Ask the pope @pontifex: With Twitter account, Benedict XVI just a tweet away

The pope may be the least-accessible person on Earth. Even as kings and presidents post status updates on their Facebook pages and appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” Pope Benedict XVI has remained above it all, unreachable for comment or clarification, visible only from a balcony or in his popemobile bubble.

Until now.

On Dec. 12, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger will start tweeting with the handle ­@pontifex, the Vatican said Monday. The historic announcement set off a deluge of comments and questions from people who couldn’t believe they would actually be communicating with the successor of Jesus’s apostle Peter.

The explosion of tweets with the hashtag #askpontifex ranged from the spiritual to the sacrilegious and were sent by haters, lovers, jokers — and notables including the president of Israel and Joyce Carol Oates.

“Who would win a fight between Jesus and Wolverine?”

“Is it true that all dogs go to Heaven?”

“How can one nurture/grow one’s faith in the Lord in the midst of the worldly predictions abt the end of times/consp theories?”

The Catholic Church has largely sat out the social-media revolution. The possibility of making the leader of the world’s largest faith group accessible via your iPhone has staggering potential. A day after the announcement of @pontifex and before sending out a single tweet, the pope had nearly a half-million followers.

That’s a huge change from the hefty encyclicals and multi-volume meditations on Jesus that the 85-year-old theologian has typically used to communicate. During weekly appearances, he reads prepared commentary on Scripture.

Being distant in a way-too-intimate culture has had its benefits. Even as critics — including many Catholics — have bemoaned the remoteness of popes and most bishops amid sex scandals and deep partisan infighting, the papal office has retained its powerful mystique.

When Benedict releases a publication or makes some comment during a private lecture, it can set off a debate on the ground while he — and thus the church — hovers above. It goes without saying that when reporters call, the pope is not available for comment.

But the Twitterverse is more like a conversation. In the wake of Monday’s announcement, ­social-media experts and regular folk alike have been wondering: Will he respond in real time to events, potentially making news far more often and shaping global debate? What will his “voice” be like, his personality in 140 characters? Seen by some as an aloof academic, will the Holy Father do what other public figures have done, zapping out tweets about pets and sports? Could someone of his unique stature change Twitter? Could Twitter change him?

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing him use emoticons. I don’t think he’ll be cutesy-poo about anything,” said Elizabeth Scalia, managing editor of the Catholic channel at the Web site Patheos and an avid blogger and tweeter. “But he can speak in the language of the Good Shepherd, and he understands the world needs some gentleness.”

Some said Twitter’s brevity might be a positive — and surprisingly like the language of the Bible.

“The key points don’t have to be a major statement of faith: God loves you. Love your neighbor. Help the poor,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops. “The shortness is a benefit. We’re in a hectic world.” She said she sent a tweet herself to the pope, as did Scalia. Both seemed a little stunned.

“To think this might cross his desk — who am I to ask the pope a question?” Scalia said.

In Italy, the specter was raised of pretend papal tweets. The parody Twitter account of Il Papa (@bnd_xvi) — bio: “papa (maybe also papà). . . discreet eater and drinker. Travel addicted” — argued in Roman slang that he, and not @pontifex, was the real pope.

And the Web site of Corriere Della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, posted a picture of the pope addressing an audience as though he had just released Twitter’s trademark bluebird, dovelike, over the word “#benvenuto” (#welcome).

The view, established over millenniums, that the pope is God’s earthly mouthpiece seemed to shift slightly as @pontifex floated about on the Twitter stream. The bulk of questions to @askpontifex were impious to say the least. Many made jokes about pedophilia and were critical of church teachings on homosexuality and contraception. There were raunchy jokes about Justin Bieber tweeted in multiple languages.

Some social-media experts wondered if @pontifex was all hype.

“There are lots of companies that use Twitter, but does anyone really think they’re talking to the CEO of Coca-Cola?” asked Jim Naughton, an Episcopal blogger and co-author of “Speaking Faithfully.” “Unless the pope was going to have an open, unmediated dialogue with people who follow him, I don’t know if this will change the nature of the papacy. That said, it can have a leveling effect on hierarchies.”

The Vatican’s new media adviser, former Fox News correspondent Greg Burke, said Tuesday that “all the pope’s tweets will be the pope’s words.” Starting next week, the pope will answer some questions live but won’t immediately tweet every day after that. But, Burke said, “I’m sure we will get to the point where the pope uses Twitter to comment on major events happening around the globe.”

On Tuesday, it was clear there was a lot people wanted him to comment on.

“Is ‘infallibility’ a vestigial priestly organ from some long-ago time pre-history & pre-common sense? Aren’t you embarrassed?” tweeted Oates, the author.

“Does the Holy Bible allow the possibility of life on other planets?” — from someone who picked the fantastical handle @mrmeganfox.

And one the pope’s social-media team may want to pass along to the distant pontiff:

“Want a hug?”