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Twitter power: avoid purgatory by following the pope

Dip into the pontiff's Twitter stream, and you may receive a remission of your sins.

The pope has turned to Twitter and other forms of social media for one of the Vatican's favorite pastimes: handing out plenary indulgences.

The new move is part of the pope's kickoff for the Roman Catholic Church's World Youth Day, an annual rally for Catholic youth that starts Monday in Rio de Janeiro. Any member of the faithful that follows the pope on Twitter (@pontifex), checks out World Youth Day events on YouTube, or browses photos on Pinterest will receive a remission of their sins, according to Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

But beware, oh ye of little faith. Receiving an indulgence isn't as easy as clicking away your penance, Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, the Vatican's social communications chief, told Corriere. Religious dips into the Twitter stream have to "bear authentic spiritual fruit" in the hearts of the faithful to have any effect.

While the idea of using Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter to deliver a religious practice may sound bizarre, the idea isn't that far removed from traditional Catholic practice. The Church typically offers indulgences to members of the flock who attend major events such as previous World Youth Day rallies.

What the heck is an indulgence?

If you're not familiar with the term, indulgences in Catholic theology grant the remission of sins. Catholics believe that receiving indulgences reduces their time spent in Purgatory in the hereafter.

Indulgences are also historically significant since the Church's then-practice of selling indulgences helped spark the Protest Reformation 500 years ago.

The Roman Catholic Church has worked hard to embrace digital media as the centuries-old institution adjusts to the Internet age--sometimes with unintended results. When the Vatican opened the @pontifex Twitter account in late 2012, the former pontiff, Benedict XVI, offered to answer questions put to him with the #askpontifex hashtag.

As you might expect with all things Internet, that practice quickly went awry. There were, of course, many questions from the faithful. But mixed in were also critical questions about the Church's policies in Africachild molestation scandals, as well as a number of satirical questions about the provenance of miracles.

The #askpontifex hashtag has mostly gone out of use since then. But every now and again questions surrounding theological points such as infallibility do crop up.

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