Students log on to post devotion to pope's legacy

Internet seen as outlet to help faithful through grieving, praying

The World In Mourning

The Death Of Pope John Paul Ii

April 07, 2005|By Kim Hart | Kim Hart,SUN STAFF

Michael Tenney is pretty sure Pope John Paul II isn't lacking in prayers. He knows that millions of followers around the world have kept the pontiff in their hearts and thoughts.

Still, he says, one more couldn't hurt. Tenney, a senior at Catholic University of America in Washington, joined dozens of his classmates this week in posting online devotions, brief notes of mourning and messages of hope on the school's Web site to honor the pope. The short messages are often anonymous or signed only with initials. But having the opportunity to read others' reactions to Pope John Paul's death helps him cope, and being able to share his reflections is his way of showing support for the church.

"The cardinals have asked for our prayers, and that's what I, as an average, Joe Schmo Catholic, can do," says the Gaithersburg native.

Like Tenney, thousands of Pope John Paul's admirers are turning to the Internet to pay their respects. Several Web sites, secular and religious, let visitors light virtual candles, send memorial e-cards, chat in commemorative forums and debate theological questions. For some, it's part of the grieving process; for others, it's about sharing their faith.

On one Web site, www.beliefnet.com, more than 10,000 cyber candles - 6,800 from the United States - were burning yesterday, and several thousand notes had been posted on memorial message boards. Visitors to www.greatfulness.org from 242 countries have lit more than 613,000 candles since the vigil began Saturday.

The site www.catholic.org allows visitors to sign a daily prayer pledge for the pope and send it to friends via e-mail. On www.stanthony.org, nearly 200 prayers are posted for the pope. The Catholic Global Network's Web site, www.ewtn.com, lists more than 2,000 condolences from 80 countries. Even America Online has a message board for reflections and a link to light candles on other sites.

Using the Internet to pay tribute to the pope is fitting, according to Matthew Bunson, editor of Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Almanac and author of several books about the papacy. Pope John Paul was known for his desire to spread the word of God, and he didn't shy away from using the Internet as a religious tool.

"It's logical that people should continue to use the most advanced forms of technology to honor someone who himself recognized the immense value of modern communications," Bunson says. "He wanted to enter into a dialogue with the world. When the world turned to cyberspace, that's where he went."

Finding a way to speak through the Web was a high priority for the pope, who commissioned an extensive Vatican Web site (www.vatican.va), where he began posting statements in 1995. When he became ill, an e-mail address was established so people could send greetings to him while he was in the hospital. The initial announcement of his death was dispatched through a wave of e-mails, Bunson says.

Sam Ranelli, Catholic Global Network's webmaster, set up a site on the Web to create a cyberspace support group where visitors can not only remember the pope, but also learn more about him and the process of replacing him.

"We're trying to be as informative as we can so people can keep track of what's going on and what the process is," Ranelli said. "We wanted to give people the chance to express their love for the Holy Father and be able to hear their well-wishes."

Parishes, churches and schools are also providing an outlet for their members through the Internet. Catholic University sophomore Hillary Mann routinely checks the Web site of her parish in Cheyenne, Wyo., for reactions from residents of her hometown. Most of her friends, she says, do similar checks throughout the day.

John Meehan, a student minister at Catholic University, often urges other students to express their prayers and reflections online. The school offers a permanent forum on the Web called PrayerNet (ministry.cua.edu/PrayerNet), which lists thousands of prayer requests. A separate site specifically for prayers dealing with the pope went live yesterday.

"It's the power of prayer in the digital age," Meehan says. "Whatever form their grief would take, I urge them to express it in that direction. For the tech-minded kids, they tend to go to the Internet."

While the school has offered Mass and candlelight vigils throughout the week, the university's chaplain, the Rev. Bob Schlageter, says many students he knows choose to express their faith via the cyberspace community. For many, it's a natural extension of a mode of communication they use every day.

"Young people are just so used to the Internet that they use it for areas of their lives, including their spirituality, that we normally wouldn't think of," says Schlageter, who helped establish the memorial site. "It's not something new, but it's just another way for us to give our students a chance to offer tribute and to grieve."

Setting up virtual memorials is not new, says Alan Neustadtl, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has studied the growth of Internet usage among Americans.

"People find these places as a way to remember life, Neustadtl says. "This is not done in lieu of something else, like doing it to save time instead of going to church. This is just another way to connect."

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