NEW YORK—Dioceses are trying to avoid the millennium bugs's bite.
The computer bug, that is. The so-called Y2K crisis that looms at midnight Dec. 31, when computers and appliances mis-read the “00” on their internal clocks as meaning the year 1900 instead of 2000, poses pastoral as well as technological challenges for dioceses heavily dependent upon computers.
How these dioceses respond to the problem of Y2K (shorthand for Year 2000) will have a strong bearing on the effectiveness of their operations as the new year dawns.
“There is a sense of urgency in dealing with this issue because of the impact it may have on our mission as a Church,” Ellie Anderson, the Y2K troubleshooter for the Archdiocese of Chicago, told the Register. “Basic-ally, we are concentrating on our financial systems and on Catholic Charities, because we don't want any disruption of services.”
The Y2K problem centers around a computer's ability to recognize the year 2000 on its internal clock and in its processing of time-related data. In the double-digit notation that most programs carried until recently, the year 2000 will show up as “00". Computers may read this as “1900” and store new information out of chronological order, or the internal clock may be thrown for a loop and come up with a fatal error.
Anderson was hired last June as director of the Office of Information Services to form a cohesive and streamlined interdepartmental computer system within the archdiocese, but the millennium bug has been the focus of her efforts as the months dwindle down to 2000. Her office is identifying the computer systems that can be upgraded to become Y2K compliant and replacing those that cannot.
“We have made a significant investment in terms of monetary resources and time,” said Anderson.
In the heart of California's technology-savvy Silicon Valley, officials from the Diocese of San Jose are taking a more laid-back approach.
“The MIS (manager of information systems) here doesn't seem to be worried about it,” said Roberta Ward, director of media relations for the diocese. “We are smack in the middle of Silicon Valley, so maybe we're ahead of the game.”
Parents who work in the computer industry have been volunteering to update and rewire the computer facilities of their parish churches and schools, she told the Register.
With the hardware and software issues under control, more spiritual concerns are foremost in the mind of Bishop Pierre Dumaine as the millennium approaches.
“Everybody is sort of technology-minded and business-minded here,” Ward said. “One of the biggest challenges is trying to get the idea of spiritual values out there in the marketplace.”
Many predictions have been made about what havoc Y2K might cause: Public utilities, such as water and electricity, may be disrupted, financial records may be lost or confused in databases, and elevators may go up and not come down (or vice versa). And almost everyone agrees that an aircraft, with its sensitive computer navigation and landing systems, is not the place to be as the new year begins.
Around the house, anything with an internal computer clock, from microwaves to wristwatches, may malfunction.
Some experts are predicting an economic depression. Already, untold millions of dollars have been spent in the public and private sectors to combat the problem.
The American Red Cross has posted information on Y2K on its Internet web site and suggests that individuals and families stock up on emergency items, nonperishable foods, bottled water and nonelectric lamps in the event of major breakdown of services.
Church leaders, while aware of the possible negative temporal effects of Y2K, and of how these may strike poor people the hardest, also have pointed out that graces may come with a proper spiritual approach to a computer disruption.
Benedictine Father Matthew Habiger of Human Life International told the Register last year that if essential services are interrupted in this country, it will be an opportunity for Americans to help one another in a true Christian spirit, and to identify with the poor of the Third World who live daily without the luxuries people in the West take for granted.
Father Timothy Thornburn, chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln in Nebraska, recently outlined a similar view. The diocese is not very reliant on computers, he pointed out, and no central plan is in effect to address the problem.
He added that the information revolution has brought with it a host of moral and spiritual dangers, even apart from the millennium bug.
“With e-mail and faxes, people are sending and receiving information at such a high speed that there is a great pressure to communicate without proper thought and reflection,” he observed. “This leaves little room for a prayerful, contemplative approach to daily life.
“I'm not against technology, but the possibility for ill use is great. There is always a very great danger in the kind of information children will be exposed to.”
Although all religious leaders would no doubt agree about the potential dangers of technology, bishops of dioceses that are computer-dependent must push ahead with solutions to the computer problems as the clock nears 2000.
The Diocese of Fall River, Mass., has found that jumping on the technology bandwagon only recently has its advantages. When the diocese started buying computer equipment for the chancery office and schools five years ago, the millennium bug was already identified and programmed out.
“We've had a full-time information systems person on board for two to three years. Any new equipment that comes in has to be checked for Y2K problems,” said John Kearns, assistant director of communications.
The Archdiocese of San Antonio has found a silver lining of sorts in hunting the millennium bug. A close look at computer operations turned up overlapping databases and mailing lists in many departments and brought forth a plan to link up all Church employees in the chancery building by e-mail and desktop fax.
“This has been ideal for us in the sense that we knew we had to face the Y2K problem anyway and we've uncovered a lot of other possibilities that are more long-term that will help the Church here,” said Charles Hughes, information systems director for the past eight years. “We've been able to consolidate things like mailing lists, get everyone to share off the same databases, and have identified people who needed computers but didn't have them to do their work.”
The archdiocese's effort is still in the works, with a completion date set for July. The major task now is replacing those systems that cannot be made Y2K compliant. This includes providing all 51 Catholic schools with updated equipment.
Susan Gibbs, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has had an extended experience with the Y2K issue. Last June, when she was publicity director for the Diocese of Camden, N.J., all the computers were tested and found Y2K compliant.
“Our technical people just went to every computer system, put in a software disk designed to identify such problems, and ran a program through,” she explained.
The same sort of testing is being done in the Washington Archdiocese, where the computer network is larger and more complex. One problem cropped up in the archdiocesan newspaper which was billing people after they had renewed for the year 2000. The financial departments and the Cardinal's Appeal office have been found to be compliant, Gibbs said.
“We've contacted all parishes and schools and told them how to get the software needed to test,” she said.
By tending to the temporal problems of the millennium, and advising others to do so, the Church hopes to free people from unnecessary anxiety and prepare them for the proper celebration of the Jubilee Year which Pope John Paul II says will be “intensely eucharistic,” that is, centered on the Lord of all time.
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.