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His Holiness Benedict XVI to tweet to his Catholic flock

First papal Twitter feed will take Q&A format

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The leader of the Catholic Church has communicated with his followers using various media over the years, including radio and television, but come December 12, Pope Benedict XVI will be the first to voice the Church's message in 140 characters or fewer, when he inaugurates the official papal Twitter account.

Posting as @pontifex, the pontiff will use his Twitter feed to answer questions of faith and belief, which followers can post using the hashtag #AskPontifex.

"The Pope's tweets will be available to believers and non-believers to share, discuss and to encourage dialogue," the Vatican said in a news release on Monday. "It is hoped that the Pope's short messages, and the fuller messages that they seek to encapsulate, will give rise to questions for people from different countries, languages and cultures."

As of Monday, Benedict's account already had more than 229,000 followers, even though the Pope has yet to post anything and does not plan to do so for another week. The Catholic Church, by the way, has about 1.2 billion followers, so His Holiness has some headroom.

Benedict's initial tweets will be timed to coincide with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe next Wednesday, after which new messages will appear in coordination with the pontiff's regular Wednesday general audiences – although "they may subsequently become more frequent," the Vatican says.

In addition to the main Twitter account, which will carry the Pope's messages in English, the Vatican simultaneously opened seven other accounts that will publish translations in Arabic, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish.

And before you ask, a Latin account has not been announced.

Each of these accounts had also garnered thousands of followers as of Monday, with the Spanish-language account generating the most interest after the English-language one.

Twitter worked closely with the Vatican to establish the Pope's Twitter presence, which the company sees as a milestone for its service.

"As a company it's important for us to have influential leaders and the Pope is perhaps the most important religious leader in the world who's joining our platform," Claire Diaz Ortiz, Twitter's director of social innovation, told Vatican Radio.

Don't expect Benedict to stay up nights trading hashtags with followers, however. The pontiff addressed the issue of social networking in a statement in 2011, saying, "It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives."

Indeed, from the sound of it, the Pope won't be losing much sleep over Twitter at all.

"Although Benedict himself won't be worrying about the technicalities and won't be seen regularly checking his account, he will be selecting the messages to tweet and he does see it as a vital way of promoting a more personal and active dialogue of faith with men and women today," Twitter's Ortiz explained. ®

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