In an effort to lure the shrinking flock of young Roman Catholics to a more wired religious world, a Vatican court has ruled that following Pope Francis online and on Twitter can earn believers time off from their sentence to purgatory for confessed and forgiven sins.
The granting of "indulgences" to those who use the Internet to take part in faraway religious gatherings was floated by the pope in a June 3 meeting with members of the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary, one of three tribunals of the Roman Curia that administers church business.
Three weeks later, the tribunal confirmed in a decree that "the faithful who are legitimately impeded [from attending events in person] can obtain the plenary indulgence if ... they follow the same rites and pious exercises ... by the new means of social communication."
The little-noticed decree took on new meaning this week as Vatican officials prepared for World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, a Catholic festival to which the pope will travel, leading the July 23-28 series of sermons, prayers and celebrations.
The offer of online credit toward getting to Heaven reflects the Vatican hierarchy's apparent concern with the dwindling influence of the Catholic Church in the developed world. While the church is growing in Africa and Asia, it has been losing parishioners -- especially among the young -- in Europe and the Americas.
Some church leaders have cautioned, though, that merely clicking on the pope's tweets or liking him on Facebook won't be enough to shorten a follower's stay in the afterlife's anteroom.
"You can't obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine," Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
"It won't be sufficient to attend the Mass in Rio online, follow the pope on your iPad or visit Pope2You.net. These are only tools that are available to believers," Celli noted. "What really matters is that the pope's tweets from Brazil, or the photos of World Youth Day that will be posted on Pinterest, should bear authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of each one of us."
The newspaper, which is collaborating with the Pope2You.net site, also consulted Father Paolo Padrini, a respected scholar of digital communications dubbed the "iPriest," on the significance of the online offer of purgatory reprieve.
"Imagine your computer is a well-laden table where you can find tweets from Pope Francis, videos on YouTube, clips on Corriere.it and Facebook postings from your friend in Brazil," Padrini said. "That is the dinner that will nourish your spirit. Sharing, acting in unison, despite the obstacle of distance. But it will still be real participation and that is why you will obtain the indulgence. Above all because your click will have come from the heart."