Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Most software products solemnly impress upon you the obligations you undertake by the act of breaking the seal on the package or installing the files. Reading you their rights is an assertion of power; sometimes vain, always earthly. When you load Crossing The Threshold of Hope (Macmillan Interactive), you encounter an infinitely higher power. This double CD- ROM based on the Pope's bestselling book itemises the qualities of papal authority; ordinary, supreme, full, prompt and universal. Supremacy means that the Pope's power "is not subject to any other power. His decisions are unquestionable ... "

This immoveable power is the seabed of the CD-Rome, as it is of the Catholic Church itself. Above it are turbulent currents, expressed in the multimedia idiom as swirling montages - wars, machines, neon-lit cityscapes, children. The disk's foreground features are audiovisual treatments of spoken extracts from various of Pope John Paul II's writings, with such frequent questions as "Does God Really Exist?" and "Is Only Rome Right?"

Though the technology is new, this is only the latest implementation of a multimedia policy that has helped define the Church of Rome for centuries. But sermons have traditionally been delivered without accompaniment, and the decision to deliver His Holiness's words in parallel with classical music is the kind of lily-gilding that provoked the advent of Protestantism. Perhaps they were frustrated that Windows doesn't support incense. (The disks are not compatible with Macintoshes, which is hardly in the ecumenical spirit.)

They got the visual rhythm right, though. The images move at the pace of the clerical procession in a Mass, conveying the viewer into a chapel of the mind's eye. For contemplating the Pope's words in a more ascetic mode, the disks contain the texts not only of the book, but of all his encyclicals. They can be searched by keyword, but not copied. And certainly not edited.

There are several side-chapels. One contains a brief biography and photo- album of the handsome younger Wojtyla. Another reads for all the world like a company report, complete with graphs showing growth in the Catholic ranks since Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II. The commentary is at pains to point out that the additional 208,000 Catholics represent a real increase in market share: in no continent, it notes, has the population growth rate exceeded the new-Catholic rate. Credit is given not to the Church's fertility policy, but to the Pope's celebrated voyages.

These are presented with a timeline and a clickable map of features on each of the Holy Father's 72 foreign trips, which total 972,394km in 116 countries. The social and political contexts are briefly noted; regrettably, extracts from the speeches do not include the sublime moment when the Pope asked the youth of Chile whether they rejected the idol of wealth. "Yes!" they affirmed. And did they reject the idol of power? "Yes!" And sexuality? "No!" they answered, with one voice.

In the breach instead of the observance, that incident honours the basic principle of rituals of call and response. The subordinate party is given a formal choice, but recognises that the choice does not really exist. Such moral exercise is encouraged by this CD-ROM. The devout can choose which scriptures to contemplate, or the chapel in which to kneel, but the architecture is immutable. In the early years of his pontificate, the Pope found a natural medium in television. He has found another in the computer.

'John Paul II: Crossing the Threshold of Hope': see below for Reader Offer.