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Bill Briggs Headshot

Will You 'Friend' the Pope?

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I like John Paul II.

"Like" him in the social network sense, that is. And I'm hardly alone.

In a digital stampede of JPII fans that's surely astounding the Vatican's IT team, a Facebook page for the late pontiff has attracted more than 32,000 followers since its launch May 14. That's roughly 4,000 people per day, 164 people per hour or a new person entering the online party every 20 seconds.

On Tuesday night, Pope John Paul II's Facebook hub was still packing away devotees at that same torrid clip: 84 more joined in the 30 minutes it took to me to write this post.

The wild success of that page -- created by the Vatican to celebrate John Paul's May 1 beatification -- is somewhat stupefying when you consider: a) the Holy See's plodding, long-outmoded technological infrastructure, b) a recent spate of ham-handed communication bloopers coming from Rome and c) the Catholic Church's waning esteem.

Want a comparison? Pope Benedict XVI has a Facebook page, too. Some 12,500 people have "liked" it. At this pace, though, JPII will lap Benedict's collective friend list about a dozen times before the late pope becomes "Blessed John Paul" in little more than a month. Not that the Catholic faithful are pining for the good old days, or anything.

If you haven't visited yet, John Paul's page is laced with pictures and videos from his 27-year papacy plus thousands of bits of joyous chatter in an array of languages. "we love you we miss you," wrote Kragenjohn Catong. "Best Pope ever!" typed Karen Anderson.

Beyond the fanfare, however, the Vatican's venture into the ever-whirling world of Facebook offers hope that Church leaders are set to truly embrace today's technology and modernize the often-muddied, sometimes-contradictory communications that flow from Rome. (A little more transparency wouldn't be a bad thing, either.)

In 2009, for example, Pope Benedict was criticized for not adequately rejecting Holocaust deniers after the Vatican agreed to lift the excommunication of British Bishop Richard Williamson, who just happens to be a holocaust denier. In a formal statement that followed Williamson's restoration to the Church, the Vatican said Benedict simply had not known about Williamson's controversial views. But if anyone at the Holy See had merely Googled Williamson, that lapse could have been averted. Soon after the "he didn't know" statement was issued, German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested Benedict still needed to clarify his position on Holocaust denials.

Last year, Benedict ignited global media confusion when journalists misunderstood his somewhat-pro-condom comment to mean the Church had formally reversed its firm stance against contraception. It had not. But The Age, an Australian newspaper, published the headline: "Pope lifts ban on condoms."

Having seen enough of these missteps, several Catholic communications experts decided in January to publicly offer the Vatican some unsolicited help with its recurring PR problems and with its insular, archaic methods for spreading the news.

But some Catholic progressives believe social networking sites like Facebook offer a chance to perhaps ditch the Vatican's hierarchical control of messaging and push conversations among the faithful and clergy out to the far more communal Diocesan structure. Maybe, the progressives figure, those conversations will also be far less stuffy.

To be fair, the Vatican already has a YouTube channel and last year it released its Pope2You app, allowing young people to tap into Benedict's latest thoughts.

A Catholic communication revolution, it seems, is already underway.

Could Twitter will be next for the Vatican?

Maybe barrages of inspirational missives -- of 140 characters or fewer -- soon will come from @HolyWater316.

I can envision that TweetDeck on May 1: "Huge Bash at St. Pete's! Get down here! Water now, wine later!!!"

Bill Briggs is author of 'The Third Miracle,' released recently by Random House/Broadway Books. You can learn more here.

Around the Web

Blog, tweet, pray: Vatican dives into social media - USATODAY.com

iPope: The Vatican Does Social Media

Vatican takes tech-savvy approach - Technology & science - Tech ...

Pope John Paul II gets Facebook page - Chicago Sun-Times

Vatican launches social networking pages for beatification ...

Reach young through social media, says Vatican expert - CathNews