So, I’m a Catholic. That means I pay at least a little attention to the Pope, and, as a religious leader and the top representative of the Catholic church, what kind of person he is.
To be honest, he seems pretty cool. I love how down-to-earth he is. There are outrageous stories circulating online about him sneaking out of the Vatican, dressed as a normal priest, or recalling his days as a bouncer in Buenos Aires. In his day-to-day life, regardless of what he is doing, he acts as a great example of what religious leaders can do. In the public eye, he is unfailingly open and accessible to all. On top of all of that, Pope Francis seems remarkably laid-back.
One thing I never expected, however, was his skilled use of social media.
Normally, I see religious leaders as separate from social media. Before I thought about it, religious figures fell into a category somewhere far away from the internet. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to imagine them surfing the internet or scrolling down infinite Twitter feeds in their daily lives, I understand that there’s really no reason for this lack of correlation, however. Religious leaders like the pope and the Dalai Lama share the same amount of fame as other celebrities. Just like celebrities, they have the ability to cultivate a public image. Becoming more accessible is key here, and if everyone is online, that’sounds where religious leaders and other celebrities will go. If there’s a chance for them to connect with people, they’ll likely take it. Pope Francis is no exception.
The first pope to create a Twitter account was not, in fact, Pope Francis. Pope Benedict XVI first set up his own account in 2012. Regardless of whether or not the current pope is an online trailblazer, however, Pope Francis exhibits a great deal of savvy in creating an online presence. He has established himself with accounts on Instagram and Twitter, both of which are populated by positive images and statements that constantly add to his popularity.
Each post seems to express one message, at its core: do good things in the name of God. That’s not bad. Brief, well-worded messages on a daily basis, a few selfies here and there, positive messages we can all agree with, and the ability to pick the whole package in one on nine languages: this is the recipe for a well-crafted online image. Hundreds of thousands of likes and millions of followers continue to support this formula, it seems.
Of course, the Pope Francis doesn’t speak nine languages. He doesn’t necessarily post a new entry on his Twitter feed each day, and I imagine that his time is not significantly taken up by constant scrolling on a smartphone or checking up on retweets in the Vatican. He has delegates for that. A council for social communications, led by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, maintains each account and ensures that each post only enhances his already positive appearance to the public.
After examining Pope Francis’s online presence, it seems natural to ask whether or not other religious leaders also use social media to promote their messages and gain an online following. As it turns out, Twitter accounts in particular serve as a common promotional vehicle for plenty of religious figures across all faiths. Here are a few notable examples:
The Dalai Lama joined Twitter in 2009 and his account has been going strong ever since. While he doesn’t post a new tweet each day, as the pope does, he continues to share his thoughts with his 13 million followers two or three times each month. Also unlike the pope, the Dalai Lama’s page often incorporates more multimedia posts, with links to videos, live webcasts, and images.
His Instagram, which rivals that of Pope Francis, shows plenty of happy photos of him on a variety of occasions:
Everyone can create a Twitter, and religious leaders are no exception. There are quite a few who I, to be perfectly honest, am not as familiar with, but who use the website as a way to promote themselves online:
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople shares Facebook links from time to time. That’s something that I still never would have expected, though I know it’s perfectly reasonable.
Jesuit leader James Martin, S.J. not only has his own Twitter account, but also uses it to retweet book recommendations…about the pope! His tweets are much more casual in tone, as well, while still promoting his viewpoints:
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh posts both friendly messages and, on occasion, links to things like interactive webinars or meditation instructions. He promotes his teachings through a second Twitter account, Plum Village, as well as an independent website by the same name. He, too, uses Instagram, where he and nearly 15 million followers can stay up to date on his activities.
One of social media’s uses is as a tool for image promotion. It can be customized to be anything you want. All in all, it’s interesting to see how religious figures use these platforms to promote their ideas and beliefs online for the world to see. While it may be strange, at first glance, to observe religious figures online, it makes perfect sense when one considers the need to create a public image.
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