Saints on cellphones spark controversy in Italy

ROME Tue Dec 4, 2007 10:38am EST

A selection of images produced for mobile telephones show (top to bottom) Pope John Paul II, Saint Lucia, and Padre Pio in photos made available in Rome December 4, 2007. If you're a Catholic looking for a saint in heaven to protect you, you no longer have to carry a small holy card. You can get the image sent straight to your cellphone. A company in Italy started offering the service but ran into opposition from some Catholic Church leaders who think the idea is crass, blasphemous and commercial. REUTERS/Santi Protettori/Handout

A selection of images produced for mobile telephones show (top to bottom) Pope John Paul II, Saint Lucia, and Padre Pio in photos made available in Rome December 4, 2007. If you're a Catholic looking for a saint in heaven to protect you, you no longer have to carry a small holy card. You can get the image sent straight to your cellphone. A company in Italy started offering the service but ran into opposition from some Catholic Church leaders who think the idea is crass, blasphemous and commercial.

Credit: Reuters/Santi Protettori/Handout

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ROME (Reuters) - If you are a Catholic looking for a saint in heaven to protect you, you no longer have to carry a small "holy card". You can get the image sent to your cellphone.

A company in Italy started offering the service on Tuesday but ran into opposition from some Catholic Church leaders who think the idea is crass and commercial.

"We found a need and filled it," Barbara Labate, who came up with the idea with her business partner in a cellphone services company based in Milan, told Reuters by telephone.

Many taxis, private cars and trucks in Italy have a small picture of a saint -- known as a "santino" or little saint -- taped to the dashboard. Millions of Italians also keep wrinkled and worn "santini" in their wallets or handbags.

"We are merely catching up with the times. I think this will appeal to young people as well as grandmothers," Labate said.

The company started the service with 15 saints on offer and Labate said the hallowed catalogue will grow. The downloading service, done by sending a text message to a phone number, costs three euros ($4.42). The Web site is santiprotettori.com

Nearly every shop near the Vatican sells paper "santini" but not everyone in the Church thinks cellphones and saints are a marriage made in heaven.

"This is in really bad taste," Bishop Lucio Soravito De Franceschi, a member of the Italian bishops conference committee for doctrinal matters, told the Turin newspaper La Stampa.

"It is a distortion of sacred things ... selling 'santini' for cell phones is horrifying," he said.

But Labate, who is Sicilian and recalls how her mother gave her a "santino" to put in her luggage when she traveled, rejected the criticism.

"We are simply offering a service to the faithful. We are doing this with the maximum respect, dignity and professionalism for believers," she said.

One popular saint in Italy is St Christopher, the patron saint of safe travel. Other favorites are St Lucy, patroness of good eyesight and St Pio of Petralcina, the 20th century monk who was said to have had the wounds of Christ.

Labate has also put "possible future saints" in her initial catalogue. They include the late Pope John Paul, who has already been put on the road to sainthood, as well as the current pontiff, Pope Benedict.

Jesus and the Madonna are also for sale.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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