In his welcoming remarks to the pope at the White House, President Barack Obama noted the pontiff’s social media savvy. The president, citing Francis’ many firsts, said he was also “the first pontiff to share an encyclical through a Twitter account.”
While Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI was the first pope to tweet, Francis and his staff have scaled his use of the many papal accounts to where he has five times the number of followers of Obama, but still less than Kim Kardashian.
“I think he’s got a great team behind him that is working to make sure he stays relevant” said Rob Reilly, creative chairman of McCann Worldgroup.
Part of that is being active on Twitter. The pope has nine Twitter accounts, each in a different language. The Argentina-born pope’s most popular handle is his Spanish one @Pontifex_es, which claims 9.8 million followers.
In total, 23.41 million people follow Francis’ accounts. That is only a third of top Tweeter pop star Katie Perry’s 75.7 million, but more than double the 11.9 million followers of the Dalai Lama.
Most of Francis’ tweets focus on prayer, asking his followers if they say “thank you” to God ever day, or telling young people not to be afraid of marriage, while reminding them: “A Christian who is too attached to riches has lost his way.”
He also weighs in on world events, asking via Twitter that every parish and religious community in Europe host a refugee family. And he talks about the environment, telling his followers one of the world’s great challenges is to “stop ruining the garden which God has entrusted to us so that we all may enjoy it.”
“He is always on character and he is doing it better than anyone I’ve seen doing before,” said Reilly.
The pope has said repeatedly that Catholic priests need to leave their parishes and wade into the crowds, to better know their flock. Francis practices what he preaches, happily often shaking hands with the people who come to see him and repeatedly leaning in for selfies.
It’s a smart move, given the future of the church, since millennials and those who are younger are rarely without their phones, and almost always willing to share their experiences on social media.
A recent joint survey by Verizon and KRC showed among Catholic millennials, 75 percent of them had shared something about their faith via social media.
To commemorate the pope’s first visit to the United States, the pope’s young (and old) followers were given another way to share their papal sightings and thoughts on social, with a group of pope emojis showing Francis, among other things, kissing babies and eating a hoagie sandwich.
The hoagie is presumably a Philly cheesesteak, the perfect emoji for the third leg of his trip where he will celebrate an outdoor mass for an estimated 2 million in the City of Brotherly Love.