Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe of Naples opened a Facebook site in November — and it now has nearly 5,000 friends.

Cardinal Sepe, the former prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples, recently explained his decision to open a Facebook site.

He said his presence on the social networking site has been “a nice adventure that has involved everyone.”

“Yes it really is me,” the cardinal said in a message this week to thousands of Facebook friends. “One of my colleagues helped me get set up as I’m not very practical, but I have read all the messages, discussions and comments and responded to them, otherwise there would be no point.”

Cardinal Sepe decided to post his reasons for signing up to Facebook after a friend asked for an explanation.

Noted the Italian cardinal, “Facebook can serve to defend the Word of God.”

And in response to those who consider such social networking as “treacherous terrain,” Cardinal Sepe said he doesn’t think it a “modern evil” even if it’s better to have non-virtual relationships.

“I immediately thought that this could be a way to get to know new people and be close to those in trouble, those who are living lives of suffering, who are sick, or living in poverty,” said Cardinal Sepe. “When someone asked me why I am on Facebook, I thought, ‘Well where’s the wrong in that?’ The Church is open to new technology. The diocese provides a website site for each parish and every priest has an email address.”

Cardinal Sepe invited his Facebook friends to a special, in-person meeting just before Christmas. About 100 of them showed up.

At a symposium held this week by the Italian bishops’ conference, entitled “The Church on Web 2.0”, delegates reiterated the importance of the Church having a presence on the Internet but added words of caution about social networking sites.

The Italian bishops reiterated their hope that ethics will prevail on such sites, and stressed that the virtual world will not substitute for normal human relations. They also advised families not to speak with strangers on the sites.

“The Internet oscillates between elation and distrust,” the Italian bishops said. “It’s time to find a happy medium.”

— Edward Pentin