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Pope encourages social networking

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI put church leaders on notice Thursday, saying social networking sites like ­Facebook and Twitter aren’t a virtual world they can ignore, but rather a very real world they must engage if they want to spread the faith to the next generation.

Benedict, 85, who tweets in nine languages, used his annual message on social communications to stress the potential of social media for the church as it struggles to keep followers and attract new ones amid religious apathy, competition from other churches, and scandals that have driven the faithful away.

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Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Vatican’s communications office, cited a 2012 study commissioned by US bishops that found that 53 percent of Americans were unaware of any significant presence of the Catholic Church online.

But the digital exposure has not come without risk: In the days after the Vatican said Benedict would respond to questions about faith on his first tweets from his ­@Pontifex handle last month, the Vatican was bombarded with threats of ‘‘Twitter bombs’’ from critics trying to scare the pope away.

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