Where there's smoke at the Vatican, there's social media

Social media played a big role in how millions of people heard about the new pope - many learned about it through Twitter and Facebook instead of television, radio or newspaper.

Internet, texting were key to people learning about new pope

Tens of thousands of people in the crowd at St. Peter's Square used social media to share their photos and thoughts as Pope Francis was introduced. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

When white smoke billowed out of the Sistine Chapel’s chimney – the centuries-old signal a new pope had been chosen –thousands of people got a text and an email.

They had signed up for a service from, a new website launched this week that promised: "When the smoke goes up, you’ll know what’s going down."

Then, when Pope Francis was introduced from the St. Peter’s Basilica balcony, thousands more checked their Fantasy Conclave picks to see how they fared.

Social media played a big role in how the world learned a new pope had been chosen – many learned the news from Twitter or Facebook, instead of the traditional means of TV, radio or newspaper.

"People like to join the conversation and the conversation is very widespread about religion, faith, the pope and the Catholic Church," said Rev. Antonio Spadora, a writer for Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit periodical published in Rome.

The internet and social media apps allow people to share their lives with more people and bigger communities.

One of the conversations that popped up suddenly Wednesday afternoon involved the seagull that decided to perch itself on the chimney the world was watching.

Within minutes, several related Twitter accounts had been set up, including @SistineSeagull, which quickly drew hundreds of  followers.

"Internet is not a tool, it’s an environment. Our life is just one in two different environments, the physical environment and the digital," said Spadara, who also studies digital theology.

"People who believe in God, the people who are Catholic, they need to express their faith also in this kind of environment."

‘Adopt a cardinal’

A website created by young people in Germany, randomly assigns users a cardinal to pray for. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Indeed, when the 115 cardinal electors entered the Sistine Chapel Tuesday, they had the support and prayers of more than half a million people who had registered to "adopt a cardinal."

"Thank you very much for ‘adopting’ us. Your prayers are helping us discern God’s will," Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, tweeted before the conclave began.

It’s ironic that while cardinals were bound by centuries-old procedures – writing and counting ballots by hand and sending out smoke signals to indicate a decision – preparations at the Sistine Chapel included a high-tech scrubbing for bugs and electronic monitoring equipment.

The Vatican also shut down WiFi, television, media and social media contacts.

Christopher Winner is a long-time Italy correspondent and editor of The American, an online English-language magazine covering Italy.

"Just because technology advances, doesn’t mean tradition is abandoned," he said. "The Vatican very astutely understands how central keeping those traditions is to having people watch them."

Papal homilies on Twitter?

Pope Benedict XVI clicks on a digital tablet to send his first Twitter message during his weekly general audience on Dec. 12 at the Vatican. Using the handle @pontifex, Benedict blessed his new internet followers. (Vincenso Pinto/AFP/Getty Images )

The Vatican opened a Twitter account for Pope Benedict XVI in December. It has more than 1.7 million followers, but has been on hold since Benedict’s resignation took effect.

Analysts say Pope Francis will have to be comfortable with traditional and social media.

"Benedict was clearly too old and resistant and not adept with it. They need to communicate with South Asian countries that are through the roof with Facebook, etc," Winner said.

"So the innate skills that [John Paul II] had to engage with people and media is extremely important. The Catholic Church can’t afford another reticent, timid man on this front."

Francis appears to be starting off strong – his @Pontifex Twitter account has already tweeted a message, "Habemus Papam Franciscum," and he is making himself available to the media Saturday morning.

Many cardinals also have Facebook and Twitter accounts. Timothy Dolan of New York, Luis Tagle of Manila and Gianfranco Ravasi of Italy are the cardinals who tweet the most.

Meanwhile, the Vatican has also launched a cutting-edge website designed for browsing using social media.

The faithful can keep up with the Catholic Church’s news and opinions on Facebook and Twitter, and a social media-integrated official news website.

"The Vatican Press Office is communicating with journalists online now and offers streaming of St. Peter’s and press conferences," Winner said.

But, will any of this make the church more transparent? Winner doesn’t think so.

"Technology … just makes gossip and leaks to flow more freely, but what’s spoken behind Vatican doors, still stays here," he said.

"It’s still remarkably successful when it comes to secrecy. You just can’t use the words transparency and Vatican in the same breath. It’s a basically and fundamentally secret organization and technology won’t change that."