There is room for technology in God's plan: the Pope's first female webmaster
Sister Judith Zoebelein was responsible for the development and operation of the Vatican's website in the mid-1990s - together with a few employees and three archangels: the computer "Raphael" was responsible for the content, the firewall was called "Michael", and the server for the emails "Gabriel". It all started on Christmas 1995 - with thousands of recipes for chicken soup. In an interview with kathisch.de, the American reveals how she got the Vatican online - and what spirituality lies in technology.
(The interview was translated from the original German by Sister Anne Clare Keeler, FSE.)
Question: Sister Judith, how did it come about that you were responsible for the first Vatican website?
Sister Judith: I came to the Vatican in 1991. Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, then Prefect of the Goods Administration of the Apostolic See, had fetched me to look after the computers. It was only just beginning in Italy at the time, and when the first PCs started popping up in the various offices in the Vatican, Cardinal Lara wanted to make sure there was a certain amount of coordination and uniform standards in place. That was my first job in the Vatican. Then in 1994 the internet started, especially with email. Few Vatican employees were interested - one of them was Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the Vatican's press officer. We met often and thought about what we could do: wouldn't it be great if the Vatican could be found online? Navarro-Valls also suggested this to Pope John Paul II and told himthat this is a great opportunity for evangelization, and that it would be good if the Church could speak out here too.
Question: And how did the Pope react?
Sister Judith: John Paul II was a great visionary. He immediately agreed, and by Christmas 1995 the time had come: We put our first page online. It was actually only a single page, a picture, a papal speech. And from then on, the pages have shot up like mushrooms.
Question: What was your job?
Sister Judith: There were two of us: a technician who worked with the company that was responsible for our servers and me. I was basically the director of our small office, I took care of the communication, the content and the design.
Question: So you are also responsible for the parchment background that the Vatican website still has today?
Sister Judith: That's right.
Question: How did it come about?
Sister Judith: In the first year we played around with very different designs and formats. There was no ready-made plan of what it should look like. After a year we finally had permission to do the design professionally. Five different companies have developed designs for us. There were some very modern ones. But we clicked on one suggestion: They understood us, we understood them. And that was the draft with the parchment. That should symbolize the 2,000 year history of the Church and the spirit of the Vatican and the Holy See.
Question: The Vatican is also a huge administrative apparatus with many departments. How do you organize all this knowledge, this whole structure on a website?
Sister Judith: In the first few years I was busy designing the computer systems and the network for the various facilities. For this I had to be in constant contact with the responsible bosses, not necessarily with the cardinals at the top, but definitely with the secretaries and the other executives. As a result, I had very good contacts with most of them. That made it a lot easier to convince them to present themselves online. We went from office to office explaining that there was this great idea of an internet where you could put all the information in one place and allow people to see what the church is doing and what it stands for.
Question: Did it also play a role that you had this task as a religious?
Sister Judith: Yes. For the Vatican side it was important to have someone who loves and understands the Church. So it was a good thing that I was responsible as a religious and not an external agency. To live with the church, to know what its task is in the world and what it teaches: this is what we learn in our formation. And as a woman in this task, I always had the human part in mind. By nature, women also always think about how something affects people and what they need, instead of always thinking in terms of technical necessities. It has always been one of my tasks to be the one who brings the two sides into contact: technology and humanity.
Question: It certainly helped that the start was very successful ...
Sister Judith: Yes, the first page on Christmas 1995 was a completely surprising success. Over 90 newspapers around the world have reported from our website. It was then that those responsible in the various authorities noticed the possibilities for communication there. That wasn't obvious yet, but with the Christmas page you could explain to them what the vision was without the need for a lot of technical expertise - and many went with it. Only one older monsignor was not so enthusiastic. "A network is a gateway for the devil," he said to me, "and then the devil moves around here in the Vatican!" Shortly afterwards, however, he retired.
Question: One would never have heard of such a thing from John Paul II.
Sister Judith: That's right, he was behind us from the start. He later even put a document into effect entirely online, the apostolic exhortation for the Oceania Synod in 2001. He was quite ill and could not travel. So we talked to him, prepared all the technology, and with the push of a button he sent the document to the bishops in Oceania. He thought that was great! He was really someone who understood the idea of using modern technology for the church.
Question: From the beginning there were a lot of e-mails for the Pope. What happened to all the news?
