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When I was a child, my family would visit the dark and silent convent where my great-aunt, Sister Mildred, lived in quiet and holy contemplation, shut away from the world. She glided around in a floor-length habit like a Dalek bride of Christ, deeply mistrustful of anything that smacked of modern life, including cars, knee-baring skirts, and men who wore beards but weren't prophets. She made a grudging concession for eyeglasses.

I wonder what Sister Mildred would have made of this week's photographs of Pope Benedict XVI sitting in front of the company iPad, preparing to send his first tweet. In a video released by the Vatican, the Pope's anxious advisers milled around him as his hand hovered over the screen (surely the first time in history that the Ring of the Fisherman and LOLcats have been in such close proximity).

The historic papal tweet announced the Vatican's new multimedia platform: "Dear friends, I just launched news.va. Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! With my prayers and blessings, Benedictus XVI."

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It was hardly profound, but at least he refrained from using emoticons: Imagine that message punctuated with a tiny crown of thorns or a lurid, pulsing heart.

If you've ever tried to teach an 84-year-old how to use a computer, you'll know that the fact he composed a coherent sentence without having a stroke is a certified miracle. The Vatican did not reveal the aftermath of the holy tweet, but I have a feeling that once his minions sidled out into the bright Roman sunshine, Benedict sat at his iPad and typed "Prada shoes summer sale" into the search window.

For this, of course, is how the whole social media snowball begins. For the moment, the Pope is happy to cyber-bless on the odd Sunday, but before you know it, he'll be checking his status updates every couple of hours, posting pictures of Friday's fish dinners and checking to see if the Dalai Lama still has more followers.

I'm afraid momentum is all on the Dalai Lama's side, fuelled by meditations such as this: "When you have moistened your mind with love, you can begin to meditate on compassion." Nearly two million people follow the Dalai Lama, although, wonderfully, he follows no one. Perhaps this is not out of a Buddhist desire to free his mind, but because he can't spell "Kim Kardashian" and is too embarrassed to ask.

You can see why the Vatican is entering these new waters. It's essential, even for a 2,000-year-old corporation with vast worldwide holdings, to stay in touch with the kids. There's that little image problem, for one thing. For another, Catholics just don't multiply the way they used to. They've got to go out and recruit new ones somehow, and with World Youth Day approaching, here was a perfect window.

What's unclear is whether such an organization – which has shown more ingenuity in the pursuit of secrecy and scandal-burying than openness – can actually embrace collaboration. And should it? In a world of transparency and over-sharing, is the church's very strength not its tradition of opacity?

Had it been available in his day, Jesus probably would have had a field day with social media, and split his days between posting pithy messages – "blessed are the peacemakers" – without ever having to visit the Mount, and sending the apostles pictures of cats that look like Caesar. ("I know you've got fish to catch, Peter, but check out this one. It's hilarious!")

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Yet the modern church has somehow lost that facility for easy communication. The most-read stories on its new website include "Pope reflects on 60 years of priestly ministry," the appointment of a new archbishop of Milan, and a barn-burner about a sixth-century image of an apostle found in someone's catacomb.

But perhaps this is all part of the church's nefarious plan: It's merely pretending to make concessions to the 21st century, all the while drawing a crimson blanket even more tightly around its inner workings. Or maybe it's just saving the juicy stuff for Easter.

The one thing the Catholic Church has always had going for it is the supernatural. Anybody who grew up in the bosom of the Roman faith knows about priests who sense hidden sin like truffle-hunting dogs, and nuns who can tell, from 50 metres away, if your skirt is one centimetre shorter than God's law allows. Mysticism, and a nice line in embroidered velvet frocks, is its strong suit. Sharing, not so much.

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