Connected Catholics: Youth, officals say social media can engage church members with the new pope

CINCINNATI - When Pope Benedict XVI joined Twitter it was breaking news.

In his first tweet as  @pontifex, the pontiff proclaimed he was "pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter."

He ended up with 1,615,895 followers, even though he only followed eight accounts. 

Local teenagers and church leaders say an embrace of social media by the new pope may be key to keeping people engaged with the Catholic Church.

"In our religion class my teacher wrote his (Benedict XVI) Twitter name on the board and we all followed him," said Sam Mattlin, a junior at Mother of Mercy High School in Westwood. "We got to see different views from across the world. You can't contact the pope every day and say ‘Hey, I'm going to call the pope real quick.'  But if  you have his Twitter, you can."

Mattlin is involved with her religion, and the 17-year-old from Guilford, Ind. attends mass every week, even though she knows many teenagers don't.

She followed Pope Benedict XVI on Twitter out of curiosity.

"We just wanted to see what it was about, it was something new and we just heard about it," she said. "We all love Twitter. Who doesn't?"

The social media world collectively watched the smoke stack at the Sistine Chapel, and smartphone users downloaded a PopeAlarm app that guaranteed "when the smoke goes up, you'll know what's going down."

Continuing the conversation through social media is key to relating to youth, said Brother Tim Sucher, administrator of the St. Francis Seraph Parish in Over-The-Rhine.

"I think the media can be our friend and can really get our message across," Sucher said. "I think Pope Benedict XVI saw that by being the first pope to tweet.  In my reading I also hear that Cardinal (Sean) O'Malley in Boston was the first cardinal to blog."

Sucher himself isn't into social media, but he said his group of Franciscans produces videos, audio and a monthly magazine.

Access is what makes people feel more a part of the church, Sucher said, and social media could create more of a connection between Catholics and the pope or even Cincinnati's Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr.

"Especially today, because this is the way the youth communicate," he said. "If we can communicate the same ways they do I think it will be a big boost for the church."

Another boost would be figuring out the most advantageous way to use social platforms.

"I think social media, we haven't begun to explore how it can be used to proclaim the Gospel," he said.

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