BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — On Aug. 15, when Eternal Word Television Network celebrates its 20th anniversary, it will reach an audience of millions — on the World Wide Web.

There it will reach Catholics like Ray Mutzel, who started an EWTN fan-club e-mail mailing list in early 2000, and says “EWTN has certainly become my ‘prima facto’ source” for everything Catholic.

And it will reach converts like Michelle Parker who says she frequents the Q&A section because, “I find a lot of useful information in those forums that I did not know.”

The popularity of the Web site is the newest twist to the story of a television network started on a wimple and a prayer. On Aug. 15, 1981, Mother Mary Angelica, a cloistered Poor Clare of Perpetual Adoration, flipped the switch on a television station with very few programs and exactly $200 in the garage of her monastery in Irondale, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham.

As of a month ago, the only two countries in the Western Hemisphere that did not carry EWTN were Cuba and Canada. But, as if a birthday present, Canada's bureaucratic Canada Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission finally granted permission in late July for EWTN to send its signal to Canada. And on Aug. 15 EWTN will also be expanding its digital radio service to Europe and the Middle East.

But it was only in 1995 that Mother Angelica started the most recent — and most widely accessible — of her global Catholic network's ministries: EWTN online (www.ewtn.com).

The “global Catholic network” as they call it, today reaches about 66 million households in 43 countries with a budget of about $29 million and under 300 employees.

But it is this Web site that makes EWTN truly global in a most expansive way. If you have a phone line and a modem, or you have access to EWTN every day, 24 hours a day.

If you live in New York City, for instance, and cable and radio competition means the no-frills EWTN is not on either your television or radio, just install free RealPlayer software on your computer, and you can listen to WEWN radio live. Or watch the latest or archived episodes of Mother Angelica Live, the station's flagship program, or any other of the network's offerings.

Thousands of Pages

EWTN's Web site began when it absorbed a site called the Catholic Resource Network, which collected Catholic documents, including encyclicals and writings of Church fathers.

According to Netscape's “What's Related” feature, EWTN has 7,342 pages. For comparison, the Vatican has 5,524, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2,602.

EWTN online's biggest draw, according to Web master Sam Ranelli, is the question-and-answer section.

The other component of the Web site that makes it a resource is its document library, which current holds more than 7,000 Catholic documents. They add about 400 new documents to the collection annually.

“Since EWTN acquired the Web site from CRNET in 1996 we have concentrated on official Church texts. We no longer accept, for example, private submissions from individuals,” says Colin B. Donovan, vice president for theology at EWTN. “This better corresponds to our mission to evangelize with the teaching of the Church. We believe we do the greatest good by concentrating our resources on making available the writings, speeches and other texts of the Holy Father and his collaborators in the Holy See.”

The most recent addition to the site is an “Eastern Catholic Churches” forum to the Q&A section. Says Donovan, who oversees the Q&A sections, “This enables us to breathe with both lungs of the Church, East and West, thereby enriching Latin Catholics and others with the wonderful Christian patrimony of Eastern Christianity.” He says, “The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, from both Roman-rite and Eastern Catholics.”

Says Donovan of the forums, “Since the forums are open to all, the questions are as varied as people's knowledge and interest in the faith. They deal with the mundane, as well as scholarly matters, and some are even antagonistic toward the Faith and the Church.'”

Generally, during the day, the traffic on the site increases around lunch time, as people check the site for the readings of the day, the homily (available from the “Daily Mass” which airs live from EWTN's main campus and is repeated throughout the day). The traffic peaks again in the evening when people tend to make use of the Q&A section of the site.

The site's main page typically reflects the liturgical calendar, with some appropriate art image. “If there is something special going on, like a canonization or a papal visit,” Sam Ranelli says, “the home page will take on the look of television,” using whatever images the art department has developed as a logo.

Recently, the site's home page has featured a special St. Ann's Novena “that U.S. President George Bush will cooperate with God's grace in preventing stem cell research on preborn human babies.”

Features on the site also include a collection of updated news links, from various Catholic news services, as well as an online religious catalogue, and the option to donate to EWTN online. Browsers may also request tickets for live shows, Mother Angelica's mini-books (which are also available online), or rosaries.

Currently the EWTN Web staff is developing a children's section of the Web site, which will include animation, catechism lessons, and other teaching tools for parents. Says Ranelli, it will be an essential part of the site, since “children are growing up on the Internet.”

“Five years ago,” says Michael Warsaw, president of EWTN, the Internet component was just “another medium for us to use in spreading the Gospel.

“[N]one of us who were involved in that decision could have ever imagined the extent to which Our Lord would use that service to expand the reach of EWTN.”

A simple Web site now reaches millions of visitors each month. Why?

“They want the truth,” said Warsaw. “That's what they find in all of EWTN's services.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez, an associate editor of National Review, is executive editor of National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com).