Net Gains: How the Internet is Changing the Church
Type in "Catholic" on an Internet search engine,
The lunchtime Ash Wednesday Mass at the university chapel was packed with people, and everyone was on a tight schedule. So when it came time for the homily, the presider's message was brief. He said, "I know we're all pressed for time, so I'll keep it short. Please check out our Lent Web site for daily homilies." In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, a prayer-request section on the archdiocesan Web site has received 13,000 submissions since its inception last September. Many Catholics are lobbying for a patron saint of the Internet. After all, pasta eaters and pilots have one, so why not Internet users?
These recent news briefs indicate an emerging trend: a grand Catholic presence on the Web. The empirical evidence? Type the word "Catholic" into the search engine Google and generate a whopping 4,480,000 results. Talk to the self-described "cybermonk," Brother John Raymond, author of Catholics on the Internet (Prima Publishing), who estimates that 18 to 20 million Catholics are online. In addition, a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that more than 2 million Americans search the Internet for religious or spiritual material.
If sheer numbers are any indication, the marriage of Catholicism and the Web will be a lasting one. They may seem strange bedfellows: a religious tradition spanning two millennia and a newfangled and fast technology. However unusual, the cyber-spiritual union portends some exciting changes for the church, particularly in the areas of spirituality, community, and social justice.
Spirituality at work
Catholics have always had many choices when it comes to spirituality. The immediate dilemma facing anyone seeking spiritual information online isn't the paucity of information but the plenitude. Web visitors can participate in online retreats, submit prayer requests to religious communities, make "virtual pilgrimages" to holy sites, or pray the Ignatian exercises. An exploration of the Web sites themselves and their "feedback pages" indicates how the Web is changing the way people pray.
Many people have Internet access only at the office. Long and stressful workdays in front of the computer provoke workplace Web denizens to search for a moment of solace and reflection. In the midst of deadlines and duties, the Web serves as a portal for prayer.
Those who visit the Irish Jesuits' Sacred Space, a 10-minute online version of the Ignatian exercises, share thoughts of gratitude for the assistance to pray while "sitting in an office trying to handle a stressful job while traffic rumbles outside," as one Web traveler from Hong Kong says. "Today," he continues, "I add Sacred Space to my favorites list on the PC in my office. Being one of a management staff in a finance company, I find it very confusing to choose between God and earning a living. Fortunately I could get close to God through Sacred Space in the office whenever I need."
A Kentucky resident offers similar sentiments: "I am a corrections officer for the local county jail. . . . Visiting Sacred Space has given me peace to quietly minister to both fellow officers and inmates alike." And from Adelaide, South Australia: "I arrive [at work] early to allow myself 10 minutes of peace and spiritual nourishment to strengthen myself for the many encounters of the day." Arriving at the office early in order to pray? Now that's revolutionary.
Houses of worship close for the night. Places of pilgrimage are often noisy and crowded, or perhaps they are too far away. One grateful retreatant using Creighton University's Online Ignatian Retreat comments: "For years I've tried to find a way to make an Ignatian retreat, but [the retreat center] is about 300 miles from where I live. The Lord seems to have a way of seeing that we get what we need when we need it."
Virtual pilgrimages and prayers will never rival the experience of real, live communal prayer, yet the uniqueness of online prayer experiences lies in their accessibility. Praying online requires no transportation. One can access spiritual sites from an armchair at home or from a hotel overseas at 2 in the morning. There is room for anyone, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
No one seems as appreciative of this availability than those who are homebound or handicapped. Says one cyber-retreatant: "I have a disability and have not been out of my home since October, waiting for a ramp to be built for my electric wheelchair. . . . The [Ignatian Retreat] site has given me a way to make a retreat that otherwise would be impossible."
An Australian visitor to Sacred Space echoes a similar sense of appreciation: "Being disabled, wheelchair-bound, and using the Internet for research purposes, I find that Sacred Space is very helpful indeed. I will visit during my research periods."
Virtual prayer sites can be visited in the middle of the afternoon or at 3 in the morning—when the computer is free, the weather is bad, the car is not running, or the kids are in bed, writes Brenda Brasher, author of Give Me That Online Religion (Jossey-Bass). Whenever the opportunity for contemplation arises, online religion is there. There are no space limitations in virtual chapels. Cyberspace is wide, deep, and timeless.
Technological problems with one's modem not withstanding, one of the chief characteristics of cyberspace is speed. Is such alacrity compatible with a tradition that cherishes such practices as lectio divina or contemplative prayer, which require slow and deliberate reflection? Some skeptics say that Internet-generated images invite mere reaction rather than reflection and invite it at the level of instinctive, rather than reflective responses. Chris McGillion, a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald, laments, "What we gain in information we lose in insight."
The Web, with its onslaught of information and, in particular, links that invite and persuade readers to move from one link to the next, seems to encourage a sort of flippant, nondiscriminatory intake of information that is the very opposite of what is intended in most Catholic spiritual practices. Is it possible to read lots of interesting or well-written material on the Internet without feeling the urgent need to click and move on? At the bottom of almost every Web page lurks an enticing promise of many more links.
This may indeed be the case, but many of those who pray online are able to overcome the temptation to "surf." A visitor to Sacred Space writes: "Often, [visiting this site] is the highlight of my day and makes me long to spend more time deep in the Word. Now at church I find the texts so jam-packed that it is like a symphony played over the top of another. Cascading come the ideas one on top of another, like a crowded theater spilling out after a play."
A London resident echoes similar sentiments: "I am now looking forward to Lent with this Web site alongside me." Though it may be tempting to follow the next inviting link, many Sacred Space visitors are content to meditate on the days' scripture, with profound results.
