Computers, Mission, and the Vatican

Computers, Mission, and the Vatican

by David A. Smith

Every time one of us returns to the United States for a vacation or home leave, we can't help but be awed by the rapid pace of the computerization of the developed world. The pervasiveness of computers is staggering. Cash registers announce each item and price, cars remind one when fuel levels are low, and every TV commercial / magazine ad includes the company's World Wide Web address. College students need a computer nowadays instead of the pen and notebook of old. When I went to the Toyota spare part department, the mechanic processed the whole search and purchase transaction on his computer, never looking in the stock room. Even religious vocations are being recruited on-line!

Technological developments in the computer industry (which in turn are offspring of the space program) have produced amazing progress in communications. Satellites enable instantaneous worldwide news coverage. Airplanes routinely offer satellite phone use for their passengers. Many American homes have three or four televisions (in the family room, kitchen, bedroom, basement, kids' rooms, etc.) and four or five phones. Mom and Dad can each have their own mobile cell phone in their cars. No longer are pagers the gadgets of doctors on call. Now parents give pagers to their teenagers so that they can always find them. The next generation of pagers (currently being tested) will allow the user to receive their eMail anywhere in the world.

On the other hand, village folks in Tanzania and in many other parts of the Third World have never seen a computer nor do they understand what computers do. (The nurses at Ndoleleji Mission tell one another, "Don't steal any medicine or Padre's computer will know.") Many have never seen a telephone nor a television. They've never heard of pagers, and satellites are just those mysterious little stars that fly by overhead at night.

The gap between the First World and the Third World has always been a source of concern for missionaries. We would like to believe that this inequality between the "have's" and the "have not's" of our little planet will disappear in time. These recent developments, however, are cause for concern. Rather than these marvelous inventions serving to eliminate poverty and suffering in the world, they could all too easily widen the gap. Without a conscious effort to use new technologies to benefit the whole world, the developing nations will simply be left behind in the cyber dust.

I mentioned these concerns to our Regional Superior, emphasizing that missionaries should be in the forefront of using new technologies to help those who we serve - computers, global satellite phone systems, and modern communication technologies should be used to assist the mission of the Church in the developing world. He suggested that I visit the Vatican to find out if there are any such plans on the drawing board. I traveled to Rome and was graciously received at the Maryknoll House on Via Sardegna by Fr. Ed Hayes. Lance Nadeau (who did OTP in Tanzania and worked in the Middle East Unit after ordination) and Kevin Hanlon (from the Japan Region) were also at the house working on their doctoral dissertations. Over the course of my week's stay, all were most hospitable and helpful in guiding me to offices around the Eternal City.

Ed Hayes and I first paid a courtesy call on Archbishop John Foley who presides over the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. We were warmly received. The Archbishop, who is originally from Philadelphia, understood and shared my concerns. He offered several suggestions on avenues of researching this subject further.

Sr. Judith Zoebelein, F.S.E., is the director of the Holy See's World Wide Web site on the Internet (www.vatican.va). While showing me her computer center, she explained that about 10,000 people per day visit the site to peruse information on the Vatican, Church teachings, Papal encyclicals, the text of the weekly audiences, and plans for Jubilee 2000. The Web site makes a valiant effort in making its content available to many cultures. (It is one of the few sites that offers six languages from which to choose.) Yet Sister acknowledged that this wealth of information can only be accessed by the "wealthy" of the world possessing computers and internet access.

Fr. Jean-Paul Guillet, a French Canadian who worked for many years as a missionary in the Caribbean, runs the official media department, OCIC (International Catholic Organization for Cinema and Audiovisual - www.ocic.org). His offices are filled with computer equipment, video cameras, and short-wave radios, much of which he sells and ships to missionaries around the world. Fr. Guillet was the only one I met who was specifically thinking in terms of using new technologies to help the church's work in the developing world. He is currently working on an inexpensive system for E-mail throughout rural Africa where there are no phone lines. He is to keep me informed of his progress.

In general, there has been precious little thought given to the possibilities for using computer/ communication / satellite advances in the missionary work of the Church. All of the people, who I visited, were most encouraging when I explained the basic concepts to them. Maybe I sowed a few seeds. In the final analysis, we in the trenches need to make our voices heard, reminding folks in the developed world that advances in science and technology must benefit the whole world and not just privileged parts of it. And we missionaries must continue to tromp through the mud, but maybe now with a notebook computer or a satellite phone in our backpacks.

JoomShaper