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Pope for the Twitter age

  • 20 March 2013

At 3:30am on 14 March I was sitting up at the General Secretariat of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, with one eye on Twitter and the other on Facebook, and the TV remote flipping between BBC World and SkyNews.

Although thousands were gathering in St Peter's square in Rome, not much seemed to be happening. I amused myself following the Twitter feed of @SistineSeagull — an account which attracted 3000 followers in 30 minutes after an unsuspecting bird perched on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, and which waxed lyrical for the entertainment of the bleary-eyed in the Southern Hemisphere.

By 4:50am, the feeling had changed. A strange mix of anxiety and excitement took the place of the novelty of the bird. 'It's taking too long. I think they have someone,' Fr Brian Lucas, general secretary of the Bishops Conference, said to me. Quickly, I browsed for channels broadcasting live feeds, and finally settled on ABC24 and the Vatican's own CTV, which had a live feed of the chimney itself.

My main concern was ensuring that the aussiepopealarm was ready to go off. Sadly, although the trigger was pressed, the SMS carrier pigeon that bore the 'habemuspapam' message never reached the phones of some papal enthusiasts. Others were ceremoniously woken between 5:08 and 6:10 as the smoke began and the bells pealed out across Rome — a more traditional incarnation of 'social media'?

At 5:06am Australian time, white smoke billowed out of the chimney, and my various devices went crazy with texts, phone calls, tweets and Facebook statuses. The next hour was nerve-wracking. I was on the phone checking the status of the popealarm and preparing statements.

Meanwhile, a humble man was getting dressed in white and greeting the Cardinals.

Some say electing a pope is more a political process than a spiritual one. But when Bergoglio was announced, my faith increased a little. In a pectoral cross he has worn as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and without the embroidered stole and traditional mozzetta, a gentle man emerged onto the balcony to elated screams.

A Jesuit pope from Latin America who has chosen the name Francis; a Pope who explicitly enunciates a preferential option for the poor and lives his life in their service is a dream come true for many people. Francis of Assisi challenged the Church back to its radical, humble roots; it seems Pope Francis might do the same.

The power of social media was manifest