VATICAN CITY — As the Vatican's top culture man, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi breaks off from his rounds at least once a day to shoot off a tweet to his followers, either snappy quotes from the Bible, famous philosophers and dons, or details about art festivals, all designed to keep religion relevant for a younger generation.
"The concise and pithy language of Twitter can teach religious communication a great deal," "CardRavasi" has said in interviews. His mission? To revitalise what faith means for "the children of television and the Internet".
President of the Pontifical Council for Culture since 2007, Ravasi is keen to get priests, bishops and other cardinals to use Twitter, Internet blogs and social networking sites to bring to life the Bible's wealth of stories.
"A child today, who passes an entire afternoon in front of a computer screen, has a different way of communicating from ours... We want to become part of the minimal, almost microscopic communication of tweets," he said.
Humorous or serious, Ravasi's tweets -- much like the blog he writes for Italy's Sole 24 Ore financial newspaper -- often include words of support for the country's disaffected youth, caught in the grip of an economic crisis.
He is not the only cardinal who is riding the Twitter wave.
Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer, American Sean Patrick O'Malley, Italian Angelo Scola and South African Wilfrid Fox Napier also tweet -- out of 200 plus cardinals in the world many of whom might not be quite as tech-savvy.
In the wilds of Oxfordshire in England, Benedictine nun Catherine Wybourne -- who describes herself as keen on God, books and technology -- tweets about life in a monastery, as well as answering faith questions from followers.
Even Pope Benedict XVI has had a go, tweeting from an iPad in June.
"Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! With my prayers and blessing, Benedictus XVI," read his first tweet, which he signed with his formal Latin name.
Footage on YouTube showed a bemused pope tapping on the tablet device with the aid of a cardinal, who helped the 84-year-old get to grips with the Vatican's web portal -- with Twitter updates, as well as Flickr and Facebook.
"Pope Benedict XVI renews condemnation of child sex abuse," reads one tweet from the Vatican information office, which has 73,000 followers.
"Adult stem cells saved my life," cries another, with a link to an article about a "miracle man" posted on the Vatican Radio website.
Enthused youths from the Papa Boys association get the updates and messages on Twitter and "retweet them to their friends", according to Massimiliano Mecheroni, one of the organisation's representatives.
The Church's embrace of social media has even spawned spoof tweets from Pope_Vatican, from thoughts for the day ("every path in life has its puddle") to Germany's attempt to charge him for not buckling up in the Pope Mobile.
"That charge is least of my worries!" the (fake) pope tweets.
At more than 8,500, his followers outnumber any of the cardinals.
Getting priests to swap increasingly empty churches for the Internet is not an easy task for an institution steeped in tradition whose official language is still Latin.
"We cannot just sit and watch," Richard Rouse, a layman from the Vatican's culture ministry, told AFP in an interview.
"We need to change the language, because it is caught up in a world of significance that people no longer understand... Twitter language is blunt and abrupt," he said.
The tweeting cardinals may be enthusiastic but they cannot boast many followers yet -- Scherer has 7,000 while Napier only has 414 -- and Ravasi says priests and nuns need to flex their digits and catch up to speed.
While some critics protest that using Twitter may banalise the Church's message, "grey and dry" traditional preaching has no chance of competing with the colour and drama of computer games, Ravasi said at a conference in Rome.
"We need to remember that communicating faith does not just take place through sermons. It can be achieved with just 140 characters."
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