O’Loughlin: Francis is a social media pope

Michael O'Loughlin

Pope Francis is marking the third anniversary of his pontificate by going where no pope has gone before: Instagram. You can now connect with the vicar of Christ himself, who’s chosen to post with the username @Franciscus.

Just weeks after a string of meetings between Francis and Silicon Valley executives, including an audience with Kevin Systrom, the CEO and cofounder of Instagram, the Vatican confirmed Wednesday that the pope would join the mobile phone app.

If you’re curious what the pope will do with Instagram, there are clues on his Twitter account, which he’s used for the past three years to lay out his vision for the Catholic Church.

I analyzed every tweet sent out from @Pontifex to write “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters,” and I came to the conclusion that no Catholic who was paying attention should have been shocked by the pope’s relentless pursuit of equality, care for creation, and emphasis on mercy.

Less than a week after his election, Francis published two tweets from his account that laid bare his entire agenda.

“Let us keep a place for Christ in our lives, let us care for one another and let us be loving custodians of creation,” he tweeted on Mar. 19, 2013. He followed that tweet the same day with another, “True power is service. The Pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.”

For three years now, Francis has tweeted in nine languages—including Latin and Arabic — to nearly 30 million people. A single message, through sharing and re-tweets, can easily reach more than 100 million souls.

When else in history has a pope been able to connect with that many people so quickly?

When you’re pope, it’s difficult to connect with everyone who wants a piece of you. But Francis, who once called himself a “dinosaur” and lamented that he doesn’t know how to work a computer, has taken social media by storm to do what he can to meet the demand.

So what can we expect from Pope Francis on Instagram?

First, it’s not about him. Don’t expect too many papal selfies or photos of his famously simple meals. Instead, he uses social media to point to Jesus and the Gospels. He’s a bit uncomfortable with the stardom he’s developed, and wants people to remember there’s a bigger story than a popular pope.

Next, Francis wants people to get out into the world. Though he once called the Internet “a gift from God,” he isn’t afraid to challenge people to get off their mobile devices and connect with real, actual people around them.

Finally, the pope will use Instagram and Twitter to inspire and console. During this Jubilee of Mercy, a special year for Catholics devoted to forgiveness, Francis wants a hurting world to know God’s love.

So he’s using all the tools at his disposal to preach mercy, one keystroke at a time.

Michael O’Loughlin, author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters,” is a religion reporter for The Boston Globe.