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Robert MacMillan's Random Access

John Paul II: The Message Matters Most

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; 10:28 AM

When I heard news of the death of Pope John Paul II on Saturday, it reached me through the radio -- a tired if reliable means of communication that has served listeners well for the better part of a century.

But the Vatican, embracing John Paul II's very own teachings, wasn't limiting itself to old forms of communication. It delivered the news of the pope's passing to reporters through e-mail and also through a text-message service to their cell phones.

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Several news sources made the observation that this use of e-mail and SMS marked a drastic shift from the centuries-old tradition of signaling the death of a pope by closing windows and shutters and closing a bronze door. But in reality, it was one more example of how this church has always used the best means of communication available.

Think back to the New Testament, much of which is composed of letters written by Paul to many of the nations of the Roman world. In epistles to the Galatians, the Colossians, the Corinthians and others, Paul spread the word of the Church across the Mediterranean.

When Paul lived, he was attempting to make his message resound among people who were not always eager to hear about salvation from what they considered an upstart religion with little credence. When Christians numbered but few, he crisscrossed the sea and traveled overland, as did his messages. They traveled slowly, but they reached eager ears. On the strength of this constant proselytizing, a powerful religion was born. This tradition continued, by means both fair and foul, through missionaries who recognized the same value in the delivery of the message.

John Paul II inherited a church in a vastly different stage of development. The Catholic church no longer has to prove its might and influence. It has reached to nearly every country in the world and can claim at least a few adherents almost everywhere you go.

What is different is that many Catholics, especially in the United States and Europe, now try to reconcile the church's teachings with a daily lifestyle that is not always compatible. In a world of changing mores, many religious experts say that the church's challenge is to remain relevant to its flock.

Pope John Paul II's responses, at least from a technological perspective, are not all that amazing. The Vatican created an e-mail address for him. It also created a Web site in 1995 -- and over time the site has become something truly worthwhile as a resource for Catholics and people interested in the church. The Holy See didn't stop at "www" -- it inked a deal with Verizon Wireless recently to distribute text messages containing a daily homily from the pope.

Small gestures, yes. Some may say they are nothing more than the church's desire to continue to reach people through the communications tools they consider part of daily life.

But is this not profound? Part of the basic principle of the church is that it provides a rock of faith and morality. A rock, of course, is something that symbolizes the immovable. And the reason that many Catholics' daily practices part ways with the church is because things that are immovable also tend to age rapidly and sometimes seem little more than quaint in today's world.

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