With the arrival of  @Pontifex, Pope Benedict XVI has joined the ranks of the Twitterati.

Benedict’s predecessor on the papal throne, John Paul II, introduced e-mail to the Vatican’s communications network. But tweeting—the haiku of social media—seems an intervention of a different order.

For more than a million tweeters, Benedict’s entry into the arena is the digital equivalent of the Latin exclamation Habemus papam! (“We have a pope!”)—the announcement that St. Peter’s latest successor has been chosen by  the College of Cardinals.

We must like our popes, since we have so many of them. Pop music, drug culture, and golfing give us the pope of mope, the pope of dope, and the pope of slope. There are persons or things to claim the title of the pope of chili and the pope of yes! while art history’s Sir John Pope-Hennessy was called “the Pope,” such was his authority.

The Vatican has only one pope, but in the world of social media there are millions who hold forth with strongly held opinions. In other words, they pontificate. (Readers of Lingua Franca may feel that’s what I’m doing now.)

Thousands of the faithful tweeted the Holy Father who tweeted back to a fortunate few in a kind of prayer lottery. What the 85-year-old Pope has actually said in the Vatican tweets feels a bit like digital souvenirs, but that won’t diminish their symbolic value.

The papal tweets have been met so far with pretty gentle mixed reviews. One observer rightly remarked that it’s hard to get very deep into theology in a tweet. On the other hand, however, it has also been noted that the Beatitudes can each be delivered in the space of 140 characters.

Electronic mediation between the everyday and the numinous grows in complexity and frequency, and it has a surprisingly long history.

In recent years,  the fax machine  has made it possible to send prayers electronically to Jerusalem’s Western Wall (the faxed prayers are printed out and inserted between the stones). More than a century ago, however, a different newfangled gizmo offered the possibility of another sort of contact.

“Hello Central? Give Me Heaven” went a popular 1901 song by Charles K. Harris. The sentimental number later enjoyed  a revival by the Carter Family.

Hello Central, give me heaven
For I know my mother’s there

The speaker imagines calling a central switchboard (remember those?) to reach mother in paradise.

Kiss me momma, kiss your darling
Kiss me through the telephone

The song doesn’t say whether the call goes through. On the question of telephone access, the Carter Family’s alternate perspective rings out in an entirely different song entitled “No Telephone in Heaven.”  Or one might turn to Michelle Cliff’s novel No Telephone to Heaven, whose title  would seem to offer a definitive, or at least book-length, view of the matter.

The Pope’s Twitteranda may not be the telephone call from heaven, but they’re an intriguing moment in the contemporary history of communication for both the faithful and the academically curious (and that rare Venn diagram union of the two).

The Vatican has been quick to explain that Pope Benedict’s tweets enter the magisterium—the collected teachings and pronouncements of the Church—but are not dispensed as infallible pronouncements. In this the papacy may be exhibiting more modesty than many among us in the blogoisie.

Academics have their own love-hate relationship with the idea of infallibility, papal or otherwise. Nobody wants to claim it, but most folks in our business are tickled to be told how smart they are. To be thought of as unfailingly—if not infallibly—smart may be the academic ideal. (And let’s not forget those who feel ground down by pressures of social promotion, forced into a condition they might consider the problem of pupil unfailability.)

But despite the theological disclaimers attached, the Pope’s tweets count as one of the year’s oddest social-media events.

There are times (many, actually) when it’s great to know classicists. This is one of them. I hope I’ve got this right:

Habemus papam titiantem. We have a twittering (like a sparrow) pope.

Or—if you permit the intrusion of a Latin term no Roman would have known—Habemus papam Twitterantem.










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