What to Do: Dial-a-Priest

You can get pizza, movie tickets, even sex, by telephone. Now, there's also dial-a-priest.

Like the Shiite Muslim hotline in Iran that predicts the coming of the messiah, and a smattering of Catholic and Protestant call centers in the United States, Russia's Orthodox Mobile Service offers spiritual guidance at the touch of a key pad.

Launched in May with the blessing of the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarch Alexy II, Uznai u Svyashchennika (Ask a Priest) -- also known simply by its phone number 09399 -- gives automated divine wisdom on matters of the soul.

"We need to speak to people today about Jesus Christ in their own language," said father Vadim Leonov, director of 09399 and a priest at the Church of St. Catherine the Great Martyr.

"In centuries past the church has used all kinds of mass media: scrolls, papyrus, books, music, architecture, the radio. ... Now it's time to use mobile communications to serve God," he said.

Reached by dialing 09399 from a cell phone and 8 800 505 9399 from a land line, the service opens into an automated menu with nine topical categories, which lead to subcategories and frequently asked questions. Who is God? What is a sin? How can I find love and keep it? To all the deepest questions that have ever racked our hearts and minds, an answer is instantly given.

But not for free. Calls to the non-profit 09399 cost 11 rubles (42 cents) per minute for the telephone service. There is no VAT.

Pressing one for the church calendar and then two, for example, pulls up the day's scriptural reading. On a recent evening, it was Luke 10:22: "No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal."

No. 2 on the main menu offers teachings on how to prepare for rituals, including confession, communion and baptism. No. 3 brings up questions about individuals, and so on.

If a desired question does not exist, dialing zero allows for a recording to be made. Staff at 09399 listen to these at the end of each day and come up with answers to questions that are repeated over time. Once these have accumulated, said father Leonov, 09399 will add them to the automated list.

The service gets from dozens to hundreds of calls each day, with about 10 recorded questions, Leonov said. The majority of callers are interested in the church calendar, in menu No. 1, and family life, No. 4.

Leonov also gets odd requests in the zero recording. One person calls every day, father Vadim said, to ask the same question each time: "Why can't we shave the beard?"