Pope Francis has had a great impact on the church and the world these past few years, but according to a new book, perhaps his greatest influence is not from his passionate sermons and theological writings, but from the less-than-140 character tweets he sends out to over 21 million followers around the globe.
The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters by Michael J. O’Loughlin is a book length analysis of Pope Francis’ pithy messages on Twitter, and by analyzing these tidbit messages that the pope sends out, the author provides some interesting insights into a pope who remains a mystery to some.
O’Loughlin, the national reporter for Crux, a website covering Catholic news, is well-suited for this analysis because he is immersed not only in covering the Catholic world, but is a member of the younger generation for whom tweets and texts are basic ways to communicate. He also used to blog for America magazine about LGBT and political issues. By combining his broad knowledge of the Catholic world to his nimble ease with social media, O’Loughlin is able to distill the pope’s major themes in the hundreds of tweets he sends out.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Okay, this book is not for me. I don’t even know what Twitter is,” well, you are wrong. This book may be exactly the book you need to read because it not only is one of the best explanations of Twitter that I’ve read, but the in-depth analysis of a single Twitter user (the pope), will give you a deep appreciation for how valuable this form of communication is, especially for spreading a Gospel message.
While not the first pope to use the Twitter handle “@Pontifex,” Francis is certainly the most popular. And because Twitter has so extended his reach, the author notes that Francis is probably the most influential pope ever, reaching a truly vast and global audience. O’Loughlin writes:
“Pope Francis communicates ancient truths, spiritual insights, and bursts of wisdom instantly to his millions of followers. And with the highest re-Tweet rate–followers publishing his messages for his own followers to read–among global leaders, Pope Francis has a platform to spread his spiritual revolution further than any pope before. The pope is able to reach out directly to his people. It’s the perfect platform for Francis as he tries to revitalize the Church, one believer at a time.”
And, as readers of this blog are well aware, Pope Francis can often be an enigma in terms of where he stands on controversial issues such as LGBT equality. O’Loughlin refers to Francis’ reign as the “Pendulum Papacy,” because he seems to swing from progressive to conservative positions sometimes in a matter of days. In a chapter on “Mercy,” O’Loughlin includes some of Francis’ messaging about LGBT people, noting that his message is not always clear from the surface. The author discerns a deeper purpose in Pope Francis’ communication strategy, exemplified by his tweets. Nothing that Francis is a pope who reaches out to folks on the margin, O’Loughlin writes:
“Individuals from all walks of life experience loneliness, give in to temptation, or end up living in arrangements that aren’t always in accord with the demands of Catholic teaching. Oftentimes, people in situations like these fear that instead of mercy, the Church offers only judgment. Francis wants this to change, but it won’t be easy. It’ll taked more than a few key Curial changes and appointing the right kinds of bishops. Instead, all Catholics, including the 21 million or so who follow him on Twitter, must transform our hearts. It’s on Twitter that Francis communicates directly with Catholics, exhorting them both to accept God’s mercy in their lives, and to pay it forward to others. “
LGBT issues also come up, not surprisingly, in the chapter on “Welcome.”
Surprisingly, the pithy line for which Francis is probably most famous was never sent out by him as a tweet. His “Who am I to judge?” comment made in 2013 in regard to a question about gay priests never became a Twitter message for the pope. But O’Loughlin points out that almost everyone else on Twitter did send out that message.
Because so many of Pope Francis’ tweets and other “one-liners” get sent out–re-tweeted–by other people shows that his influence extends beyond the people who follow him on social media, and, as O’Loughlin points out, it shows that the pope’s followers are committed to spreading his message. According to Twitter trackers, Pope Francis was named the most influential tweeter three years in a row. Indeed, followers of the the second-most influential tweeter, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, are only half as much engaged with him as the followers of @Pontifex are with the successor of St. Peter.
O’Loughlin’s painstaking analysis highlights out some meaningful observations which lead him to interesting predictions. At one point, he notes:
“The three most frequently used unique words in all the pope’s more than six hundred Tweets, in fact, are ‘God,’ ‘love,’ and ‘Jesus.’ But even the frequency of common words is telling. Topping the list are ‘us,’ ‘we,’ and ‘our.’ The pope’s Tweets are all aimed at making ours a truly welcoming Church based on the love of God and teachings of Jesus. Francis will change the Church by pushing his followers toward spiritual renewal.”
The Tweetable Pope delights and informs. O’Loughlin is an entertaining writer who, like the pope, condenses bold ideas into understandable language. The Tweetable Pope is a surprising book in that it takes what might be considered a very secular topic–Twitter–and yet it reveals some profound, theological wisdom. It would be a great book for parish discussions, reading groups, and youth and adult education programs. It’s a book to be read by anyone who wants to learn more than headlines about Pope Francis.
To learn more about the book and to order copies through one of six online book and e-book vendors, visit www.tweetablepope.com.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry