Pope John Paul II Brings the Vatican Online
In 1995, Sister Judith Zoebelein, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist, was asked to create a Web site for the Holy See. Archbishop Foley of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications had already registered the top-level domain suffix of .va for the exclusive use of the Holy See (.va is the two-letter country code for the Vatican City-State, as .ca is for Canada and .uk is for the United Kingdom). The Internet was still relatively new, but already the word Vatican was turning up on Web sites having nothing to do with the Holy See. Archbishop Foley wanted to assure people around the world that anything with the .va suffix was official and reliable.
The Vatican has been online since Christmas 1995, available for those seeking information about the pope, Church history, or documents, or those simply wanting a glimpse of the artistic treasures of the Vatican. The Web site is maintained by a multilingual staff in offices down the street from St. Peter's Basilica. The Web site itself is visited literally millions of times each day by Internet users around the world.
Pope John Paul II had six e-mail boxes set up within the Web site (based on the language the e-mailer used), and the Web servers were quickly overloaded with e-mails written by people wanting to correspond with the pope. In reality, though, the e-mail addresses were never actually checked by the pope himself. Nowadays, for Pope Benedict XVI (as it was for John Paul II), the pope's e-mail address is accessible only on special occasions, such as his birthday or significant anniversaries in his life. During those special times, a sampling of e-mails are printed out and forwarded to the Apostolic Palace to be shown to the Holy Father. These e-mail addresses were meant to be another means for people to write letters to the pope, as generations before had done the "good, old-fashioned way."
Pope John Paul II was a big supporter of the Vatican Web site and saw tremendous potential in the Internet. In 2001, he transmitted by Internet for the first time an apostolic letter to the bishops of Australia and New Zealand following the Synod of Bishops on the topic of the Church in Oceania. Instead of simply sending the letter the old-fashioned way, by regular mail, the 81-year-old pope was making a point of being seen (and photographed) clicking a mouse to instantly send the document "Down Under."
Interestingly enough, the last apostolic letter ever issued by Pope John Paul II was "The Rapid Development" (written on January 24, 2005, and released four weeks later on February 21), written for the 40th anniversary of the Vatican II document Inter Mirifica. In it, John Paul II spoke of the potential of the Internet when he wrote
New technologies, in particular, create further opportunities for communication understood as a service to the pastoral government and organization of the different tasks of the Christian community. One clear example today is how the Internet not only provides resources for more information, but habituates persons to interactive communication. . . . . Do not be afraid of new technologies! These rank among the marvelous things — inter mirifica — which God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use and to make known the truth, also the truth about our dignity and about our destiny as his children, heirs of his eternal kingdom.
Pope John Paul II may not have understood how these new advances in communications worked, but he certainly saw the potential for their use in evangelization.
The Vatican Web site is housed on three main servers, named "Michael," "Gabriel," and "Raphael" for the archangels. Because the word angel literally means "messenger," it seemed appropriate to name the three tools for the Vatican's outreach into cyberspace after God's three main messengers.
During the period between John Paul II's death and the conclave that elected his successor, the staff of the Web site worked around the clock heroically to keep these servers from crashing. Why would they crash, you ask? During that time (April 2005), it's estimated that the Vatican Web site received around 50 million hits (or visitors) each day from people worldwide seeking official information.