HIGHER CALLING

When you walk through the doors of St. Peter's Basilica these days, you might just catch the glow of a laptop or wireless PDA through the smoky haze of burning incense. The distant hum of Gregorian chants may even be interrupted by the bleep of a mobile phone or the ping of a text message. Vatican City joined the tech revolution in Christmas 1995, when Pope John Paul II launched the Vatican's Web site (vatican.va) with the text of his annual Urbi et Orbi address. Now it's taking advantage of wireless technology to spread the Word even farther. "When we came up with the idea that the Vatican go online, the holy father said, 'Yes, try it right away'," says Sister Judith Zoebelein, the technical director of the Vatican Internet Office. "But we had no idea how popular it would be."

The Vatican Web site, which is published in six languages, receives more than 2 million daily hits. Spurred by this success, the Roman Catholic Church is engaging in bolder experiments. Last year the Vatican News Service began delivering announcements to journalists on their BlackBerry wireless PDAs; in October it made the service available by subscription to anybody. Prior to that the church also began issuing a daily papal prayer in the form of a cell-phone text message; it now has more than a million subscribers. The Vatican hopes eventually to reach the millions of faithful in the developing world, who lack broadband Internet access or even reliable telephones. Its programmers are hard at work on a new version of the Web site that can fit the tiny screens of wireless PDAs. "Mass media can be a good means of evangelism," says Sister Judith.

In the next few months, Wi-Fi hotspots will be popping up all over St. Peter's Square and inside the church. By Easter, tourists with wireless laptops or PDAs may be able to download information about the architectural history of Bernini's columns or the significance of Michelangelo's Pieta in electronic form, to serve as e-book pocket guides. Sister Judith would love to see the church offer wireless e-learning of catechism or even marriage-preparation classes: "Technology, as it is made newly available, we believe becomes integrated into our environment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit." For the Vatican, the medium is indeed the message.