential world leader in terms of how many times on average his statements are retweeted. (His Spanish tweets garner approximately 11,000 retweets, while his English tweets are averaging about 8,000.)
The pope has addressed a wide range of topics through social media. His recent visit to a Syrian refugee family in Rome and his accompanying tweets about the crisis there led one commentator to dub him the “peace pope.” But the pope’s offline presence has been perhaps even more notable. During the conclusion of World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro in July, the pope led a Mass on Copacabana beach that drew more than 3 million people and featured bishops as his back-up dancers on stage.
During the flight back to the Vatican from that trip, Pope Francis’s response to a question on gay priests sent shockwaves through the Catholic world: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Some commentators were quick to point out that the pope’s comments were not meant to be applied beyond the context of the Catholic clergy. Yet in a recent interview the pope clarified that he had in fact been referring to all gay and lesbian people. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he told the interviewer. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.” By contrast, Francis’ predecessor had called homosexuality “an intrinsic moral evil.”
The pope’s new message and embrace of social media may well represent a broader effort to reconnect with young Catholics and young people in general. In the United States, roughly one-third of Millennials (Americans born between 1980-2000), report being raised Catholic, but fewer than about one-in-five (18 percent) identify as Catholic currently. Moreover, more than two-thirds of Millennials (68 percent), including similar numbers of young Catholics, agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.
While the pope’s rhetorical shift has been favorably received in many quarters, not all of his decisions have been universally applauded. Some conservative Catholics have expressed concern that the pope’s recent appeals are undercutting the important cultural concerns of the Church.
It is far too early to predict what impact Pope Francis will have on the Catholic Church, but if his first six months are any indication, we may be in for more surprises from @Pontifex.