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Internet Users Flocking to New Vatican Web Site

Technology: More than 1 million Catholics and others have visited the page. Pope John Paul II pens a few replies.


VATICAN CITY — After 2,000 years of being lectured by their popes on this world and the next, Catholics at last have a chance to answer back directly.

Lasso the popenet:

More than 1 million computer users from 70 countries have visited the Vatican's new Internet World Wide Web page in its first weeks. For most, it's a chance to browse through papal speeches, but thousands have sent messages of good wishes and appeals for spiritual help.

The Vatican, ancient and modem, is by turns apprehensive and delighted by the response to its online revolution. A new highway to the faithful? Or an electronic albatross?

"People think they know everything about this pope. Now it's all going online. They have direct contact with him and the church, and it helps us fulfill the mission of preaching the Gospel," said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

Navarro says Pope John Paul II personally authorized the Christmas Day launch and has read a sampling of early messages. "In some cases of dramatic circumstances, he may respond with a personal note," Navarro said.

Some writers appeal for papal prayers on behalf of dying relatives. Some are curious: One woman asks if she can physically see her dead husband when she dies. Some are playful: One keyboard-welded soul wonders if it is possible to go to confession on the Internet.

Nearly everybody, predictably, admires the marriage of an old church and new technology. "This Web site makes us feel closer to the heart of the church," wrote Brian Seaver, of Pittstown, N.Y., to the pope.

"How wonderful it is to actually be able to communicate with the Vatican," noted American Christine M. Bugarin, the mother of a priest.

One immediate dividend for the Vatican, Navarro says, is that messages arrive unfiltered. It is possible to see online how Catholics are relating to their faith--as opposed to what Vatican officials imagine they are thinking.

Still, there are limits, say traditionalists. For them, there's no way that the closely held and historically secretive Vatican bureaucracy could--or should--manage a two-way flood of electronic correspondence. Technicians and senior prelates alike are now weighing how messages could be distributed to appropriate Vatican departments and who might answer them.

For their part, modernists see the Internet as a valuable way to improve communications with some of the best-educated among the world's 950 million Catholics.

"There's enormous potential for new evangelization. What better way to reach out to people in an electronic age," said Sister Judith Zoebelein, an architect of the new initiative and a member of the Connecticut-based Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.

The system is still small and experimental and will grow in bytes. But for now, papal Web visitors arrive at a home page containing the crossed-keys symbol of the Holy See and are led through menus to the texts of pontifical documents and speeches. Beginning next month, the Vatican's daily news bulletin and its in-house information service go online.

The no-charge service promises to be a boon to scholars and far-flung members of the church hostage until now to snail mail and news reports of papal pronouncements. To once cut-off Catholic communities like those in Eastern Europe, for example, it can offer quick, easy, cheap access to teachings and basic documents suppressed during Cold War decades.

"It is a great resource, and an inspiration to discover that the Holy See has joined this medium," the Rev. Tim Moyle wrote to John Paul from a remote parish in Pembroke, Canada.

Eventually, message writers may get tailored responses to questions and appeals. For now, they're receiving a standard papal greeting that John Paul emphatically did not peck out himself.

There's a computer in the papal apartment at the Vatican, but the pope has never been known to use it. Or a typewriter. He is a prolific writer, to be sure, but even in the Vatican's new electronic age, his thoughts, as ever, issue from his fountain pen. In Polish.

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