Category: Media & Culture / January 24, 2013 11:50 AM EST
Pope Benedict gave a papal thumbs up to social networking on Thursday (January 24) giving a firm stamp of approval to Twitter and Facebook.
The pontiff's World Communications Day speech released at the Vatican, described social networks as "portals of truth and faith" and urged the faithful to join him in spreading the message of Jesus online.
The Vatican's social media strategy is key to its drive to win back lapsed believers in what it terms the "new evangelisation" of the developed world, in the face of encroaching secularisation and losses to its flock.
The speech coincided with the launch of 'The Pope App', a downloadable programme that streams live footage of the pontiff's speaking events and Vatican news directly onto smartphones.
"The Pope gives a positive evaluation of social networks, and I am keen to say that his positive judgement is not a naive one" said Bishop Claudio Maria Celli, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at a news conference at the Vatican.
"The Pope is aware of the limits and dangers. That's why, for example, in the second paragraph (of his message) he says that these spaces, when used well and with balance, can bring important contributions to dialogue and debate" Celli said.
The pope has built up a 2.5 million strong Twitter following over eight different language accounts since his debut on the messaging service last month.
"He (the Pope) is speaking to the general public, to all people who are reflecting and thinking about what's happening in society, believers and non-believers alike, and he is saying to us we need to be attentive to the significance of social media and social networks" said Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontificial Council for Social Communications.
The 85-year old pontiff's embrace of new media has belied his traditionalist reputation, and comes amid Church concern that it was invisible on the internet despite roughly one in six people in the world identifying as Catholic.
The Vatican commissioned a study of internet use and religion in 2012, which found the majority of U.S. Catholics surveyed were unaware of any significant Church presence online.
"I think the main theme today is to see how and how far the friends of the Pope are able to re-tweet his messages so that they reach also sectors of humanity that are unknown to us" Celli said.
Social networks are also a practical tool that Catholics could use to organise prayer events, the pope suggested. He also called for reasoned debate and respectful dialogue with those with different beliefs, and cautioned against a tendency for "heated and divisive voices" and "sensationalism" to prevail.
However, Benedict may have his reservations about Facebook's 'Like' button. The Pope warned against the success of online communications being "determined more by their popularity than by intrinsic importance and value".