Vatican launches social network challenge to Facebook

The portal's mission is to provide reliable information for people seeking the truth about Catholicism

An Italian startup backed by the Vatican Thursday launched a global portal for Catholic websites intended to provide reliable information for people seeking the truth about the Christian religion.

The website, www.aleteia.org, takes its name from the Greek word for truth and aims to give critical mass to Catholic social media that otherwise risk getting lost in the babble of the Web.

"More than a thousand partners have already joined and many more are expressing their support," Jesus Colina, the Spanish journalist who is president of the new venture, told reporters at a press conference in Rome.

The website encourages people to "Seek the truth: Ask your own question" and to share stories on other social media by clicking on a fish icon -- the fish was a traditional symbol for Jesus Christ in the early church -- in a gesture similar to "liking" something on Facebook.

The platform is initially available in six languages -- Italian, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic -- and has a staff of 45 with offices in Rome, Washington and Paris.

An international editorial board of some 200 members includes the inventor of the iBreviary app that enables the faithful to find sacred texts on iPhone -- the Italian Catholic priest Father Paolo Padrini -- and will guarantee that the site's content is theologically kosher.

"Today there are 55 million searches every month for the English word 'God,'" Colina said in an interview with Vatican Radio. "But what do people find? Catholic sites are not well represented. We want the pearls that Catholic sites generate every day to appear in the top positions on Google and other search engines."

Colina said Catholic websites should see Aleteia as a megaphone that will give them increased visibility on the Web.

Supporters point out that a Google search for "pilgrimage" is currently likely to return answers directed at Muslims, while "religion" or "prayer" will lead to responses from rival faiths such as Scientology or the Mormons, that are better represented on the Web but have fewer adherents than the Catholic Church's 1.2 billion followers.

The initiative is backed by the Foundation for Evangelization through the Media, a Rome-based lay organization seeking to implement Pope Benedict's invitation to the faithful to proclaim the gospel on the "digital continent." It also has the support of the Vatican departments responsible for "new evangelization" and social media.

The venture will be backed by a new advertising platform providing Catholic-approved ads for Catholic websites fearful of being associated with inappropriate sexual content or "bogus" religious groups.

Both the platform, AdEthic, and the Aleteia website will be run by a former Google Italy manager, Andrea Salvati.

Catholic social media have hitherto been cut out of the online advertising market but that should change with the critical mass provided by the two new ventures, Salvati told Vatican Radio.

"In this case it really is unity that gives strength: where there is unity there is critical mass, there is an audience to be exploited and there is negotiating power that we can bring to the table with all the networks that distribute online advertising," Salvati said.

As well as ensuring the advertising content is appropriate for Catholic audiences, AdEthic will destine part of its revenue to charitable causes.

As a mark of www.aleteia.org's engagement with modernity, its homepage carried a comment Thursday by the Catholic communicator Father Robert Barron, who drew a comparison between Spiderman and Jesus Christ.

"Andrew Garfield, the actor who plays Peter Parker, is quite obviously an ordinary, and even geeky, kid who at decisive moments gracefully demonstrates godlike powers," Barron said in a comment published by the Catholic News Agency and hosted on the new site.

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Philip Willan

IDG News Service
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