All Information Superhighways Lead to Rome
The explosive growth of the Information Superhighway has introduced millions of Catholics to the Internet (or more simply, the Net). As a result, an vast world of Catholic theology, philosophy, art and culture is rapidly going "on-line" and becoming available in a way that was impossible even two years ago.
But of course, many of us Catholics are still "newbies" (as new users called in net.speak). How can we begin tiptoeing in this ocean of information and using it for the furthering of the gospel?
The Net has two basic realms: the World Wide Web and Electronic Mail or Email. The Web is composed of millions of different "home pages" (or "websites") set up by millions of individual users, corporations, educational institutions and private organizations. Such pages contain not only text, but images, sound and even video files (which you can access with the right computer gadgetry). You might think of each page as a billboard on the Superhighway. Except these billboards can not only talk to you, you can talk to them and do everything from download files to requesting magazine subscriptions to playing games with users in Timbuktu. Email, on the other hand is a strictly text-based form of correspondence with individuals and groups (though it not, as we shall see, therefore less interesting than the Web).
Wandering the Web
To look at a Web page you need (in addition to a computer and a modem, of course) a "web browser". This is a software package such as Netscape or Mosaic which allows you to link up with the millions of Web addresses all over the world. Many web browsers allow you to access "search engines" or "web crawlers." These do rapid searches of the Web on any topic you choose to find out the address of the page or person you are trying to reach. Once you have found this information, you can either type the appropriate address or click on the hypertext link to take you directly to the page you want.
What is a hypertext link? The single most amazing feature of the Web. Hypertext is a highlighted and/or underlined piece of text (or image) which contains a code for another Web address. Click on it and you are instantly transported to the linking Web site you have chosen, even if it is resident in a computer on the other side of the world. Thus, if you are looking at the Catholic Information Center on Internet Page (at http://www.catholic.net) you may click on, say, the Beauty and Truth section and go directly to another computer containing article about movies, culture, etc. From there, you might jump to any number of other links. The possibilities are endless.
Which is why, no doubt, both Rome and thousands of committed Catholics and other Christians have leapt at the chance to go to cyberspace. And the happy result of this has been a marvelous array of Catholic teaching, magisterial documents, papal encyclicals, conciliar documents and spiritual treasures of the saints easily available at the push of a few buttons. Curious about Veritatis Splendor? It's at http://www.newadvent.org/docs/jp02vs.htm. Looking for the writings of the Church Fathers? Go to http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers/. Ever wonder what St. Thomas' Summa Theologiae said about this or that? Browse your way over to http://csn.net/advent/summa/summa.htm. I once asked a few friends to help me find a few quotes about what the Church taught concerning justification by faith. In response, I was immediately deluged with the entire documents of the Council of Trent (which I later discovered I could have found myself at http://history.hanover.edu/early/trent.html). And to top it off, the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church is on-line at http://www.christusrex.org/www1/cdhn/ccc.html, available for anyone and complete with a spiffy search engine.
So how do you sort through this immense tidal wave of information? My suggestion: begin with my patented list of Top 3 Catholic Websites and slowly work your way out into the wider world of net.catholicism from there. Here are my Top 3:
Start from any of these three points you will very likely be able to find practically anything you want to know about anything in the Catholic faith and then some. Only be cautious. The mere fact that a great website has links to another website does not mean the linking websites are great. As an example, you can jump from the CICI page to another Catholic site and from there go to a general "Society and Religion" site which lists the Satanism Home Page. In cyberspace, there are just a few degrees of separation between Christ and Belial. This is especially important to understand if you have little ones learning how to surf the Net. Use the technology, by all means, (as our Holy Father urges), but use it wisely.
The other major realm of the Net is Email. And one of the most enjoyable (and challenging) forums for Email is the listgroup. A listgroup is a group of computer users who sign on to an Email-distributing computer to discuss their burning topic of interest. Once subscribed, whenever any list member posts to that group it is distributed to everyone in the group. Users can then reply to or comment on the message and send it back to the entire group, to selected members or to the individual who posted. In fact, it is a bit like the party line phone calls of old.
The pleasures of Email correspondence are manifold. I have been a member of a multidenominational list called CHRISTIA (email@example.com) for about two and a half years. During that time I have made friends with people in British Columbia, Egypt, England, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Tennessee. Several folks have paid me visits in my native Washington State. Others have begun correspondences with one another which resulted in romance and marriage. Still others have found the list a wonderful resource for prayer (with not a few answered prayers as a result). And, of course, such a meeting of wildly diverse forms of Christianity (and non-Christianity) is also the occasion for a great deal of splendid ecumenism and evangelism in fulfillment of the mandate of Vatican II.
In addition, there are other lists geared to a specifically Catholic clientele such as the Roman Catholic list (firstname.lastname@example.org). In addition, other lists can be found by using some of the search engines on the Web. However, let the surfer beware. Not every list proclaiming itself Christian or Catholic is what it claims. Nor is every member of a good list necessarily a nice person. Out of 600 users in a large list, you may very well find one or two turkeys, but don't let that deter you from getting to know folks. On the other hand, if a list turns out to be boring, or dominated by "flame wars" feel free to continue exploring. It a big world out there!
The advent of the Net is, without question, one of the most revolutionary events since the invention of the printing press. Its potential for greatness has barely been tapped. As faithful Catholics committed to spreading the Good News of Jesus let us by all means avail ourselves of this wonderful opportunity and carry the message of Christ to the very ends of the earth.
Copyright 2002 - Mark P. Shea