Catholics Seek and Find Answers Online

Rome, Italy - Is making out with your girlfriend a sin? Will remarried divorced Catholics ever be allowed to take Communion? Is the devil real?

These are typical questions a priest might hear anytime from his parishioners. But Father Gianfranco Falgari and a large group of associates are fielding these queries in a venue that's more virtual than spiritual — the Internet.

Crossing theology with cyberspace, Priests Online answers parishioners' inquietudes with downloads of advice and Catholic guidance. The website appears to be quite popular: In an era of declining church attendance, the site's traffic has nearly tripled since it was launched a few years ago, its managers say.

"We do not want to substitute personal contact," Falgari said. "But this website does allow us to be available to those who have difficulty turning to a priest in the flesh. People may be able to say things that they would not dare say to a priest in person."

The Roman Catholic Church, an institution sitting atop 2,000 years of history, has nevertheless embraced modern-day technology. The late Pope John Paul II was known to use a laptop computer, and he had an e-mail address that was flooded with thousands of get-well messages during his final illness.

John Paul warned that misuse of the Internet — to spread hatred or pornography, for example — could do "untold harm," but that the technology was also a valuable tool for spreading the Gospel.

Visitors to the Italian-language can post a message for all to read or send a message directly to one of more than 800 priests who have signed up to participate. There is no public chat room. Only the priests can respond and it's always in private.

Nor does the website allow confessions, Falgari said, because the confession is considered a sacrament and must be conducted in person and in absolute confidentiality.

Otherwise, just about any topic is fair game. Falgari, who discussed the website with The Times by (what else) e-mail, said the dominant themes included "emotional and sexual aspects" of marriage, questions about why so much suffering exists in the world, and how and why the church chose its policies.

"Giovanni" asks about something that has bothered him for a while. Is heavy petting between two people who are engaged to be married permitted, a mortal sin or just a minor sin?

"Bartolo" says he wants to get closer to God but does not know what path to follow. He hopes his posting on the website will serve as his "message in a bottle."

"Luca" asks whether resurrection on Judgment Day is a metaphor or something that happens physically?

"Annamaria" says she is moving to Florence and needs the name of a good exorcist there.

A couple of message-writers worry that neither the church nor people in general are taking the devil seriously enough.

"Nik" speaks of his utter loneliness: "I am a homosexual who believes in God, who prays and who attends church, but all of this only sharpens my state of dejection. I am looking for friends, for people with whom I can talk without fear of being judged and condemned." Or, if not friendship, he says, at least a prayer.

Falgari was somewhat coy when asked what kind of advice and answers the priests usually offer.

"Listening, dialogue, and 'walking together' — I think these are the best rules for expanding the horizons of understanding of the church's choices and other hot issues," Falgari said.

Most of the priests who are registered on the site, as well as a few bishops, deacons and seminary students, are from Italy, but a few are from the United States and Latin America who got involved while studying in Italy. They are listed on the website by region (most are from Lombardy) and alphabetically. The entry for each prelate includes basic background information, often a link to his diocesan website, and a green, yellow or red traffic-light symbol to indicate whether he is available. Most also list how long the answer is likely to take.

Falgari, 45, is based in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland.

Many of the people who visit the website are young, underscoring that they are the ones more likely to use computers but also the sense of alienation among youth, Falgari said. He, however, cautioned against an overdependence on the website.

"It is not possible to live by the computer," he said. "Our site is like a pause, our objective to favor contact with the church, especially among the thousands of people who constantly crowd the Web."