Web surfers can now send virtual postcards of Pope Benedict XVI to their Facebook friends or follow the pontiff's travel on their iPhones.
Under a papacy that has suffered communication woes, the Vatican is taking new, technologically savvy steps to bring its message to social networking sites and smartphones.
In its first day of operation Thursday, the Pope2You portal gathered some 45,000 contacts and 500,000 page views, while a Facebook application that sends postcards with photos of Benedict and excerpts from his messages was used around 10,000 times, the head of the project said.
Also available on the portal is an application for iPhone and iPod Touch that gives surfers video and audio news on the pope's trips and speeches, as well as on Catholic events worldwide.
The new Web site is the latest update in the Vatican's efforts to broaden the pope's audience and reach out to young people. In January, Benedict got his own YouTube channel, which is now linked to the portal.
Earlier this year, the Internet figured in one of Benedict's most criticized moves — lifting the excommunication of a renegade bishop who had denied the Holocaust.
Benedict sparked outrage by reaching out to excommunicated, ultraconservative bishop, Richard Williamson, whose denial of the Holocaust during an interview with Swedish TV shot around the world on the Net.
In a rare public acknowledgment of Vatican mistakes, the pope released a letter saying that officials should have searched the Web for information on Williamson, and said the Holy See needed to make greater use of the Internet.
While warning against the potential use of new media to spread violent messages and pornography, the 82-year-old Benedict also has encouraged young Catholics to use the Internet responsibly.
On Wednesday he told pilgrims at his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square that young people should use the Internet to build a better world through bonds of friendship and solidarity, adding that the digital world can help make the Gospel known.
'Invested in the culture'
For the Rev. Paolo Padrini, an Italian priest and tech whiz who led the Pope2You project, giving Benedict a presence on the world's largest online social network was in keeping with the church's communications strategy, which has evolved over the centuries.
"The walls of our churches are painted by the greatest artists of all time," Padrini said. "This means that the church has always invested in the culture of each period, using the best instruments available to communicate with people."
Padrini, 36, works in the small village of Stazzano in northern Italy and routinely chats online with his 2,500 parishioners. He also was behind another Vatican foray on the Web: iBreviary, an application that brought the book of daily prayers used by priests onto iPhones.
Padrini said the new project aimed to put the focus on the church by creating a Facebook application rather than a personal profile for Benedict like those made for stars and world leaders, including President Barack Obama.
"The pope is not a Hollywood star who signs autographs," Padrini told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday. "We don't follow a concept of leadership. The pope has always made it clear that he is a servant of the church."
Some top clergymen do have profiles on Facebook, including Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the archbishop of Naples.
The Pope2You portal is run by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications and is available in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Padrini didn't know if the pope had been informed of the Web site, but said the initiative was consistent with the message the pope had prepared for the Vatican's World Communications Day this Sunday.
Addressing the "digital generation," Benedict praises new media for helping people keep in touch and creating new friendships and communities worldwide.
But he also warns that social networking can become "obsessive," isolating individuals from real-life interaction.
"It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop online friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation," Benedict says in the message, which can be downloaded from the portal.
The Vatican has been constantly upgrading its Internet presence since the time of Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who avidly used mass media and information technology to get out his message.
John Paul oversaw the 1995 launch of the Vatican's Web site, which today includes virtual tours of the Vatican Museums and audio feeds from Vatican Radio.
Under John Paul, the Vatican started sending via text message the pope's prayer of the day. The Vatican's press office alerted the world to John Paul's death in 2005, by sending an e-mail with a text-messaged alert to journalists.