Catholic missionaries have always trekked to dangerous parts of the Earth to spread the word of God. Now they are being encouraged to go into the virtual realm of "Second Life" to save virtual souls.
In an article in Rome-based Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, academic Antonio Spadaro urged fellow Catholics not to be scared of entering the virtual world which may be fertile ground for new converts wishing to better themselves.
"It's not possible to close our eyes to this phenomenon or rush to judge it," Spadaro said. "Instead it needs to be understood ... the best way to understand it is to enter it."
"Second Life" is a simulation game where players can create a virtual version of themselves — an avatar — and interact with other people in the three-dimensional world.
According to its Web site, it has a population of more than 8 million residents, and millions of dollars change hands there every month.
"Is there (cyber) space for God?" Spadaro asks in his article, which says there are already virtual churches and temples serving countless religions.
He quotes a Swedish Muslim who says his avatar prays regularly as he prays in real life.
Spadaro warns the uninitiated that "the erotic dimension is very present" in "Second Life," that people can buy genitalia for their avatars in a world that is "open to any form of erotic stimulation from prostitution to pedophilia."
While the virtual world might be a refuge for some people seeking to flee the real one, it is also full of people seeking something more from life, including, possibly, religious enlightenment, he said.
"Deep down, the digital world can be considered, in its way, mission territory," he said. "'Second Life' is somewhere where the opportunity to meet people and to grow should not be missed, therefore, any initiative that can inspire the residents in a positive way should be considered opportune."