Sister Judith: As I said, the first page went online at Christmas, the day after it became known that the Pope had caught the flu. And as soon as we were online, we received thousands of emails with people sending the Pope their chicken soup recipe and other tips and home remedies to help him get well again. I found that very moving: the Pope was always a mysterious, untouchable, distant person. Then came the internet and suddenly he was someone who seemed much more approachable. People wrote to him as if they were sitting in the living room with him: All of a sudden we had around 5,000 e-mails, but no structures at all that were geared towards them. At the beginning, the Cardinal Secretary of State wanted the Pope to have everything printed out, which we too had wished for.We brought box after box of printed mail to the Pope. But after a few weeks they say "Stop!" called and asked to bring only those with special prayer and other concerns to the Pope. We then archived the rest on CDs. We were pretty overwhelmed - but in a very good way. Nobody expected that.
Question: Were the mails also answered?
Sister Judith: Yes, at least some received an answer. The Pope also had a knee bench in his chapel with a recess in the middle. Special prayer requests were placed there, and the Pope prayed over them. I don't know how exactly the concerns were selected, but I do know that some of our emails found their way into the Pope's kneeling position.
Question: In 2002 two documents of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, "Ethics in Internet" and "The Church and Internet" were published . Those were groundbreaking documents - but not much has come since then. Why is that?
Sister Judith: At the turn of the millennium there were some very bright people in this council who thought about the media and the information society. Some departments have since been significantly rebuilt. Today's communications department is responsible for all media - but above all for implementation, but not for reflecting on media. I don't want to say anything bad about the people there, but they are more practitioners and technicians than philosophers. Perhaps it will come back one day, for example in the Pontifical Council for Culture there are some who could.
Question: If you look at the messages for the World Day of Social Communication, then those under Pope Benedict XVI. much more optimistic and emphasized the opportunities of social media. Under Pope Francis they became very pessimistic about topics like fake news and online hatred. Does this reflect the signs of the times - or do these two popes have a different approach to the subject of the media?
Sister Judith: You have to admit that social media and the web have taken a turn for the worse today. There is quite a lot of bad things, including human trafficking. Francis is a Pope who takes a very practical look at diseases and thinks about how to address and cure them. Benedict, on the other hand, is more of a scholar, a visionary, someone who reflects on things. So the messages are about the signs of the times, and Francis is addressing today's media problems directly, including those that many would rather not talk about.
Question: And how do you personally feel about social media?
Sister Judith: I have a Twitter account, a Facebook account ... I even taught a social media class. But I'm not doing that much with it right now. In my current position, I'm more into webinars. We have also produced a film for the 50th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate” in recent years . To do this, I traveled around the world for two years and conducted interviews.
Question: Does dealing with technology also have a spiritual aspect for you?
Sister Judith: I am a Franciscan. Respect for nature and creation is part of our religious charism. Technology is also part of creation. Many people think that technology has nothing to do with spirituality at all. But I also see the hand of God at work there: God also created technology through us humans, and so we can find him there too. As soon as we take something out of God's presence, it becomes problematic. My mission has always been to show that God has a place in his plan for technology as well.
Question: There is still no official patron saint of the Internet. Should there be?
Sister Judith: I think that's a good idea, and there are some good suggestions. It seems to me that Carlo Acutis would be the most suitable, because as a person he also stands for work on the Internet. Suggestions such as Clare of Assisi or Giacomo Alberione, the founder of the Pauline communities, are also conceivable, but Carlo Acutis lived and breathed the Internet in all of his work. He was also very young when he died. I think he also had an understanding of a spirituality of technology.
Question: Isidore of Seville is also repeatedly suggested as patron of the Internet . Was that discussed when you were in charge of the network in the Vatican?
Sister Judith: Yes, but only informally over a cup of coffee. As far as I know, no one has officially followed this up. At that time, the Internet was something completely new for many, especially for priests. It wasn't an official issue then.
Question: If you look at vatican.va today: What would you wish for that?
Sister Judith: I would like to be able to contact the church so that people can turn to the church with questions: "I am interested in this and that topic, can you give me a few tips" or "I do not understand this aspect of church teaching "Can you explain it to me" - and then there should be a team that either answers the questions directly or finds contact persons in the local churches. This could be a great evangelization tool. Of course, weirdos come along who write some nonsense. But then you delete that and take care of the people who are really in search of God.