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Pope breaks Instagram record

First slide

VATICAN CITY - With a simple tap, Pope Francis joined Instagram and quickly set a record for gaining 1 million followers.

The launch of the "Franciscus" account March 19, the feast of St. Joseph and the third anniversary of the formal inauguration of his papacy, was preceded by huge media coverage. But still, he hit the million-follower mark in just 12 hours, making his "our fastest growing account on Instagram to date," said Stephanie Noon, an Instagram spokeswoman. The pope broke the record held for almost a year by former soccer star David Beckham, who took twice as long to gather 1 million followers.

Joining Instagram, Pope Francis jumped into a community that tends to be younger and more complimentary than people on Twitter, although with similarly impressive "engagement rates."

"Twiplomacy," an annual study conducted by the communications firm Burson Marsteller, found Pope Francis - through his @Pontifex accounts in nine languages - to be the most influential world leader on Twitter three years running. U.S. President Barack Obama has more followers, but Pope Francis' average "retweet" and "favorite" rate is more than eight times higher than Obama's.

Pope Francis' Instagram account is showing a similar pattern. The 17 photographs and two video clips posted by early morning March 31 had an overall average of 212,200 "likes" and 6,299 comments each.

The photos on the Franciscus account are taken by photographers at L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. They are posted by staff at the Secretariat for Communications.

Msgr. Dario Vigano, prefect of the secretariat, told Vatican Radio, "The idea is to recount the story of a pontificate through images to let everyone who wants to accompany or wants to know the papacy of Pope Francis enter into his gestures of tenderness and mercy."

Desejo estar entre vós como missionário da misericórdia, da ternura de Deus, mas permiti que vos possa encorajar a ser também vós missionários deste amor infinito de Deus. Que a ninguém falte o testemunho da nossa fé, do nosso amor. Que todos saibam que Deus perdoa sempre, que Deus está sempre ao nosso lado, que Deus nos ama. Desidero essere tra di voi come missionario della misericordia, della tenerezza di Dio. Ma permettetemi anche di incoraggiarvi ad essere voi stessi testimoni di questo amore infinito di Dio. Che non manchi a nessuno la testimonianza della nostra fede, del nostro amore; che tutti sappiano che Dio perdona sempre, che Dio è sempre accanto a noi, che Dio ci ama. Je désire être parmi vous comme missionnaire de la miséricorde, de la tendresse de Dieu, mais permettez-moi de vous encourager à ce que vous soyez également des missionnaires de cet amour infini de Dieu. Que ne manque à personne le témoignage de notre foi, de notre amour. Que tous sachent que Dieu pardonne toujours, que Dieu est toujours à nos côtés, que Dieu nous aime. Ich möchte unter euch weilen als Missionar der Barmherzigkeit, der Zärtlichkeit Gottes. Aber lasst mich euch auch dazu ermutigen, selbst Zeugen dieser unendlichen Liebe Gottes zu sein. Möge es niemandem an diesem Zeugnis unseres Glaubens, unserer Liebe, fehlen; mögen alle wissen, dass Gott immer verzeiht, dass Gott uns immer zur Seite steht, dass Gott uns liebt! #Tenerezza, #Ternura, #Zärtlichkeit, #Tendresse, #Tenderness, #Misericordia, #Misericórdia, #Barmherzigkeit, #Miséricorde, #Mercy, #Cattolico, #Católico, #Katholik, #Catholique, #catholic

A video posted by Pope Francis (@franciscus) on <time style=" font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px;" datetime="2016-04-03T08:20:42+00:00">Apr 3, 2016 at 1:20am PDT

While the @Pontifex twitter account is "institutional" - it was launched by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 - the Vatican's choice of the more personal "Franciscus" as the account name was dictated by reality of the platform, Msgr. Vigano said.

The photo-sharing site uses images as an "iconic sign," he said, and so "immediately evokes the face, the smile and the posture of the pope. Every pope has his own facial expressions and his personal way of looking at people, caressing them and blessing them."

"Instagram is mostly about pictures, which makes it a very effective way to spread Francis' message of tenderness," said Greg Burke, deputy director of the Vatican press office. "If people are looking at their phones 150 times a day, it's good they see something a little more profound than pictures of food."

After settling down for a few days, the comment rate on the pope's account spiked March 29 after the Vatican posted a video clip with the hashtags tenderness, mercy and Catholic.

#Tenerezza, #Ternura, #Zärtlichkeit, #Tendresse, #Tenderness, #Misericordia, #Misericórdia, #Barmherzigkeit, #Miséricorde, #Mercy, #Cattolico, #Católico, #Katholik, #Catholique, #Catholic

A video posted by Pope Francis (@franciscus) on <time style=" font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px;" datetime="2016-03-29T17:53:52+00:00">Mar 29, 2016 at 10:53am PDT

The video opened with the pope blessing the obviously pregnant belly of a woman and included scenes of a little boy taking the pope's zucchetto and Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict XVI greeting each other. The more than 6,300 comments it attracted remarked particularly on the beauty of the gestures and expressed enthusiasm for Pope Francis.

The video was among the first on Instagram to be 60 seconds long, Msgr. Vigano said. The social media company had just announced that day that gradually users would be able to exceed the previous 15-second limit.

The video and its popularity illustrates how "a gesture of love is more obvious than a speech about love," said Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, author of Cybertheology: Thinking Christianity in the Era of the Internet and editor of La Civilta Cattolica.

The Jesuit told Catholic News Service that while the pope communicates well verbally and in writing, his message is wrapped in "his closeness, his gestures and his physicality, which photos communicate."

Tenderness: a word almost forgotten and one which the world today needs, all of us need! Ternura: palabra casi olvidada y de la que hoy el mundo -todos nosotros- tenemos necesidad! Ternura: palavra quase esquecida e de que o mundo atual, todos nós temos necessidade! Tenerezza: parola quasi dimenticata e di cui il mondo di oggi - tutti noi - abbiamo bisogno! Tendresse : mot presqu'oublié et dont le monde d'aujourd'hui - nous tous - nous avons besoin! Zärtlichkeit: ein fast vergessenes Wert - und die Welt von heute, wir alle, brauchen sie! #Tenerezza, #Ternura, #Zärtlichkeit, #Tendresse, #Tenderness, #Misericordia, #Misericórdia, #Barmherzigkeit, #Miséricorde, #Mercy, #Cattolico, #Católico, #Katholik, #Catholique, #catholic

A photo posted by Pope Francis (@franciscus) on <time style=" font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px;" datetime="2016-04-05T20:57:48+00:00">Apr 5, 2016 at 1:57pm PDT

Father Spadaro also said members of the Instagram "community," like many people today, take photographs primarily to share an event rather than to preserve a memory. "Who looks through old photos anymore?" he asked.

He also insists that Pope Francis has been on Instagram since the moment of his election - through the photographs shared by people who have seen him in Rome and around the world. In fact, as CNN reported in March, "According to Instagram, his visit to the U.S. in the fall of 2015 generated 21 million posts, likes and comments from 9 million people."

"A beautiful photo isn't necessarily a perfect photo," Father Spadaro said. A strong picture "communicates an event and emotion," which in people's photos of the pope can have a strong impact even if they are out of focus or taken from far off.

Follow the pope

Follow Pope Francis on Instagram at instagram.com/franciscus.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016