Pope Benedict has entered the world of social networking sites and smartphones with the launch of a Vatican portal that includes Facebook and iPhone applications.

The Pope2You website announced Thursday allows Facebook users to send virtual postcards with photos of Benedict and excerpts from his messages.

An application for iPhone and iPod Touch provides video and audio news on the Pope's travels and speeches, as well as on Catholic events worldwide.

The new portal is the latest of the Vatican's efforts to broaden the Pope's audience and reach out to young people.

Earlier this year, Benedict got his own YouTube channel, which is now also linked to the portal.

While wary of the potential pitfalls of new media, the 82-year-old Benedict has also encouraged young Catholics to use the internet to spread the church's message.

On Wednesday, he told pilgrims gathered for his weekly audience that young people should use the internet to build a better world through bonds of friendship and solidarity, adding that the digital world can help make the Gospel known.

For Rev. Paolo Padrini, a technologically savvy Italian priest who led the Pope2You project, giving Benedict a presence on the world's largest online social network was in keeping with the church's centuries-old communications strategy.

"The walls of our churches are painted by the greatest artists of all time," Padrini said. "This means that the church has always invested in the culture of each period, using the best instruments available to communicate with people."

iBreviary for priests

Padrini, 36, works in the small of village of Stazzano in northern Italy and routinely chats online with his 2,500 parishioners. He was also behind another Vatican foray on the web: iBreviary, an application that brought the book of daily prayers used by priests onto iPhones.

Padrini said the new project aimed to put the focus on the church by creating a Facebook application rather than a personal profile for Benedict like those made for stars and world political leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama.

"The Pope is not a Hollywood star who signs autographs," Padrini told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday. "We don't follow a concept of leadership; the Pope has always made it clear that he is a servant of the church."

Some top clergymen do have profiles on Facebook, including Crescenzio Cardinal Sepe, the archbishop of Naples.

The Pope2You portal is run by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications and is available in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. It was launched ahead of the church's World Communications Day on Sunday.

Padrini said he didn't know whether the Pope had been informed of the website but said the initiative was consistent with the message the pontiff had prepared for World Communications Day.

Pope praises new media

Addressing the "digital generation," Benedict praised new media for helping people keep in touch and creating new friendships and communities worldwide.

But he also warned that social networking can become "obsessive," isolating individuals from real-life interaction.

"It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop online friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbours and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation," Benedict said.