AN APOSTOLATE FOR THE FUTURE
by Rev. J. Michael Venditti
I've been told by a number of my Catholic friends that they've been
taught that Adam was not a real person. Is this true?
I have heard some people claim that once a person excepts Christ into
their lives, they are "saved" once and for all, and never have to fear
losing their salvation no matter what they may do. What is the Catholic
view on this?
"I've held myself separate from the Catholic church for many years.
I'm now 25, and I've explored Buddhism, and evangelical groups, and
agnosticism, and atheism. I've read about Mormons and Muslims and various
and sundry other groups. I've even attended Mass now and again, tried to
find its redeeming qualities and somehow never gone back to that church.
In my heart, I'm more Catholic than any of these other things, but find
the Catholic Church semi-alien. I've been considering reconciliation for
a time, but think I'd like to start over as though none of this other had
"I am involved with a wonderful, loving man, and have been
for 3 1/2 years now. We plan to be married, hopefully by the end of next
year. We have been living together most of the 3 1/2 years. My question
is, does the church still frown on my living arrangements, even though the
legal marriage is going to happen, but hasn't yet?
"My husband is catholic and I am Jewish. We have been married 3 years
and up to this point it has not caused any problems since neither of us is
very religious. We are starting to talk about children and know that we
need to settle things before we do. My husband would like to have the
baby baptized. I have only been to one christening and the parents and
godparents stood there and had to say that they believe in Christ and will
raise their child to do the same. What must I do to have my children
"Does the Church still believe in Purgatory? If so, on what does
she base this doctrine?"
These are all actual questions that I have been asked over the last two
years, none of which are unique, as any priest will tell you. What makes
these questions unique is not their content, but how they were asked.
Five years ago I didn't own a computer. I had, of course, seen them; but
to me they seemed little more than glorified typewriters, just one more
technological "marvel" in a world too impressed with its ability to
complicate our lives with machinery.
Four years ago I owned a computer, but didn't know my input from my
output. I was typing letters and homilies, impressed with the prospect of
never again worrying about checking my spelling, or having to white-out a
Now, as moderator of the "Ask Father" forum on a computer network known as
"America Online," I field questions asked by over 500,000 people from all
over the country; and what was once a curiosity which I resisted as
frivolous has now become one of the most rewarding and--I am
convinced--important parts of my priestly apostolate.
Computer bulletin board services (known as BBS's) are nothing new.
Computer magazines are resplendent with stories about hobbyists sharing
ideas, business persons exchanging information, even married couples who
met "on line." But the real revolution came with the advent of the
national bulletin board services, of which there are still only a handful,
linking a total of around 10 million subscribers nation wide. Here, for
the price of a local phone call plus the subscription price of the board
(usually around $10 per month), one can exchange letters with others (or
even chat live), tap into the Library of Congress or the White House press
office, access the voting record of a local congressman, and even ask
questions of experts in their respective fields. It is in respect to this
latter ability that I began to see an opportunity for evangelization.
As a new subscriber to America Online, I started browsing the message
areas dealing with religious and ethical questions, and became alarmed at
the level of ignorance and confusion, especially on the part those who
identified themselves as Catholics and who had attempted, with the best of
intentions, to speak for the Church. I began to leave public posts,
identifying myself as a Catholic priest, answering questions and
clarifying some of the answers left by others. The response was an
explosion of inquiries by people, most of them not Catholic, asking about
the faith, or about some personal problem that they've never been able to
express to anyone "live." Before long, I couldn't sign on the system
without the little beeper going off indicating that my electronic mail box
was filled to capacity. The word had gotten around that "Father" is on
Finding myself spending more and more of my morning hours researching and
compiling answers to questions about everything Catholic, I began to
examine whether such an involved "hobby" was an appropriate use of a
priest's time. Having raised this issue with my confessor, I sent him, at
his request, printed examples of my work. No doubt he was not expecting
the more than 150 pages of single-spaced printout representing less than
six months worth of electronic questions and answers, some involving
simple explanations of Catholic teaching, others dealing with sensitive
matters of a personal nature, all expressing gratitude at having a priest
so readily available. He responded quickly that, as long as my parish
duties did not suffer, he could see no better way for me to spend the
remaining time available; then added that, having read through the
material, he wouldn't have the patience.
Patience, to say the least, is only one of the virtues I have been
challenged to cultivate through this apostolate; for, unlike similar "Ask
Father" type columns in Catholic newspapers, the electronic BBS reaches a
primarily non-Catholic audience. One finds oneself no longer "preaching
to the choir," but virtually in "the lion's den," obliged to defend the
faith before fundamentalists, atheists, and (most challenging of all)
lapsed Catholics. It is a type of apologetics reminiscent of the old
Catholic Evidence Guild, preaching on an electronic street corner. Anyone
and everyone has something to ask or to add, sometimes not without malice.
Responding with both accuracy and charity is a practiced art.
Since the creation of the "Ask Father" forum on America Online, the
apostolate is no longer confined to private letters. Subscribers now can
post their messages in the forum where everyone can read both the
questions and my answer; and it is not uncommon for me to receive private
"E-mail" from someone who wants to tell me how they've been helped by
something I said, though they themselves had never asked a question. It
is easily conceivable that, in counting those who simply read along
without ever participating in the forum, the number of those reached by
the forum can be doubled.
Like anything new, the electronic apostolate has both benefits and
dangers. The benefits are numerous:
- Reaching those who have no will or no ability to ring a
rectory door-bell. One such letter came to me form a woman
suffering from Multiple Sclerosis seeking spiritual direction,
who's only contact with the outside world was her computer.
- Reaching those who have been alienated from the Church. I
recall fondly a young homosexual man who's only contact with the
Church had been through the maverick organization, Dignity; all
because a priest had once treated him with contempt. Now he has
an apostolate of his own helping other Catholic gay men to
practice a chaste life-style.
- Reaching non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics who would never
have the motivation to seek out a priest on their own
initiative. One of the most rewarding contacts of my computer
apostolate was with a young man whom I encountered quite by
accident in a data base area. Born of a single mother, baptized
but never confirmed, never having practiced the faith, he was
very eager to ask and learn. After more than a year and a half
of correspondence, he wrote that he had been accepted into the
novitiate of a religious community.
- The security of anonymity. Computer corespondents are usually
identified by a screen name or number, depending on the system
to which they subscribe. This affords the greatest possible
protection for those who would be embarrassed to talk to a
priest in person.
- The opportunity to "get it right" the first time. How many
times has a priest answered a question in person or over the
phone, then later thought how he could have answered it better?
On a computer BBS I can take the time to research my answer
thoroughly, word it in the best possible way, consult the advice
of others more knowledgeable than myself, and still get an
answer back to the inquirer within a day.
- Reaching a heretofore unthinkable number of people. This, in
my opinion, is the most important benefit of the apostolate.
But just as there are benefits, there are also pitfalls, as I have learned
from painful experience. The anonymity which the BBS affords makes it
possible to assume any persona one wants; and I have heard many tales from
young people who have gotten themselves "involved" with people on line who
turned out to be not what they claimed to be. One must treat every
message and question asked with pure objectivity and detachment, always
refusing any request for personal contact. The name and the message may
seem sincere, but the reality may be different.
Likewise, by reason of the broadness of one's audience and the vast number
of people involved, it is absolutely essential that any priest taking up
this work possess both the patience to see that his answers are properly
researched, and the fidelity to ensure that everything he says is in
perfect conformity with what is taught and believed by the Catholic
Church. As the possibility of good is great, so is the possibility of
doing immeasurable harm to both the Church and the priesthood by giving
poorly thought out, imprudent, and incorrect answers...answers which could
be seen by literally hundreds of thousands of people. Personally, I have
found it a great challenge to confine myself, in answering questions
regarding doctrine, to what the Church teaches while avoiding that which
is my own opinion, no matter how valid I may think it is. The ease with
which one is able to reach so large a "congregation" imposes on the priest
so engaged a grave responsibility to act solely as the representative of
the Catholic Church. Indeed, to many who read his words, he will be the
It retrospect, it seems nearly impossible that a person like me, who had
to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th century, would be so
involved in a work so dependent on a new and untested technology. It is
my sincere wish that many more priests, on fire with the truth of Catholic
teaching, will find their own electronic street corners and join in this
important work; clearly an apostolate for the future.
Taken from an article scheduled to appear in the November 1994
issue of HOMILETIC AND PASTORAL REVIEW.