VATICAN CITY -- A pastor in Ontario wondered about behind-the-scenes politicking before the conclave to elect the next pope.
He could have read news reports or listened to briefings by the Vatican spokesman. Instead, he asked a cardinal. Less than an hour later, the response arrived.
"What I see is a real desire to know, and so evaluate, the papabili against criteria of qualities demanded by situations," wrote Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, using the Latin term "papabili," meaning cardinals seen as papal contenders.
The exchange occurred on Twitter, one of many online interactions that have made this papal succession unlike any other for Roman Catholics and observers of the church.
While the election starting Tuesday will remain strictly secret, social media is providing a direct link to the events surrounding the succession, creating a virtual conclave that involves lay people in everything from voting to prayer.
"I think it's fabulous for the church," said Brother Martin Browne, a Benedictine monk in County Limerick, Ireland, who is following Vatican analysts and reporters on Twitter instead of watching general news coverage. "I think more people understand what's going on now because there's greater access to good information."
No one will be posting updates from inside the Sistine Chapel, but in the run-up to the ceremony, several cardinals have been interacting with the faithful on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere -- in some cases even during the interview ban the College of Cardinals imposed last week to prevent leaks about their daily meetings.
Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez, archbishop of Bogota, Colombia, tweeted that although God would ultimately choose the next pontiff, he wanted to know what his followers hoped for in a new pope.
"I would very much like your feedback," he wrote in Spanish.
On zulumissions.org, a site for the Archdiocese of Durban, South Africa, church officials have been providing updates for parishioners leaving messages and prayers for Napier.
Along with daily meetings and informal dinners, several of the 115 cardinal-electors, some of whom had never met, say they're using Google to research each others' writings and church works.
But the numbers of cardinals who directly participate online is relatively small. About two dozen had Twitter accounts when Benedict XVI stepped down. Many church leaders have accounts in their name, or on behalf of their dioceses, but leave it to their communications staff to actually write Facebook posts and send tweets.
Benedict used the Twitter handle @pontifex, but he, too, let advisers write the messages. The account has been taken down and the papal tweets saved.
The more intensive activity is springing up among parishioners and the generally curious.
Spotify has a conclave-themed music list. (The hymn "Ubi caritas et amor," or "Where charity and love are," is included.) A fan of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, posted a YouTube video of a song about why he should be the next pope. (It got about 8,600 hits by the weekend.) Several sites say they're trying to crowd-source the conclave by setting up their own election sites. A Twitter account recently opened with the handle @papalsmokestack. It has a photo of the Vatican chimney that will carry the white smoke signal alerting the world when a new pope has been elected.
On adoptacardinal.org, people register an email address and receive the name of a cardinal to "adopt" in prayer through the conclave. The site was the work of members of Youth 2000, a church-recognized group in Germany. Someone saw a newspaper feature with photos of all the cardinals and remarked: "Those cardinals need to be prayed for," said Ulli Heckl, who works with the organization.
Volunteers created the website in German and English and drew so many responses the server briefly crashed. Others offered to translate it into additional languages. Soon, versions went live in Spanish, Italian and French. Nearly 480,000 had signed up as of last night.