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By Anja Kapinos and Nicholas Rigillo
Vatican City - "Is there a patron saint of the Internet?" is the most common question Sister Judith Zoebelein has to answer.
"Not yet," replies this diminutive, no-nonsense nun from New York City.
Sister Judith, 55, is a self-taught computer expert. And there was no heavenly help at hand when she was first asked to create the Vatican's website, back in 1995.
Yet with a claimed maximum of 10 million hits per day, www.vatican.va is now one of the world's most visited websites.
"Catholics all over the world are very interested in our pope. Many of them want to know all sorts of details about his private life," she told Deutsche Presse-Agentur, dpa.
Last year, a record 180 000 emails were sent to Pope John Paul II on the 25th anniversary of his election as head of the Roman Catholic Church.
"We had set up six mailboxes in as many languages, but the servers still had problems coping with the load. We were overwhelmed," she said.
It is in part for this reason that the pope's personal address, email@example.com, is only made accessible on special occasions, such as birthdays or anniversaries.
The Holy See first went online during Christmas 1995 and Sister Judith says the current pope has always been an enthusiastic supporter of using new media to spread the gospel.
In a 2002 document, for instance, he said the Internet offered "magnificent opportunities for evangelisation if used with competence and a clear awareness of its strengths and weaknesses".
And a year earlier this pope had become the first ever to send out an official document via email, to prelates and priests in Australia and New Zealand.
The Vatican's Internet site now regularly publishes daily "bulletins" listing the pope's speeches and activities while Vatican Radio programmes are streamed over the world wide Web.
After a life of adventure in Thailand, Mexico, Iran and Jerusalem, in 1991 Sister Judith applied for a job at the Vatican, just as John Paul was looking for someone to oversee the Holy See's modest information technology capabilities.
"In those days, there were hardly any computers at all around here," she recalled.
"I still remember having to teach some cardinals how to use the mouse."
Thirteen years later, there are around 1 000 Vatican email addresses while all of the Vatican's offices are linked via a local Intranet.
The heart of the Vatican's computer network is the server room, which is located inside the Apostolic Palace, four floors below the private quarters of the pope.
Here, technicians are currently at work installing 50 new servers - expanding the Vatican's current capacity more than tenfold - to deal with a new mega-project: a "virtual portal of the catholic community" that will allow Catholics worldwide to chat and take part in news groups.
Sister Judith says her task here is to guarantee that the "sacredness of the Church" is not in any way jeopardised by modern technology.
The Vatican, after all, safeguards tradition very thoroughly.
Its three main servers, for instance, have been named after the archangels Gabriel, Michael and Raphael.
"We needed the extra protection of the archangels," she said, adding that no viruses have infected the Vatican to date.
Incidentally, Saint Isidore of Seville, credited with having written the world's first encyclopaedia, is being considered as a major contender for the role of patron saint of the Internet. - Sapa-dpa