An Apostolate For The Future

Authored By: Fr. Michael Venditti


by Rev. J. Michael Venditti

"Dear Father, 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?

"Dear Father, 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?

"Dear Father, "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 been present.

"Dear Father, "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?

"Dear Father, "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 baptized?

"Dear Father, "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 mistake.

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 the system.

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 Catholic Church.

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.

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