The new papacy and new media

Visitors take photos of Pope Francis as he speaks from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013.
AP Photo/Michael Sohn

When the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church were sequestered in the conclave to choose a new pope, they were instructed to give up their cell phones. No texting! Revealing the secrets behind the election of the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, they and their attendants were told, would lead to excommunication.

Jammers were also installed in the Sistine Chapel to prevent electronic communication.

For an institution which has suffered its share of leaks, the Vatican maintained its storied traditions as it voted for a pope for the second time in the 21st century.

But while the announcement that a new pope had been chosen was made via a cloud of white smoke -- a tradition which has continued since the election of Pope Benedict XV in 1914, and a symbol of the cardinals' cloistered proceedings -- the introduction to the world of Argentinean Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis was made on live TV and Internet, via Twitter and Facebook, and by the countless smartphone and tablet photos snapped in St. Peter's Square.

In a statement Twitter said that there were more than 7 million Tweets about the papacy on Wednesday, with more than 130,000 Tweets per minute once the announcement "We have a pope" was made. Instagram photos from Vatican City poured onto the Internet.

Even the Vatican chimney (from which white smoke was anticipated) was captured on streaming live video via the "Smoke Cam," to be viewed by the expectant faithful.

The Vatican's new media efforts include a Pope app. The Vatican also resumed Pontifax, the Twitter account for the pope (suspended when Benedict resigned) with a new tweet to its 1.8 million followers: "HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM." ("We have a new pope -- Francis.") Latin is no dead language if it becomes a hashtag (#habemuspapam).

Bergoglio himself is no stranger to social media. As Cardinal of Buenos Aires he has had a Facebook page since 2008.

But with new technology comes new hazards. As a sign of Bergoglio's new position -- and of the prevalence of trolls lurking among the Internet tubes -- he also begat a fake Twitter account, which quickly racked up more than 100,000 followers before it was suspended.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and