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New Pope Faces New Media Challenge

New papacy sends out first tweet

ROME – While the election of Pope Francis was welcomed by global media as a fresh start for a scandal-riddled Catholic Church on Thursday, some questioned if the new pontiff will be up to the communications challenge the Vatican faces in the digital age.

“He does not use Internet and is not present on social networks (aside from @pontifex),” noted the Wired Italy website. “Will the pontificate change that?,” it asked.

@pontifex, which is the Twitter account of retired Pope Benedict XVI, reached 3 million followers when he stepped down.

That account resumed on Wednesday with “Habemus Papam Franciscum,” the new papacy’s first tweet, now with more than 1.8 million followers.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 76, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, who became the first non-European Pope on Wednesday, certainly has some cards up his sleeve.

He has lead what commentators are calling “a simple life” in keeping with his calling, but not likely to include expensive social media devices: Pope Francis exudes an aura of “The Pontiff Next Door,” as Rome daily La Repubblica put it in a front-page headline.

Also, as the first Jesuit pontiff, Francis is a member of “perhaps the most powerful and experienced religious orders of the Catholic Church, known as expert communicators,” noted David Willey, the BBC’s Rome correspondent.

Francis speaks four languages besides Spanish, including excellent Italian and English.

And he is known to love tango, which he danced in his youth, before becoming a priest.

Vatican pundits have pointed out that Latin America and Africa are the new focus of the Roman Catholic Church.

With 31 million Catholics out of 40 million residents, Argentina has the 11th largest Catholic population in the world, according to the Pew Canter for Research, making him a smart geopolitical choice.

New York’s Archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, seems to be one of Pope Francis’ biggest fans, even maneuvering to get him elected pontiff over Italy’s Cardinal Scola, according to Italian media.

Dolan, the Cardinal with the most Twitter followers — 102,000 at present — on Thursday tweeted his NBC interview recounting a joke the new pope made after his selection was announced.

“He toasted us and he simply said, ‘May God forgive you,’ which brought the house down,” Dolan said.

It will now be interesting to watch how Pope Francis follows Benedict’s digital lead.

The retired pontiff, besides being the first Pope with a Twitter account, also gave his blessing to the Vatican YouTube channel, the Pope App, and the Vatican Player multimedia portal.

But while Benedict may have had new media savvy, Francis seems to possess something even more crucial: a sense of humor.

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