Blessed are computers, says Pope

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IN A statement that will certainly have the world's software companies pricking up their ears, the Pope bestowed a very public blessing on the computer this week.

"The computer has changed the world and certainly has changed my life," the pontiff said, while talking to students at the elite Luiss private university. The occasion of his visit was the donation to the Vatican of 50 computers for use in dioceses in Africa and Eastern Europe.

The Pope has come a long way since he visited an Italian Olivetti factory eight years ago. Then he cheerfully admitted that he knew "what the word computer means, but not the meaning behind the word".

On the eve of the new millennium the Pope has proved his faith in the computer as an evangelical tool by backing the creation of a Vatican website.

His conversion has not been all that hands-on, however. Although there are two computers in his private studio, he still prefers to record his thoughts, in a trembling hand, on stiff white paper.

The Vatican website was born at Christmas in 1995 and has been a great success.

The experimental home page received 300,000 hits in only two days. Most of the virtual flock sent love and greetings to the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and urged him to eat well and to rest. Since the complete website was inaugurated last year there have been an average of 16 million visitors a month. As of August, Catholics with computers can follow the Pope's weekly audiences and special Masses.

The Vatican's presence online has been entrusted to three mega-computers, named after the archangels, Gabriel, Raphael and Michael.

A sophisticated defence system, frequent changes of codes and encryption have so far prevented any breach of the Vatican's electronic walls. The nightmare of the Internet Office of the Holy See features an intruder penetrating the site and altering one of the Pope's texts. It seems just the sort of challenge that so-called Net nerds would love.