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Catholic Church holds a candle and a prayer for the internet generation

It may have misgivings about the seedy side of cyberspace, but faced with falling attendances, the Catholic Church is seeking to harness the wonders of the digital age.

In January this year, the Vatican launched its own YouTube channel. Now a priest in Rome is allowing worshippers to light a candle not with a match, but with the click of mouse.

To make the dedication, the faithful of the church of Santa Maria Regina Pacis di Ostia, just 20 miles from the Vatican, need only find the correct section on the church's homepage (www.reginapacisostia.it), and click to "light" a candle and leave a message for a loved one.

Among hundreds of messages left so far are those to a missing person and another dedicated to victims of the year's Abruzzo earthquake.

"When I had the idea, which was well received by the faithful, I was thinking of the people who can't come to mass or those who want to maintain constant contact with us, given that the church isn't open 24 hours a day," said Father Don Ludovico Barbangelo.

"It's a little gesture that helps lots of people, who are able to write how they feel, all of the community, even those further away from the church."

But his plans to bring the church into the digital age don't stop with virtual candles. "We've also downloaded some videos of masses. As for worship by video streaming, we're thinking about it ... we'll see," he told the Ansa news agency. He has not yet mentioned any plans for confession by Twitter.

The development suggests that the church might be overcoming its suspicion of all things online. Pope Benedict XVI has gone on record as saying that social networking sites such as Facebook might be beneficial if they encourage the creation of friendships. But he has also warned that the internet could be used to trivialise sex and might encourage violent behaviour.