Pope's influence includes technology firsts

Late pontiff embraced Internet as tool for communicating with the faithful.

While Pope John Paul II will largely be remembered for his influence on social issues ranging from euthanasia to AIDS, he also earned a place in history as the first pontiff to embrace computer technology.

The 84-year-old pope died at 11:37 a.m. PST Saturday. His health had declined over the past two months, and he was given last rites after suffering a heart attack on Thursday.

Pope John Paul II
Credit: Holy See

The pontiff's passing quickly drew encomiums praising his leadership on social and moral issues, but John Paul II also played a role in bringing the Vatican into the Information Age.

The Vatican brokered a deal with Verizon last year for a service to deliver a daily papal message to subscribers' cell phones. A church representative said the Vatican had a history of embracing new communications media, and cell phones are a natural vehicle for reaching younger believers. "People are always trying to find ways to market His Holiness," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Earlier, the Vatican set up a special page for the pope to deliver messages about faith and world peace. "While the Internet can never replace that profound experience of God which only the living, liturgical and sacramental life of the Church can offer, it can certainly provide a unique supplement and support in both preparing for the encounter with Christ in community, and sustaining the new believer in the journey of faith which then begins," the pontiff proclaimed at the 36th annual World Communications Day in 2002.

Under John Paul II's leadership, the Vatican has also moved forward with plans to name St. Isidore of Seville, known for his scholarly work, as the patron saint of computer users, computer technicians and the Internet.

In 2001, to much fanfare, the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., opened to the public. The center houses five interactive galleries that allow visitors to become part of the center's evolving exhibits.

The pope's health crisis the past few weeks also prompted a flurry of Web activity. The main Vatican Web site was unreachable due to heavy traffic most of Friday. But American Catholics could still submit prayers for the pontiff through the Franciscan Friars' online St. Anthony Shrine, while Your Catholic Voice encouraged the faithful to initiate e-mail prayer chains.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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