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The pope, Twitter and what comes next

As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced he would surrender St. Peter's throne, messages stopped flowing to the 1.5 million or so readers following his newborn @Pontifex feed at Twitter. This wasn't surprising since the 85-year-old theologian -- bookish and reserved, by nature -- cited his deteriorating health and declining energy as reasons to let a new pope wrestle with a world "subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith."

Twitter certainly is a barometer for change and a forum for questions. While the pope fell silent, the hashtag #askpontifex remained open and the questions and comments continued to build up. Here are a few typical mini-rants in English.

"Latin is a dead language. Latin is the language of the Dead," thundered "MichelArchange," linking to "#pope," "#bishops," "#vatican," "#hypocrits" and "#liars," among others.

"So, if i have sex before a child molester blesses my union, hell awaits me?", asked "BS Radar."

"We all feel abandoned by your abdication," tweeted "Geeky Catholic."

"Did central Italian bank or someone else forced you to abdicate?", asked "Patlatus."

Benedict XVI and his team eventually returned to Twitter, with his first new tweet focusing on spiritual growth during the sobering season that precedes Easter and, this year, a papal election: "During the season of Lent ... we renew our commitment to the path of conversion, making more room for God in our lives."

When @Pontifex opened, on Dec. 12, Vatican officials stressed that while Benedict XVI would not be handling the technology for tweets, the content would come from him. Still, no one addressed a key issue -- whether the elderly pope would be interacting with real messages, in real time, from real Twitter users.

If he did, this blast from cyberspace must have been a shock, noted Elizabeth Scalia, a Catholic blogger known as "The Anchoress." While some might consider the thought absurd, she also wondered if the pope's exposure to online life added a digital last straw to his already heavy burdens.

"When Benedict finally logged on to Twitter he got to see firsthand the sort of raw, unhinged anti-Catholic hatred so active within social media threads," she said, in an online essay. "We who work in new media experience this hatred so regularly it barely registers with us, but for Benedict, or those around him, it must have been a shocking revelation to encounter the vilest expressions of hatred, the intentional voicings of malice and evil hopes, flung squarely at the Holy Father, in real time."

Much of this venom directed at the church, she wrote, "has been inspired (and earned) by the deplorable scandals of the past decades (for which we are due a long season of penance)." But much of the anger also stems from the church's refusal to compromise in the public square, where its ancient traditions serve as a "sign of contradiction" to modernists.

Catholics are bitterly divided, as well, as anyone can see by scanning #askpontifex for a minute or two.

"I wonder if our sensitive pope looked into the abyss of pain, screaming hatred and ignorance so easily accessed by just a few clicks of a keyboard, and felt called to humility and prayer -- a full renunciation of everything in the world, including earthly power and communion with the faithful -- in reparation, penance," Scalia observed.

The pope will soon settle into a monastic life inside the Vatican walls to read, to write and to pray. The status of the Twitter account @Pontifex -- Latin for "bridge builder" -- is unknown.

If Benedict XVI plunges into a monastic life of prayer then he will not "retire" at all, stressed Scalia. No one who has studied his life truly believes he is walking away from the papacy in order to relax in a library or play Mozart on his piano.

"During his entire priesthood, the man has not shaken off duties and burdens, but consented to carry more and more. This is who he is," she said. "Increasingly, I believe Benedict's resignation, rather than releasing himself from a heavy weight, is necessary so he may take on something much more cumbersome."

The evidence, Scalia concluded, is that he will be "doing penance for the church, and for the world -- for those of us who cannot or will not do it, ourselves."

Memory eternal: Healer for the healers

Some of the seminarians in the Bible Belt chapel were shaken when Dr. Louis McBurney described -- in gentle, but clear terms -- the hurdles and pitfalls that awaited them in their first churches.

"I talked about ministers' problems and how, sometimes, professional counseling was what was needed," said the witty physician, whose counseling work was built on his evangelical faith, as well as psychiatric credentials from the Mayo Clinic. "When I was through, the seminary president strode to the microphone to deliver the benediction. He said, 'Lord, we're glad that you have called us to be your servants and that all we really need is Jeeee-sussss. Amen.'

"There is still a whole lot of resistance out there to ministers getting help."

McBurney shared that story in the mid-1980s, a decade after moving to Colorado with his wife, Melissa, to open a private and for years secret facility dedicated to helping ministers save their marriages and careers. I visited the Marble Retreat Center as a journalist, entering with the understanding that patients could remain anonymous and that I wouldn't publish its exact location. It was crucial, you see, for troubled clergy to be able to tell their flocks that they were spending two weeks taking a break in Colorado -- period.

The lodge, in those years, was packed with symbolic details, like the toy owl named "Sigmund." There was always a fire burning in the stone fireplace in the 12-by-15 foot den that patients simply called "the room upstairs," even on summer days. The flames consumed dozens of tear-soaked tissues during group-therapy sessions.

McBurney was a true pioneer, serving as a healer for men and women who -- as spiritual leaders -- struggled to find a haven in which they could face their own sins. The 70-year-old therapist died recently of complications from head injuries suffered in a household accident. He was semi-retired and his work continues at the lodge in the Crystal River Valley, which has worked with 3,600 patients in 36 years. Today, there are nearly 30 centers that do similar therapy for clergy, part of a national network (Caregiversforum.org) that the McBurneys helped create.

"The world has changed and we can be thankful for that," said Dr. Steve Cappa, who now leads the center with his wife, Patti. "It's hard for us to explain the kind of religious stigma that surrounded discussions of mental illness when Louis and Melissa began their work, especially if you were talking about trying to help troubled ministers."

The challenges clergy face are easy to describe, yet hard to master.

* Lay leaders often judge a pastor's success by two statistics -- attendance and the annual budget. Yet powerful, rich members often make the strategic decisions. As a minister once told McBurney: "There's nothing wrong with my church that wouldn't be solved by a few well-placed funerals."

* Perfectionism often leads to isolation and workaholism, with many clergy working between 80 and 90 hours a week.

* Clergy families live in glass houses, facing constant scrutiny about personal issues that other parents and children can keep private.

* Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be "as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper," McBurney said.

* While most clergy sincerely believe they are "called by God," they also know they are human and, thus, wrestle with their own fears and doubts. Many ministers have dreams in which they reach their pulpits and discover they are naked.

To be perfectly frank about it, said McBurney, it shouldn't be hard for traditional believers to understand that Satan tempts ministers in unique and powerful ways.

Yet, in the end, sin is sin and most ministers know it.

"Pastors are used to telling people about right and wrong," he said. "Knowing what to do is not their problem. They feel a special sense of guilt because they know what God wants them to do, but they can't do it. ...

"It's hard for ministers to confess their sins, because they're not supposed to sin. They also struggle to believe that God will forgive them, because they have so much trouble forgiving themselves."