VATICAN CITY -- At 5:30 a.m. ET, Pope Benedict XVI reached out to the world of digital seekers - 140 characters at a time.
He began with a blessing: "Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart."
He launched his first tweet from a new personal account at the end of his weekly general audience. The text of the tweet, in Italian, flashed on the jumbo screens in the modernist Pope Paul VI Hall, where the audience was held.
Then, about an hour later, he answered the first of thousands of questions sent to him in the past nine days. It went out to someone in the USA who asked in English: "How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?"
Benedict replied: "By speaking with Jesus in prayer, listening to what he tells you in the Gospel and looking for him in those in need."
His tweets are in keeping with his teaching on Advent this morning, that God "comes to us in different ways." And during the day today, he'll answer two more questions, in two other languages from two other continents, sent to him with the hashtag #askpontifex, says Greg Burke, the Vatican's communications strategist.
Catholic News Service, live-tweeting the event, said a U.S. official at the Vatican, TJ Jones from one of the Holy See's communications offices and two student interns from Villanova University set up a tablet for the @pontifex tweet.
More than 1 million people, including 645,000 from the English-speaking world, responded to his "follow me" invite to Twitter feeds in eight language for @pontifex. Thousands sent him questions - from sincere to silly to serious digs at the Catholic Church - with a marker #askpontifex. Vatican staff screened the tweets, but officials say the pope's answers will be in his own words.
Benedict has launched pre-approved tweets on other Vatican Twitter accounts since 2010, but this is the first time he has used this new personal account.
The social media company engineered the 12/12/12 event, encouraging the Vatican to personalize its multiple Twitter accounts and assigned Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Twitter's manager of social innovation, to the Holy see to stage manage the account. She was there - and tweeting - for the big moment today.
Twitter has 20 employees roaming the globe signing up headliners, says The Washington Post, "with promises of free marketing, extra security against impostors and training to avoid the gaffes that have embarrassed some business executives and members of Congress ..."
At the Vatican, Twitter met up with former Fox newsman Burke. Burke was brought in to the Vatican last summer to oversee Vatican communications that were once called a "train wreck" by the National Catholic Reporter's Vatican specialist, John Allen.
The tweet event was set for today as part of recognition of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to a Mexican peasant in 1531. In 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her the mother of the "new evangelization" in the Americas, a campaign to promote a revival of Catholic faith and practice, particularly where it flags in the West.
This fall, Benedict convened a gathering of 250 select worldwide bishops under the "new evangelization" flag. Their mission: Concentrate on reaching and restoring lapsed Catholics in places such as the USA, where one in 10 Americans say they once were Catholic.
Benedict followed the global gathering with a second one, earlier in December, focused specifically on the Americas.
Key to the new evangelization is inspiring everyday Catholics to speak about their faith to their peers.
The Twitter campaign fit the program. It attracted thousands of questions to @pontifex with a marker "#askpontifex" and thereby enlisted hundreds of thousands of people to share their faith in the digital world.
Catholic blogger Rocco Palmo expects this will just be the beginning of a Vatican social media campaign "with the pope visibly involved." Bishops are getting on board as well. Palmo cites Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, who once said that instead of bishops being issued a ring, a tall hat and a shepherd's crook when ordained, they should get a ring, a hat and a smartphone.
"You have to be in the places where you can reach people and they can reach you," Palmo says.