by GREG KAIL
ON THE ever-expanding worldwide web, even a mediocre site garners all the interest of a seesaw in a high-tech amusement park.
So when the Archdiocese of Denver began designing a home page (www.archden.org/archden) in early 1996, the page creators vowed to ensure more than a presence in cyberspace. They wanted a competitive edge—and appropriately so, since Denver is one of the national centers of the emerging telecommunications revolution.
Ten months later, the archdiocese has found its voice—an audible one, at that. The web site carries audio interviews with local and national experts discussing religious and cultural issues. With the click of a button, web visitors can listen to lengthy chats with Dr. Neil Postman, an internationally known computer culture expert and writer; fiction author Michael O'Brien, who wrote the critically acclaimed Father Elijah; and Father Michael Glenn, archdiocesan vocations director. “The web is moving toward multi-media, not text,” said Kevin Knight, the 29-year-old Denver webmaster. “Someday everyone will be using audio, and we wanted to use it today.”
But for the Communications Secretariat of the archdiocese, the greatest fruits of the web page emerged from the effort to create it. Why not hire a professional service? Because, explained Communications Secretary Francis Maier, the development process helped those involved understand how the emerging computer culture will change the way people think and behave. “The best way to experience that is to immerse yourself in it,” Maier said. “It's learning a new language, and form drives content.”
“Society as we know it is a creation of the assumptions of print culture, and Christianity as we experience it is deeply interwoven with print assumptions. We wanted to begin to figure out what moving from a print culture to an electronic culture is going to do to the way we organize our religious life and our faith.”
Those answers are slow in coming, and they're modified with every new hiccup in technology. Among the most promising new possibilities, noted Maier, is cyber-classroom “distance learning” via the Internet. For now, interviews with cultural gurus like Postman may help some Catholics understand why the imminent changes deserve serious attention.
The recorded interviews are posted using RealAudio, a popular program that Internet users can download free of charge. The interviews commence almost immediately after they're selected, so visitors need not download the entire file to their personal computers. The aim is to keep the page fresh and useful for frequent visitors to the site.
Knight is no stranger to Catholicism in cyberspace. His “New Advent” page, which was launched in May 1995, carries Catholic resources for cyberspace visitors such as Aquinas' Summa Theologiae and papal encyclicals. It already gets 2,700 hits a day. “We're not willing to cede this territory to the other guys,” said Knight, who does much of his web work on volunteer time. “It ensures that among the many voices out there, ours will be one of them—and one of the strongest.”
Stories and photos from the Denver Catholic Register are also posted weekly on the site, and that venture is already paying off. A couple of weeks after the page was launched, a man in Massachusetts called in to comment on a story about Catholic affordable housing in the mountains. He also inquired about donating a piece of land for such a project.
“Anyone in publishing would be crazy not to look at the opportunities there and not find some way to use it,” said Peter Droege, editor of the Denver Catholic Register. But Droege believes a Catholic presence on the web is both an opportunity and a responsibility. “The manipulation of information has become almost a tragedy among many media outlets,” Droege said. “The respect for individual freedom and human dignity that is such a part of the Catholic faith in some ways depends on our ability to deliver the truth in a way that's undiluted and authentic.”
Catholics on the web can go directly to Catholic sources for information. For example, when Pope John Paul II addressed the theory of evolution in a recent talk, many Catholics were directed to the Archdiocese of Denver web page for the full text of the statement. Knight said most people would he surprised how much interest religion pages on the web generate. “In all the other media we're treated as a subculture that few care about,” he said. “I was surprised to see what a prominent position we [can assume] in the continuing conversation once we're allowed to have an equal voice. The web is the ultimate guarantee that everyone can have an equal voice.”
Visit the Archdiocese of Denver web site at www.archden.org/archden. For more information, contact archdiocesan communications at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greg Kail is based in Denver.