Faithful say Amen to digital age with iPrayer

FANS called it the Jesus Phone, such was the near religious hysteria that accompanied its launch. Now Apple's cult mobile really is bringing its owners closer to God.

The world's first Digital Rosary, meant to help the faithful to pray, goes on sale tomorrow. Custom-designed for the iPhone, it comes complete with a voiceover from one of the Vatican's most-trusted archbishops.

The new phone application, or "app", is essentially software that helps the electronically-minded faithful say the Rosary.

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Most Catholics have traditionally kept track of the complicated sequence of recitations and Hail Marys involved in the Rosary – a ritual of devotion – by counting out sets of consecrated beads on a string.

Now they can carry out the ritual, which is done regularly by the most devout believers, by following prompts on their touch-sensitive iPhone screen instead. The app itself guides users through the rosary by speaking the words, which they can say at the same time.

It also provides digital access to a Communion website, where users can contact other believers, enter discussion groups and get information on prayer rituals. Vincenzo Coccoli, chief executive of MoreTechnology, the company that has developed the app along with religious leaders and communications experts, said: "It's a religious Facebook."

The inventors of the new app – which costs 3.49 – argue that the Digital Rosary will open the world to believers who do not want to pray alone and offer comfort to those who are far from a church or friends.

They are tapping into a huge potential market. More than 57 million iPhones and iPod Touches have been sold worldwide in the two years since their launch, making the devices the fastest-selling high-tech gadgets in history.

A similar application, called jprex, will go on sale for BlackBerrys and other devices at the same time.

This is More Technology's company's second rosary-related release. Last year, it launched the Electronic Rosary, which is a small device that recites the decades and other prayers for believers to respond to or repeat.

Coccoli says that the company has sold 50,000 of these devices worldwide to date and hopes that the Digital Rosary will have an even bigger impact given the smartphone's growing global audience and the approval of the Vatican.

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The new Digital Rosary is the brainchild of one of Pope Benedict XVI's former ambassadors, Giovanni Tonucci.

The cleric, now the Archbishop of Loreto, a major pilgrimage site in Ancona, Italy, has provided the prayers for the rosary app, part of a wider drive the former papal envoy has led to bring the latest technology into Roman Catholicism.

It is his voice that helps guide the user through the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Marys and other aspects of the rosary – and whatever "Mystery" or story from Christ's life that is appropriate for the day when the user has fired up the app.

Tonucci said: "The idea was born among the faithful involved here in Loreto to accompany the lonely and those who wish to be heard in prayer together with others.

"In the beginning, the Electronic Rosary was developed as a small device that even I could carry with me in the car.

"It was a success, so we thought to open up new horizons through mobile phones. The use of the rosary beads to pray the rosary was a first technological step, and now we have made others in support of prayer."

But the move, which comes after pontiff sent a mass text signed BXVI and another bishop, in Ireland, urged the faithful to Tweet their prayers online, has not yet earned universal praise.

John Haldane, a philosophy lecturer at St Andrews University, can see the appeal of a Digital Rosary but still isn't convinced that it will make it big.

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The Catholic academic said: "I think people have an in-built yearning to be religious and a yearning to be ritualistic and, I suppose, an iPhone Rosary can help them get both.

"But it does smack a little of the kind of pathetic – and I say that in its original meaning as sad – efforts to get 'with it', to get in touch with the kids.

"It's not patronising, it's ridiculous. This appeals to a kind of consumerist tradition. It is part of the culture of immediate gratification, the 'I want it now' generation."

The new app, however, will also have to battle it out with dozens of other religious or spiritual rivals, including some that promise even more instantaneous gratification. One, iChristian, guides followers to the faith in several easy steps, allowing them to apply for a certificate once they have established a grasp of the religion's basic tenets.

There are already numerous other religious apps for iPhones and its imitators, including several free-to-download Bibles with touch-sensitive scrolling and a lovingly named iQuran for Muslims.

Apple, however, has been desperate to keep some less respectful apps off its phones. The Apple Store, which effectively polices apps, earlier this year binned plans for software that would allow users to superimpose their own faces on to those of religious leaders, including Jesus, and then e-mail them to friends or post them on Facebook.

The new app for iPhones and iPods is called iPrex and will be available on the website from tomorrow.

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