Pope Benedict already has 1.2 billion "followers" in the standard sense of the word but he soon will have another type when he enters what for any 85 year old is the brave new world of Twitter.
Vatican officials say the pontiff, who is known not to love computers and still writes most of his speeches by hand, will have his own handle by the end of the year. "It will be an officially verified channel," said a Vatican official.
Primarily the tweets will come from the contents of his weekly general audience, Sunday blessings and homilies on major Church holidays. They will also include reaction to major world events, such as natural disasters.
The leader of the world's 1.2 billion or so Roman Catholics will not, of course, write the tweets himself, but he will sign off on them before they are sent in his name.
But even divine intervention might not help squeeze the gist of a papal encyclical, which can run to more than 140 pages, into 140 characters. Those tweets will probably be limited to a link to a url with the entire document. The papal handle has not yet been disclosed but it is widely expected to be @BenedictusPPXVI, his name and title in Latin.
The pope has given a qualified blessing to social networking. In a document issued last year, he said the possibilities of new media and social networks offered "a great opportunity", but warned of the risks of depersonalisation, alienation, self-indulgence, and the dangers of having more virtual friends than real ones. In 2009, a new Vatican website, www.pope2you.net, went live, offering an application called
"The pope meets you on Facebook", and another allowing the faithful to see the pontiff's speeches and messages on their iPhones or iPods.
The Vatican famously got egg on its face in 2009 when it was forced to admit that, if it had surfed the web more, it might have known that a traditionalist bishop whose excommunication was lifted had for years been a Holocaust denier.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; editing by Mike Collett-White)