Millions of Filipinos will endure crushing crowds, security threats and stormy weather to get close to Pope Francis, but many others feel they have a better way—via social media.
The pontiff may be 78 but he is one of the world’s most cyber-savvy leaders, and he has ignited a social media frenzy in the majority Catholic Philippines ahead of his visit to the country where the Roman Catholic faithful are a majority.
Thousands of Filipinos have sent tweets to his official @Pontifex Twitter account and used a wide range of other online forums to send prayer requests and to welcome him to the country.
“It feels like I am talking to him directly, even if I know it’s run by an administrator,” Angelique Mina-Rualo, a bank officer who credits surviving cancer to her Catholic faith, told Agence France-Presse after she sent a tweet to the pope’s @Pontifex account.
“Talking straight to the pope is like talking straight to God.”
Francis has close to 17 million followers on Twitter accounts in nine different languages, second only to US President Barack Obama, according to Twiplomacy, which monitors statistics on the microblogging site.
But his messages have the most reach, with his posts retweeted an average 10,000 times, nearly 10 times more than Obama, according to Twiplomacy.
His initial Twitter message before his two-nation Asia trip that began in Sri Lanka, in which he asked people to pray for him, was retweeted more than 23,000 times.
The Philippines’ conservative bishops have also proved tech-savvy, creating a website and free smartphone application where the faithful can send prayer requests to the pontiff, share photos and listen to music.
The app, available on both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, has had thousands of downloads, according to the mobile platforms’ websites.
On the app’s “prayer wall,” Filipinos seek Francis’ help to heal the sick, bear children and find work.
“Pope Francis, please pray for my mom’s health. She’s having a stroke right now for the second time,” Fleur Escobar Dy posted.
While many social media users have asked for the pope’s intercession, others have cheered him for expressing more modern views than local Church leaders on divisive issues such as homosexuality and corruption.
“Thank you for treating all equal,” Rome Cabaning Jnr said on Twitter using the hashtag #PopeTYSM, a play on the Filipino translation of the visit’s “mercy and compassion” theme.
Using the hashtag #ShowThePope, Joven Santiago said on Twitter that he hoped Francis would see in the Philippines “mahjong tables of priests, the unwed mothers they berated and the homosexuals they judged.”
Mahjong, a game of tiles that originated in China, is popular among gamblers in the Philippines.
Thousands of “selfies” taken by Filipinos with life-sized cardboard posters of the Pope are also flooding social media.
Local church groups and governments in far-flung places of the Philippines have set up selfie pope posters to give people a chance to feel close to him.
The phenomenon has also taken off in Manila.
One group of college students, called #BFF2015 or Best Friends for Francis, set up selfie booths in Manila schools as part of their marketing communications course project to promote the papal visit.
“We are bringing the youth closer to the Pope at almost zero cost,” Jeano Rustico, 20, a co-convenor of #BFF2015, told Agence France-Presse.
“Since we didn’t have enough money to spread the word, we had to go organic. (Social media) is the most cost-effective way to promote our cause.”
Each of the 700 selfies taken so far have included at least three people and been posted or shared many times on social media platforms such as Facebook, according to Rustico.
On the #BFF2015 Facebook page, colorful animation and graphics are used to encourage young people to go the pope’s events. It has had nearly 2,000 likes.