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Absent from Rome, pope remains present on Twitter

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The tweet Pope Francis sent to 12 million followers on Thursday was the latest illustration of how important the micro-blogging site has become for the Church's communication with the faithful and non-believers. 

A faithful touches a photograph of Pope Francis placed at the entrance to the Buenos Aires cathedral on March 13, 2014

With Francis absent from Rome on a spiritual retreat this week, no official events were organised to mark the first anniversary of his election.

But the first pontiff from Latin America did not remain absent from the Twittersphere, a domain in which he is now one of the biggest players on the planet.

"Please pray for me," a message from his official @Pontifex account said in an echo of what Francis said in person a year ago in the more traditional papal setting of a post-election appearance on the balcony of St Peter's.

Or, "Orate pro me" as he put it on his feed in Latin, one of the nine languages in which he reaches out to followers across the globe.

The Latin account has been a surprise hit with 225,000 followers already, to the delight of the ancient language's dwindling band of teachers across the world.

The historic lingua franca of the Church is never likely to catch up with Spanish, in which Francis has recently broken through the five million barrier.

English is the second most successful of the papal Twitter languages with 3.8 million people receiving messages as of Thursday afternoon.

Francis is not the first pope to tweet. His predecessor Benedict XVI started shortly before announcing his decision to retire because of failing health.

The new pope from Argentina quickly demonstrated that the 140-character limit was perfect for the punchy delivery of the key messages he wants to transmit to his flock.

His entry to the Twittersphere came four days after his election. "Dear friends, I thank you from my heart and I ask you to continue to pray for me," he said.

The central importance of prayer has been a recurring theme of the tweets that have followed, at an average of just under one a day.

Some are barely comprehensible to non-Catholics, for example February 8's: "The Sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist, are privileged places of encountering Christ."

- More reach than Obama? -

But it is not all theology. The immediacy of the social medium also offers the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics to react quickly to global events, or voice his views on the social issues of the day.

Messages which have made particular waves included one, in October, which reinforced Francis's anti-capitalist credentials.

"If money and material things become the center of our lives, they seize us and make us slaves," he tweeted.

On November 9, he wrote: "I ask all of you to join me in prayer for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda especially those in the beloved islands of the Philippines."

Francis also has a good line in homespun practical tips for living a more satisfied life, for example: "I cannot imagine a Christian who does not know how to smile."

The image of a pope who is never without his smartphone is an appealing one for many, but in reality there is a large team behind the Vatican tweeting operation.

The process is not without certain risks given the largely unregulated nature of Twitter. For example, the first reply to Thursday's call for followers to pray for Francis was a pithy, "no thanks" and the second one was of an explicit sexual nature that would have made shocking reading for some of the devout.

But the Church has decided the Internet has to be embraced, warts and all, Francis even describing it as a gift from God in a statement in January.

Research suggests that has been the right call.

Although Francis has some way to go to catch Barack Obama's 42 million followers, his high retweet rate means he may actually be reaching more people than the US president.

And a US survey published earlier this month found positive comments about Francis on Twitter outweigh negative ones by a ratio of five to one.

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