By Tom Sheridan     1/15/2015

In the beginning was the word. And it was spoken. Or written on papyrus. Or animal skin. Or scratched into rock or chiseled into marble. But it was the word.

Today, millennia later, there is the word. And it’s in email, Web pages, Facebook, Twitter. The word has become the stuff of creation itself, quadrillions of electrons hurling themselves around the globe at the speed of light. The Internet. The World Wide Web.

But, still, it remains the word.

It’s tempting, perhaps, to view the Internet as just another form of paper, rock, skin or other medium for writing. It’s not. It’s a revolution in communication whose potential we have yet to recognize, let alone understand. Sadly, purveyors of porn recognized that potential more quickly than did religion. But religion is catching up.

A candidate for Congress recently proposed Internet access as a human right. Up there with food and water. Considering how the Internet has transformed 21st-century life that’s not so far-fetched. Indeed, the Coca-Cola Co. has installed wireless web access — free — in vending machines in underdeveloped nations to open up the world to young people.

Information is a great equalizer. Just as the printing press shone knowledge on the illiterate world of the Middle Ages, the Internet is spreading it far wider. And, it’s more than simply knowledge. It’s how we live. We pay bills and make money with the Internet. We buy and sell. We can access almost unlimited news and information. We communicate in words, voice and face to face. Skype and FaceTime connect families. Messages and photos keep us close.

This column was written on a cruise ship plowing through the Pacific Ocean, transmitted to Catholic News Service and finally to Catholic newspapers and websites. By the Internet. For me, a kid who began his newspaper career in lead and ink, this is magic.

Nor is all this potential locked up on our desktops. Most of us carry it around in our pockets. Tablets and smartphones. And short of a worldwide societal breakdown, it’s only going to become more ubiquitous.

Parishes, dioceses and even the Vatican are finding the Internet a valuable way to connect the faithful. And yes, Pope Francis is on Twitter and other social media, even recently helping to launch a Google Hangout site. Faith thrives on communication.

The Internet is not without its shortcomings. Certainly for some people, it can be an occasion of sin. Porn and heresy can be everywhere. And the Web, for all its benefits, is not always truthful. It’s a flashback to the 18th century when anyone with access to a printing press could foist their thoughts — right or wrong, nice or vitriolic — on others. The Web today is much the same, full of slanted and often erroneous views of religion. There is bigotry and hate. Hundreds of sites spew anti-Catholic and other bile.

In that, the Internet is not unlike a huge, all-inclusive library — though easier to access.

It is that ease of access, however, which will make the Internet an even more valuable tool for religion. There is a debate today over the benefits of “open Internet,” as opposed to a Web where speed and access are limited by cost and corporate control.

Salt Lake City Bishop John C. Wester, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Communications, wrote, “Access to the Internet is as essential and necessary for Americans as is access to education, news and other services that allow us to flourish and make positive contributions to society.”

Whether spoken, written or electronic, the word remains the word. Maybe the church can get a few of those soft-drink machines and offer wireless access — along with homilies.

Tom Sheridan is a former editor of the Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a deacon ordained for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill. He writes from Ocala, Fla.