The millions watching online livestreams of the Vatican chimney noticed a bird perched atop the chimney over St. Peter’s Basilica yesterday as they waited for white smoke that signifies the election of a new pope. In just a few minutes, “seagull” was a trending topic on Twitter and at least a handful of Twitter accounts had been set up for the bird, with @SistineSeagull attracting over 8,000 followers, joining @ConclaveChimney with nearly 10,000 followers of its own.
The now famous seagull is just one small example of the role social media played in connecting Catholics around the world to the historic election of Pope Francis, the first non-European to hold the position in over a millennium.
Christopher Hale, co-founder of the online journal Millennial, said that social media allows Catholics in their 20s and 30s to express their views that the secular press sometimes ignores. “They say that we don’t care about religion. We hate religion. We ignore religion. That’s not true. Social media offers a new narrative that is reflective of the actual situation,” he said. He observed that most his followers on Twitter were not Catholic, but “based on the feedback I was getting, it was clear that this was not just a Catholic event, but a human event, a world event. There is something mysterious about our faith tradition that draws young people to it.”
Leading up to the conclave, several American cardinals tweeted updates that fueled the papal speculation and led, in part, to the media blackout days before the conclave began. Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, considered a contender for the church’s top job leading up to the election, tweeted from Rome, as did Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York, Donald Wuerl of Washington, and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, whose online musings raised a few eyebrows given new revelations about his handling of clergy sex abuse back home.
Twitter reported that users posted about 130,000 tweets per minute, causing every worldwide trending topic to be pope-related for a time. Facebook users got in on the action, too, propelling “Pope” and “Vatican” to trending topics on that platform. There was no Twitter in 2005 during the last papal election, and Facebook was still limited to a relatively small number of elite colleges and universities.
Of course, not all the mentions on social media are glowing of the Catholic Church, something Maura Lafferty, a social media consultant who volunteers time to the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Young Adult Council, says that the church must become more adept at addressing. “Social media really speeds up the rate by which we can read about the things that people criticize about the conclave and the College of Cardinals and the selection of the new pope,” she said. Church leaders must learn “how to navigate the messaging around these challenging questions. They need to understand how to frame issues that won’t lead to a rush of criticism or negativity.”
While the Catholic world used social media to connect to the Vatican, the Holy See chose traditional means of communications. CBS News anchor Scott Pelly joked that pilgrims were staring up at state of the art digital television screens to catch a glimpse of a smoke signal. Though the Twitter account of St. Peter, @Pontifex, was vacant following Benedict XVI’s resignation last month, it was back yesterday, with the first tweet coming at 3:33 ET: “HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM.” The message was retweeted over 70,000 times.