Magazine article U.S. Catholic Surfing for Salvation

Magazine article U.S. Catholic Surfing for Salvation

Article excerpt

From the Vatican Museums to Saint Symphorosa, from the Altar Boys Association to the Zwiefalten monastery, Catholics have built their homes in cyberspace. Patrick McCormick celebrates the vibrant Catholic presence online, but he wonders if a merely virtual Body of Christ can ever be enough.

Nearly 40 years ago Soviet Cosmonaut Yury Gagarin was shot up into the heavens and reported back that he could see no signs of God in space. Judging from some of the satellite photos sent back from later missions, one might be tempted to suggest that Gagarin suffered from a severe lack of imagination. At any rate, if the colonel had been piloting his vessel in cyberspace instead of outer space, even as unpoetic a soul as he, it seems, would have been forced to report very different results.

Although much of our current conversation about the Internet tends to focus on the dangers of cyberporn or the mushrooming presence of hate groups on the Web, the truth is that there is an awful lot of God-talk going on. Religion, at least in America, is going online.

Cast your search engines out on the Web today and you'll get plenty of loaves and fishes. A typical search will turn up about 1,948,000 hits for "Christ," 2,100,000 for "Jesus," and 3,675,000 for "God." There are hundreds upon hundreds of religious bulletin boards, thousands and thousands of chat rooms, and every sect and denomination--from the technophobic Amish to Zen Buddhists--has a couple of homepages on the Web.

And in spite of what you may have heard about the church and Galileo, Catholicism is proving to be no slacker in the race to cyberspace. The Vatican, in fact, has one of the most ambitious sites on the Web (being run on three computers nicknamed Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel), and the search engine Yahoo! displays over 1,500 Catholic Web sites alone. Indeed, dozens of Catholic dioceses and religious orders in this country currently host Web sites for vocation recruitment, and Bishop Paul Loverde, the chair of the bishops' vocation committee, noted that "If he were walking this earth now ... I'm convinced Jesus would have an email address and be on the Web."

Casting nets for Jesus

A good deal of this mushrooming harvest of religious Web sites is because mainstream--and not so mainstream--denominations and churches are tapping into the Net to reach new converts or to stay connected with their online constituencies in a changing world. Concerned that they not lose touch with their computer-literate congregations, or see the faithful evangelized away from them by more technically adept preachers of the word, more and more pastors and dioceses are building homepages, bulletin boards, and chat rooms. Many are professionally designed hi-tech products, replete with all the interactive bells and whistles that we've come to expect from glitzy corporate homepages, while others are simpler, more homespun postings with about as much charm and polish as a mimeographed parish bulletin.

But preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth is a bit different in cyberspace. As many have learned before us, adopting new technologies can often affect the content as well as the form of our message. Bibles were the first books to roll off Gutenberg's printing press, and within a century Martin Luther was using the mass accessibility of scripture and other printed religious tracts to fuel the Reformation.

In our own time the Web brings pastors and popes another evangelical tool for reaching their flocks. It also affords many parishioners a degree of freedom, access, and voice unlikely to be found in their pews.

In particular, the Web offers religious browsers three advantages long attractive to Americans--choice, convenience, and a chance to speak one's mind. Because Web sites are so much cheaper to build or staff than cathedrals or even roadside shrines, and can survive with the tiniest of congregations, even the smallest group of believers or zealots can now afford to build and maintain an electronic church. …

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