The Pope knows the Web.
“For the Church, the new world of cyberspace is a summons to the great adventure of using its potential to proclaim the Gospel message.”
So says Pope John Paul II in his message for the 36th World Communications Day.
The theme of this year's communications celebration will be “Internet: A New Forum for Proclaiming the Gospel.”
In his message, the Pope points out: “The Internet can offer magnificent opportunities for evangelization.” But, like other communications media, the Internet is a means and not an end in itself. It has its strengths and its weaknesses. The Internet provides information about, and can stir interest in, the Christian message — making possible, for some, an initial encounter with the Gospel. This is especially true with the young, who spend an increasing amount of time in cyberspace and view the world through it. But our faith has to move from the virtual world to the real world. The Holy Father encourages us to find practical ways of getting these “first-contact” people involved in a real-world Christian community.
The Internet can provide continuing instruction and catechesis help to those already evangelized, especially for those living in unsupportive cultures. I have had e-mails from converts, even in other countries, who were struggling with unresolved questions or nagging doubts about the Catholic faith. Some of the difficulties were easily erased with just one e-mail. There is no doubt that the Internet provides a unique supplement and support for those in first contact with the Church and for those beginning the life of the Catholic faith.
“The Internet can never replace that profound experience of God which only the living, liturgical and sacramental life of the Church can offer,” writes Pope John Paul.
There is always the danger of people living only in the virtual world or using it to replace the real one. I remember receiving one e-mail from a woman doing a holy hour of eucharistic adoration in her church once a week. She wanted to know if doing a holy hour in front of her computer, set to a page showing our chapel live via Webcam, could substitute for driving to the church. Another person wondered if the Sacrament of Reconciliation could be received over the Internet. (Two Nos!)
Perhaps these same questions were asked when the telephone and television were still new. I begin to worry even more over virtual-reality confusion when I spotted a Web site, value.net/~bromike/diocese/, TITLEd “The Archdiocese of the Internet.” A scrolling message there tells you that this is “A Roman Catholic Church on the Net.” As technology advances — with upcoming innovations like holo-graphic monitors and other 3-dimensional viewing systems, tele-immersion (virtual reality + video-conferencing), voice portals, etc. — it becomes more and more tempting to turn to virtual Christian communities and away from real ones.
This, obviously, would be a mistake.
As the Holy Father spells out in some detail in his message for World Communications Day: “Electronically mediated relationships can never take the place of the direct human contact required for genuine evangelization.”
Pope John Paul II gives us a shining example of one who “puts out into the deep” of the Internet without fear — and with prayerful consideration of the medium's limitations along with its opportunities.
And he calls us to do likewise, saying, “I dare to summon the whole Church bravely to cross this new threshold.”
Brother John Raymond, co-founder of the Monks of Adoration, writes from Venice, Florida.