Francis wows on Twitter too, even in Latin

Rome — As 2013 reached an end, Pope Francis’ burgeoning following on Twitter crossed the 11 million mark, taking all nine of his accounts in different languages into view. Spanish leads the way, with four and a half million pope followers, while English was in second place with three and a half million.

Given the wide popularity of the new pope, the fact that he’s now the most followed religious figure in the Twitter universe, surpassing the 8.2 million who follow the Dali Lama, is probably no real surprise.

Potentially more counter-intuitive, however, is the success of the pontiff’s following in Latin, with almost 200,000 people signing up for the pope’s tweets in the classical language of the Catholic church. That puts Latin ahead of German, Polish and Arabic in terms of the pope’s following, and on rough par with French.

Fr. Robert Spataro, secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Latin launched by Pope Benedict XVI last year, says that the economy of expression in Latin makes it ideally suited for the 140-character nature of communication on Twitter.

In comments to Corriere della Sera, Spataro offered this example: “When the best one is corrupt, it’s horrible.” (With spaces, that’s 43 characters.) In Latin, the same idea requires just three words: Corruptio optimi pessima. (24 characters with spaces included, so a reduction by almost half. By the way, the line is an old Latin maxim widely quoted as a warning against corruption among people sworn to high ideals, and is often among the bits of Latin that stick with Catholic clergy from their seminary days.)

The papal debut on Twitter came on Dec. 12, 2012, under Benedict XVI, whose first message was, “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."

There’s a desk within the Vatican's Secretariat of State that actually manages the nine Twitter accounts in the pope's name, and personnel will sometimes suggest tweets to the pope based on lines from his speeches and writings.

According to Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, however, it’s always the pope himself who approves whatever 140-character message will be dispatched. Celli heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Though Francis often uses his tweets to express basic pastoral wisdom, he's also engaged the issues of the day. During the build-up in September to a possible Western military intervention in Syria, for instance, he dispatched a series of tweets calling for peace, which were taken as a sign of the pope's opposition to the use of force to bring down the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Though Francis may be king of the religious mountain in the Twitter universe, he’s got some ground to cover if he wants to compete with other sorts of celebrities.

As of Dec. 28, a following of 11 million didn’t even put him in the top 50 of the most-followed figures of any sort. The top spot belonged to Katy Perry, followed closely by Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and Barack Obama.

Francis’ nine-account total put him just ahead of Lebron James, and just behind Snoop Dogg. The fact that it’s even possible to craft sentences with both the pope and Snoop Dogg in them, however, probably says something about the breadth of Francis’ appeal.

(Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr)

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