Deus ex machina

I keep trying to imagine the subject line. “News from His Holiness,” perhaps. “An apology from the Catholic Church.” If he was in a whimsical mood, “Oh my God, You’ve got mail!”

It was a landmark moment in the history of e-mail this week when Pope John Paul II issued a public apology regarding several complaints about the Catholic Church. It was not clear in the story I read exactly who received the message, though the audience likely included members of the Church of Oceania, which gathered for a Vatican conference on these matters three years ago. Of course, the use of e-mail means this message will probably be forwarded — though not necessarily unaltered — to many laypeople. Spreading the Word has officially taken a digital route.

There was a great picture in one of the national papers on Friday that showed the Pope as he logged on. He used a notebook, which was strange enough, because it was hard to imagine him as a mobile worker in the regular sense of the term. The back of the notebook seemed to be embossed with a coat of arms, suggesting that the machine had been custom-built.

Of course, the Catholic Church is among many other organized religions that made the online plunge long ago, as anyone who has visited the Holy See’s Web site would know. As a Catholic, I probably look at this story a little differently than those of a different faith, but there is something about the idea of Pope John Paul II surfing that prompts so many questions. Who trained him on how to use it? Who installed the data port in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall, where the message was sent? What is it like to be Pope John Paul’s IT manager, and does the idea of Papal infallibility prevent him or her from telling funny stories about user screwups?

Though the message appears to have been sent without any technical problems, someone might have given the Pope a few lessons in online etiquette. The message is said to have run 120 pages long, which, if it doesn’t crash its recipients’ systems, could tie up printer queues for quite some time. The length suggests that there was considerable prep work done here beforehand — it was obviously composed offline and was probably sent as an attachment — but I wouldn’t be surprised if he added some original content to the outgoing message. But then more questions arise. Did he proofread it carefully like a proper Papal bull, or did he make all the spelling mistakes we see in regular business e-mail? Did he use any special emoticons when referring to bishops (<o) or following the way of the Cross (…+)?

No matter how pervasive technology becomes there are always certain people or institutions that seem somehow “absolved” of joining our connected society. For example, I remember seeing a picture of Prime Minister Jean Chretien a few years ago as he took part in his first online chat, and he was tapping at the keys as though he had never approached a PC in his life.

Though the Catholic Church has long been criticized for being out of touch with modern life, or being too slow to change, the timing of the first Papal e-mail shows how John Paul II could be a model for many corporate enterprises. Instead of being pushed or pulled into an IT strategy, the Pope turned to technology only after he was too ill to travel.

While it makes perfect sense that the Pope would use the Internet, the great electronic pulpit of our time, as a way to reach his flock, he waited until it was the best way to improve communications and otherwise increase his efficiency on the job. Mission-critical? You bet.

A final question about his message: Who would dare delete it?

sschick@plesman.com

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