We gather together
Anyone who has been to a humdrum liturgy or poorly planned prayer service is aware that physical presence alone does not guarantee a prayerful experience of community. As Henri Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, authors of the book Compassion (Doubleday), point out in their chapter on community: "People who live together do not necessarily live in community, and those who live alone do not necessarily live without it. Physical nearness is secondary. The primary quality of community is a deep sense of being gathered by God."
Using this as a criterion for community, one can easily come to the conclusion, based on the many positive responses, that people who visit prayer sites—though they are not gathered physically—do experience some form of community.
Gregory Pierce, who facilitates an e-mail discussion group on spirituality in the workplace, acknowledges that "there is an intimacy and immediacy to the Internet that does not exist in other media." Pierce, copublisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago, says that a sense of community is generated by mutual interest in a topic.
This certainly seems to be the case at the Henri Nouwen Literary Centre Web site, where the spiritual writer's former students, friends, those he mentored, and readers share their memories of Nouwen. A Vancouver, Washington man writes, "I am moved by the comments I read of people who have been touched by this man. It sounds like his influence will continue to be felt for a long time to come."
The Internet, being the "democratic" medium that it is, levels the traditional hierarchies or discrete roles present in real-time gatherings like liturgical prayer. Variables like race, gender, and education level are masked by a screen name or e-mail address. The Internet provides an egalitarian atmosphere in which people share very readily and honestly.
Such broad participation is one of the primary characteristics of authentic community, according to the authors of Compassion: "It is remarkable how many people still think of priests, nuns, monks, and hermits as constituting a spiritual elite. . . . The danger of this way of thinking is that it divides the People of God into 'ordinary' Christians and 'special Christians,' not leading to togetherness but separation. Real community can reveal that what separates us is less important than what unites us."
The genius of Internet prayer sites is that they give people a space in which to share. And isn't genuine sharing at the heart of community? Community at its core is the sense of shared thoughts and ideas, a sense of mutual interchange. And this mutual interchange is providing comfort for many, such as this participant in Creighton's Online Retreat: "Today my husband had a CT scan to recheck a spot that might be cancer. I had just started [an online retreat] and was inspired. Late last night, I read a note from someone in a very similar situation. I realized that we are not alone in our prayers and that none of us is alone in our suffering."
The challenge left for the church, then, is how to lead people from this liminal sense of community to a real, live worshiping community. Avery Dulles, in Models of the Church (Doubleday), writes, "The church is never more church than when it gathers for the liturgy."
The content on truly community-oriented Web sites should draw people to parishes, to retreat centers, to campus ministry offices. For example, the campus ministry Web site at the University of Dayton posts reflections on Reconciliation next to dates and times that indicate where and when the sacrament is available. The Christ in the Desert Monastery homepage () invites Web visitors to "live" community as well. Clicking on a monk icon calls up information about housing at Christ in the Desert, along with an online form to reserve space there. These kinds of connections are vital if Web developers want to draw people into a live, physically gathered, learning, and praying community.
Closing the digital divide
No discussion of the Internet and social justice is complete without addressing the issue of access. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, in a March 1998 address to the New Tech '98 Conference in Denver, said, "As I see it, the issue of access is the overarching 'new justice issue' calling for some measure of resolution in our times."
People who use the Internet either have sufficient income to pay for access or are engaged in activities that make access available to them. Recent U.S. Department of Trade and Commerce statistics report that there is a direct correlation between poverty and lack of access to information technology, and the specifics are even more disturbing. First, Caucasians are more likely to have access to the Internet from home than many minority groups have from any location. Second, households with incomes of $75,000 and higher are more than 20 times more likely to have Internet access than those at the lowest income levels and almost 10 times as likely to have a computer at home.
The "digital divide" between the information-rich and the information-poor is a matter of social justice. And social justice, according to the church's tradition, is "about changing rules and systems," says Ron Krietemeyer, director of the Office for Social Justice(OSJ) in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Part of Krietemeyer's own effort to "change the rules" is the OSJ Web site.
The OSJ site catalogs hundreds of pages of Catholic social teaching in various formats, including tips for teachers and parish social-action committees. The Catholic social teaching information is organized in an attractive, step-by-step format that "encourages people to go to the next level," says Krietemeyer. "We try to entice. . . . Most people will probably never look at a full [Catholic social teaching] encyclical. Hopefully they will become curious, go deeper, maybe read the whole thing."
Krietemeyer regularly updates a "Legislative Action Alerts" link that informs Minnesota residents of pending legislation on matters such as housing and welfare reform. Though he uses the Internet to get the word out on urgent pending legislative issues, Krietemeyer discourages people from using e-mail for legislative advocacy. "We would rather get a small number of phone calls or letters. They take more time, require a special effort. We use e-mail only as a last resort."
Though e-mail may not be an effective tool for legislative advocacy, it has had a positive effect on those who work in social justice arenas, according to Deborah Wallace Ruddy at the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. "In the social justice arena there is a lot of sharing of material [via Web sites and e-mail]," she says. "People really believe in Catholic social teaching, and it's a matter of getting the word out. They are sharing PowerPoint presentations, programs for in-services, and lots of other resources. There are no turf wars. There is a good spirit in the social justice community. The online sharing allows people to work as a team."
Both Krietemeyer and Ruddy acknowledge that the marriage of Catholicism
and the Web is still in a honeymoon period. "It's still early," says Krietemeyer,
and, according to Ruddy, "the grand vision is not yet established." Yet,
given new technology's proven ability to influence religion, the Net's
early success guarantees that it will have a transformative impact on Catholicism.
Renée M. LaReau writes a
column on faith and the Internet,