Second Vatican Web site
will debut in the fall
will debut in the fall
By Roberta Tuttle
MERIDEN – The Vatican’s Web site, a much-accessed vehicle for evangelization that makes a message to the Pope a mere mouse-click away, is about to gain a sibling.
Ten years after directing the creation of the ever-expanding Vatican Web site (www.vatican.va), Sister Judith Zoebelein, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, will delve deeper into cyberspace with the launch of a second site in the fall.
"The point of the site that we now have is that it’s doctrinal. You know that what you read there or what you connect to there is going to be 100 percent the teachings of the Church, no questions asked, whereas this other site will allow for discussions of things," she explained.
The New York-born Sister Judith was in Connecticut visiting her Meriden-based religious community during August.
She described the second Web site as a virtual point of exchange for the Catholic community. It will enable those who access it to participate in news groups or forums, e-learning or group projects.
"I’ve been working on an e-learning section for post-World Youth Day," she said. "The idea is to have them come back and have a place where they can study their faith, where they can meet each other online."
E-learning classes will require participants to sign up as part of a parish or other Catholic group.
"Then that can be used in a parish setting or any setting around the world, connected with the local Church, to augment that whole process of their coming to look at their faith and living it now.
"Our idea is to have it not be just a virtual experience," she added.
Support for this mega-project will come from a second data center containing about 20 computers.
A self-taught computer pro, Sister Judith lived on Long Island and in Thailand, Iran and Mexico before joining her religious community in 1979. It was during two years in the Holy Land with her community that she first worked with PC’s and found that she enjoyed communications technology.
She started working in the Vatican in 1991, at first managing the Holy See’s fledgling digital properties. The Vatican’s first site, unveiled at Christmastime 1995, consisted of one page that included a photo of Pope John Paul II, his "Urbi et Orbi" message, and an e-mailbox for the Pope.
The Catholic News Service reported that more than 300,000 people from 70 countries visited the site in the first 48 hours, peaking at more than 20,000 per hour. Sister Judith said about 4,000 e-mails came in over the first two weeks, a considerable number at the time.
"It was at that point that we realized that we were sitting on something that was explosive and was alive."
With a leap of faith and a four-person staff, the Vatican’s Internet Office began, christening its first three servers Gabriel, Michael and Raphael, after the archangels, for added protection. The site’s six-language navigational configuration, mirroring that of the Roman Curia, debuted in 1997.
In more recent times, four servers were supporting an average 3.5 million visitors a day until Pope John Paul II became ill and died, when the number skyrocketed to 50 million. The increased volume forced the site offline for about an hour, Sister Judith said, but some 16 servers for the upgrade were enlisted to help carry the traffic.
During that time, millons of people paid their respects and even viewed the body online, spanning the digital divide via streaming video to bond with the mourners in Rome.
Sister Judith credited her staff with meeting its challenges, even taking turns working overnight in order to keep the information flowing.
It seems only fitting for the late Pope who, "understanding evangelization and having incredible vision," although computer illiterate himself, first started the Vatican’s journey down the information superhighway.
"There were a lot of people within the Vatican community who thought that this was not a good place for the Church to be, given all the negative aspects of the Internet," she said. "But twice that I remember, the Holy Father personally intervened and said, ‘No, we’re going to do this.’"
Although there now are 1,100 Vatican e-mail addresses connected through the Vatican site’s servers, there still will be only one e-mail address for the Holy Father, which will be publicized for special occasions, as it was upon the naming of the new Pope.
Sister Judith said she thinks Pope Benedict XVI will be as supportive of the Vatican’s presence on the World Wide Web as his predecessor was.
"I think it’s no longer even a question," she said. "I think that he has such an outreach to teach that he will see – particularly with this next phase that we’re going into – that he will see the potential for that."
She also sees no end in sight to the Pontiff’s ability to draw people to the Vatican’s Web site.
"As soon as news breaks, they come to see what the Holy Father has to say about it. It’s really amazing what a force the Holy Father is. They really want to know, what does this man, who stands for a moral point of view, have to say about this current thing that’s happening?"
While new technologies will continue to give the Church new means of connecting with souls worldwide, Sister Judith said she will continue to deliver what she called "the sacramental dimension" to people in a virtual world.
"The Internet must serve God through man," she said. When it does, God helps humanity to evangelize beyond human limitations.
"When we first went online, people were like, ‘Oh, the Church is finally getting modern.’ But really, the Church has the most incredible network of people, of organizations, and we’re all connected because of our faith," Sister Judith said.
"The Internet’s a tool that allows us to communicate in a realtime way. So the Internet is running to catch up with the Church. It’s quite the opposite of what people would imagine."