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By MARK DITTMAN and TIM DRAKE
"Surely we must be grateful for the new technology which enables us to store information in vast man-made artificial memories, thus providing wide and instant access to the knowledge which is our human heritage, to the Church's teaching and tradition, the words of sacred Scripture, the counsels of the great masters of spirituality, the history and traditions of the local Churches, of religious orders, and lay institutes, and to the ideas and experiences of initiators and innovators whose insights bear constant witness to the faithful presence in our midst of a loving Father who brings out of his treasure new things and old." — Pope John Paul II, World Communications Day, May 27, 1989
A cloistered nun with a theology doctorate and great high-tech savvy sits at her computer. She types a new entry into her computer for the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia. However, to avoid violating her cloister she passes her entries through a third party for inclusion.
In Montreal, Canada, Joseph Thomas transcribes his 40th entry, on the sacrifice of the Mass, and prepares to send it to New Advent. In Decatur, Ga., art professor Michael Tinkler thumbs through the 1913 version of the Catholic Encyclopedia looking for information that he can transcribe on the apocalypse.
It's 9:30 p.m. on Saturday. Kevin Knight, 30, sits at his home computer in Denver, Colorado adding HTML (hyper-text markup language) codes to these contributions and putting them on-line.
Volunteers throughout the world are building a powerful on-line version of a classic—the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia. "People have shown a tremendous interest in this project," notes Knight, the Denver, Colo.-based initiator of this massive undertaking and manager of the New Advent Catholic Supersite, the Internet home for the project. "I've received articles from nearly all 50 states as well as from France, Canada, and Brazil. This started as an idea and has grown far beyond my original expectations."
During one of Pope John Paul II's several motorcade appearances in Denver during World Youth Day (August 1993), Knight stood among the crowd waving at the Pontiff. Knight, then 26, was inspired by the Pope to take part in the new evangelization. "It was the World Youth Day experience that planted the seed of the New Advent apostolate," Knight explains.
The New Advent website takes its name from the period leading up to the millennium, coined by John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptor Hominis. Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, then archbishop of Denver, first applied that term to the Blessed Mother and commissioned an icon of Our Lady of the New Advent as the patroness of Denver. This icon was very visible during World Youth Day.
After wandering the Web looking for good Catholic sites, Knight didn't find a strong Catholic presence. Inspired by the Pope's visit, he tried to persuade some of his friends to start a site. When none responed, he undertook the project himself. The New Advent Catholic Supersite has been on the World Wide Web since early 1995.
The site features St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, 90 megabytes of patristic writings, a FAQ (frequently asked questions) page, and will soon feature a search engine. New Advent's most ambitious undertaking, however, is the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Knight placed his Catholic Encyclopedia project before the world's Internet users and invited them to contribute by locating a copy of the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, transcribing articles, and sending them to him via e-mail for publication on New Advent. Hundreds of people, like those above, have quietly accepted the challenge. Like the medieval monks of Europe, their efforts are breathing new life into the Catholic Encyclopedia and making it available to a wider audience.
Instructions on the web site direct volunteers how to transcribe articles from the original 1913 encyclopedia. To do so, volunteers must locate the old volumes. Some people own them, while others borrow them from a local library. Using the Internet, Knight can help volunteers locate the nearest set. After checking to make sure they are not duplicating other efforts, volunteers type in text from any of thousands of the Catholic Encyclopedia's original articles. Once entered, the user e-mails the entry to Knight. Knight then adds the HTML codes and any additional characters, such as Latin and Greek, and places the finished piece on-line. Once the entire encyclopedia is on-line it will eliminate the need to hunt down an original copy of the set.
The volunteers who are making the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia a reality come from diverse backgrounds and locales. For Donald Boon, a retired medical doctor from New Mexico, the interest in the Catholic Encyclopedia stems from his love of the Bible. While searching for an on-line encyclopedia he stumbled upon the Catholic Encyclopedia. He has transcribed several entries related to Jerusalem. Boon travels 10 miles to his nearest library where he copies the articles. He then scans, reviews, and corrects them, requiring about two hours per page. Finally, he submits them by e-mail. The Catholic Encyclopedia, according to Boon, a Methodist, "is an inspiring and valuable resource for all Christians."
Canadian Joseph Thomas discovered an original set of Catholic Encyclopedias in a nearby college library. He describes his time spent transcribing as "missionary work" and hopes the articles will inspire others. Some of the articles he has entered for the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia are now found in Mother Angelica's EWTN library files.
Early this century the time was ripe for the original Catholic Encyclopedia. As general encyclopedias were published in the early 1900s it became evident that subjects of special interest to Catholics were either ignored entirely or scantily or erroneously treated. A board of five editors from various universities and publishers was organized in January 1905. Together, they produced the original Catholic Encyclopedia. Hilaire Belloc described it as "one of the most powerful influences working in favor of the truth." Even the Protestant press favored the encyclopedia, recommending it as the "greatest work undertaken for the advancement of Christian knowledge since the days of Trent."
Knight chose the 1913 15-volume set because the later editions are still under copyright protection. Not only is the 1913 version in the public domain, but it is also thought by many to be the superior version. It covers topics both religious and secular, from a uniquely Catholic perspective. Although 84 years old, readers will find the information solid, surprisingly relevant, and eternally valuable.
Interest in the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia reflects the increased use of the Internet since the introduction of World Wide Web browsers. The Catholic presence on the Web is formidable, as even a casual "surfer" of the Web can tell. Nearly all major Catholic organizations, many smaller ones, and several dioceses across the United States have Web pages-sites that can display information, still and moving pictures, and sometimes audio. It is estimated that six new Catholic websites are being added each month.
New Advent's web site counter reveals that the Catholic Encyclopedia receives 3,300 hits per day, and that 18,000 documents are downloaded each day. Clearly, the Catholic Encyclopedia is meeting a need.
Knight has heard from hundreds of users. Not surprisingly, many of them are priests. Archbishop Stafford has reportedly used the site for its patristic writings. Other users include seminarians and college students doing research, as well as casual users who turn to it to evangelize or to answer questions about their faith.
Knight presently rents space from an Internet service provider for less than $100 per month. He says he has enough disk space for the entire set, and will add more if needed. He is in the process of filing for non-profit status. Once New Advent is declared a non-profit organization he hopes to find sponsors to help expand the apostolate.
The Pope's prophetic message of 1989 has certainly been realized in the presence of Catholic information on the Web. No site better exemplifies the power of sharing information on the web than New Advent. Knight would seem to be one of the innovators the Pope had in mind when he spoke of "bearing constant witness to the faithful presence in our midst of a loving Father who brings out of His treasure new things and old." However, with only 25 percent of the encyclopedia entered, there is still much work left to be done.
Mark Dittman and Tim Drake have contributed several articles to the on-line Catholic encyclopedia.