updated 4/21/2005 4:33:16 PM ET 2005-04-21T20:33:16

Pope Benedict XVI had an Internet fan club even when he was cardinal. Now the Vatican has taken the logical next step by giving him a papal e-mail address.

The Holy See hasn’t said how many messages the pope has gotten, but if the late John Paul II’s experience with a multimedia ministry is any guide, the new leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics will have an inbox jammed with prayers, problems and pet peeves.

On Thursday, the Vatican said it was modifying its Web site so users who click on a “Greetings to the Holy Father” icon on the home page automatically activate an e-mail composer with his address in the send field.

The address for messages in English is benedictxvi@vatican.va. There are also addresses for e-mails in Italian, Spanish, French, German and Portuguese.

Benedict’s e-mail isn’t the only address generating interest in an online world.

The pope’s election triggered a mad scramble among people eager to register with various incarnations of his name on free e-mail providers such as Yahoo! and Microsoft Corp.’s Hotmail, British Broadcasting Corp. reported Thursday.

And there is action on the Web, too. At one point Thursday, bidding on eBay surpassed $1,175 for “PopeBenedictXVI.com” — a Web domain name being peddled by an enterprising soul from Ontario, Canada.

John Paul was the first pope to use e-mail, a medium that made its debut during his 26-year papacy. The Vatican said he received tens of thousands of messages in his final weeks as he struggled with illness.

The Vatican even sent an e-mail to journalists to announce John Paul’s death April 2.

It’s unclear how much, if any, e-mail Benedict receives will be answered by him or a member of his staff. When John Paul was hospitalized, a spokesman for the clinic caring for him said that the pope was shown some of the e-mails and that all of the messages he received would get an official response.

In 2001, sitting in the Vatican’s frescoed Clementine Hall, John Paul used a laptop to tap out an apology for Roman Catholic missionary abuses against indigenous peoples of the South Pacific.

The Holy See often issues news or documents to journalists via e-mail, and its labyrinth of obscure offices and councils are on the Web in a half dozen languages. Even the Sistine Chapel with its famed art collection offers a virtual tour.

Long before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elevated to pope this week, an online fan club sang his praises and offered souvenirs with the slogan: “Putting the smackdown on heresy since 1981.” That’s when the doctrinal hard-liner became head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

A message on the club’s home page greets visitors and describes the unofficial fan site as “our little way of expressing our thanks and moral support for the man once known as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.”

“These are the kinds of things that can be modern at church,” a message from one visitor reads. “Some people don’t know it’s perfectly possible to be technologically ‘advanced’ and follow the road our Lord established 2,005 years ago.”

While John Paul embraced the new communications technology as a useful tool in the church’s efforts to spread the Gospel, he took a cautious approach to e-mail and the Internet.

He spoke out against the proliferation of online pornography and hate speech, and he said the industry’s needs to police itself and meet the “ethical and spiritual challenges” raised as communications technology evolves.

“Its misuse can do untold harm, giving rise to misunderstanding, prejudice and even conflict,” he said in a January message marking the 29th World Communications Day.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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