The Vatican's Internet home page, which began operating on an experimental basis in December 1995, becomes fully operational today
The three computers that operate the service have been put under the patronage of three archangels. The Archangel Michael is likely to be particularly busy: he operates the firewall that protects the Website from viruses and evil-minded intruders. Vatican officials say the site will be one of the most popular in the world and it will certainly be a tempting target for hackers.
Until now the Vatican site, http://www.vatican.va/, has carried little more than the daily bulletin of the Vatican Information Service. From today it holds more than 300Mb of information, including Pope John Paul's official documents and speeches and a regularly updated biography of the pope.
"It will be an extension of the pope's pastoral visits, only instead of the pope meeting vast crowds there will be a permanent opportunity for an encounter between the individual and the pope's teachings," says Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the chairman of the Vatican Internet Commission.
More than 1200 documents in six languages - English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and German - are available to Internet navigators, Archbishop Celli said. There are plans to expand the service to carry images of works of art from the Vatican Museum, documents from the Vatican Apostolic Library and selected diplomatic papers from the "Secret Archive." In future there will also be audio from Vatican Radio and a digital version of the semi-official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.
"The global reach of Internet makes it an ideal medium for the global communications mission of the Church," says Vatican press spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini. "The pope will now be able to take his message into people's homes and offices."
St. Michael, depicted in early Christian art as the guardian of Paradise, is supported by two brother archangels in the new Vatican service: the computer containing the entire database of information has been named after Raphael, while Archangel Gabriel, the messenger of the Annunciation, is responsible for the confidential internal email service linking the Vatican with diplomatic missions and episcopal conferences around the world.
Digital Equipment SpA, an Italian subsidiary of the U.S. company Digital Equipment Corp., is supplying technology and technical support for the project. The company has made available a 64-bit AlphaServer, access management software, and a personalised version of the AltaVista search engine, says Digital Equipment SpA chief executive Officer Alberto Fresco.
"It is easy to predict that the Vatican's Internet site will rapidly become one of the world's most visited sites," Fresco says.
During the initial experimental stage the Vatican home page was open to questions from the faithful on religion and morality, but it soon found it was being flooded by requests.
"In one month alone we had 1.5 million contacts," says Sister Judith Zoebelein, an official of the Vatican Internet Office. "Now that we are making more information available at higher speed we can expect triple that amount."
Doctrinal questions should be kept for the local parish priest or bishop, rather than being sent to the electronic Holy See, warns chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. The digital Vatican, like the Internet itself, is keen to avoid being stifled by its own success.