Conjuring the ’90’s: 7 Thoughts on the Vatican’s “New” Website

In the First Book of Samuel, in the very famous scene between King Saul, the (dead) Prophet Samuel, and the Witch of Endor, the lesson to be learned is, poking about with things that are dead and buried is never a good idea. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this story in checking out the Vatican’s new web site today. If you thought it was a mess before – and oh, it was – you ain’t seen nothing yet. I don’t know why the tech department at The Holy See is trying to conjure up the spirits of web designers from 15 years ago, but they’ve succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

So here are seven quick observations, just on a brief attempt to actually use the site:

1. Scrolling Banners: I mean…really? Where are the flying toasters and the Dancing Baby? And what’s worse is, it’s not just a scrolling banner, it’s a scrolling banner of the different @Pontifex account tweets. That’s like playing “Pong” on an X-Box 360. Actually no, it’s worse.

2. Language: The default language setting for the site is “Italian”, and fair enough, since the people who maintain it are in Italy. However, virtually any site can be coded to detect the browser’s country of origin when a visitor lands there, and will adjust the language setting automatically. Why isn’t this possible here?

Alternatively, on many sites there is a very obvious place to select what language you want to use, and on subsequent visits the site will remember your settings. Instead, every time you visit the Vatican site, it seems to default back to Italian. What’s more, the language selection isn’t an obvious thing, such as little British, French, and German flags you can click on to select a language. Instead, it’s a drop down menu headed by the word, “Italiano”. What if you don’t know the word for “Italian” in Italian is “Italiano”, assuming you even see it? What happens to the menu selection bar when people from countries which do not use Latin characters visit the site?

This brings us to the next issue, of long-standing duration.

3. Wallpaper: We still seem to be stuck with the pinky-orange blotting paper that someone at the Vatican thinks looks like a historic parchment. It doesn’t, especially if you’ve ever handled genuine papyrus or vellum. This combined with a small, skinny font in some sort of brownish-gray color makes the entire site difficult to read. STILL.

4. Menus: There are multiple menus, all over the place, leading to all sorts of different subsites within the site. Take a look at the sort of jumbo-menu, for example, sitting in the middle of the revamped page. Why is it there? Why are there other menus above it, and a circled-off menu next to it, full of things about Pope Francis?

And for that matter, why does the Pope Francis section look like a collection of those poetry refrigerator magnets you can buy? You know, where you rearrange the pre-printed words to come up with a haiku? Couldn’t they have just settled on a couple of overarching themes for their section about him?

5. Calendar: Click on “Calendar” in the middle of the page and you get…Ha, ha! Those tricky Cardinals! No, not today’s calendar with a listing of what Pope Francis is up to today, so you could see whom he is meeting with or where he is traveling. That would be too logical.

Rather, you get a list of the months in 2014, which you then have to go click on to find out what is happening. Once you land there, the layout, the colors, the fonts, everything is completely different from the home page. It looks like it was designed and maintained by a different company altogether…which is probably true.

6. Photos: Moving on to the “Photos” section – where even though the tab is in English, all the album titles are in Italian – you would expect that clicking on an album title would take you to a new page. Then you could see an online album full of pictures of Pope Francis, the Swiss Guard, the Vatican Museums, etc. Again, you would be entirely wrong, silly web user.

In fact, if it opens at all, which apparently is a struggle for it to do, whatever album you click on opens a mosaic of teeny tiny little thumbnails of the photos in that particular album. They are so small, that you can barely tell what they are, like something out of Geocities or Tripod back in the late 1990’s. In an age of Flickr, Tumbler, etc., this seems rather unforgivable, if you’ll forgive the expression.

7. Video: Clicking on the “Video” tab, one is connected directly to what at first glance appears to be the Vatican’s television feed on YouTube. This streams through a small YouTube window embedded inside the menu itself. That, at least, would seem to make sense.

Ha, ha! Fooled you again! Because in fact all you are looking at is a webcam, perched atop Bernini’s Colonnade on St. Peter’s Square. Yes, that’s right, a webcam. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good webcam as much as anyone else, particularly the newer and better ones with better-quality audio and video. But for an organization that has its own television studios, one would think that the Vatican might be streaming something a bit more interesting on its home page.

Those are just a few thoughts on the site revamp. It’s a pity that this continues to be a problem, because good design is like a calling card, especially for potential new customers. You’re not going to draw people in if they think that you’re not paying attention, or are sloppy. Let’s get it together, amici.

Samuel had warned King Saul not to let the Witch of Endor try web design.

Samuel had warned King Saul not to let the Witch of Endor try web design.

Tonight: The Hermit Will Be Televised!

So I have some terrific announcements this morning:

Tonight at 8pm Eastern my friend Brother Rex Anthony Norris will be the guest for the hour on EWTN’s “Journey Home” program.  He’ll be talking about not only how he came into the Church, but also about his life as a Franciscan hermit.  I hope you’ll tune in to watch, or catch the re-air or archived video when they appear.

Oh and for those of you watching the game tonight, it doesn’t start until 9:10pm Eastern: therefore you have plenty of time to watch Brother Rex, and still get your snack and beverage array ready in time for tip-off.

Regular readers know that recently Kevin Lowry, Jon Marc Grodi, and yours truly founded the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage.  We’re trying to establish a permanent hermitage for Brother Rex and his successor hermits up in the Diocese of Portland, Maine.  You may already have bookmarked the FLPH site, where Brother Rex posts brief spiritual reflections daily, and will gladly take your personal prayer requests.  And if you haven’t already done so, please follow us on Twitter or “Like” our Facebook page, because we’re about to add some new materials I think you’ll appreciate as much as we do.

So beginning tomorrow, Tuesday, April 8th, and continuing every Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks, we’ll be featuring guest posts on the FLPH site from some very gracious, generous friends in Catholic media: people whom you probably already read, watch, or listen to on a regular basis.  They want to help us draw greater attention to this project, so we can get a permanent hermitage established.  They’re also speaking to the value of the life of intense prayer that Brother Rex and others in the eremitic life are living out in the life of the Church.

The Catechism explains that since hermits spend so much of their time every day alone in prayer, they’re really powerful prayer warriors for all of us.  “Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him. Here is a particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One,” Catechism of the Catholic Church, #921.

I hope you’ll be watching tonight to see and hear why Brother Rex is such a terrific guy, and in the weeks ahead, that you’ll check out some of the great guest posts we’re going to have to help out this effort!

Franciscan Hermit Brother Rex Anthony Norris

Franciscan Hermit Brother Rex Anthony Norris

Friends on Earth and Friends Above

Meeting someone in real life whom you’ve been communicating with via social media for ages is something of an odd experience.  It’s not quite like meeting an acquaintance with whom you’ve had an extended, written correspondence via e-mail, even if the messages have been going back and forth for quite a long time.  Social media outlets allow not only for an instantaneous exchange of words and images, but also of reactions: it’s their speed which makes said exchanges seem more like friendly chatter.

Yesterday for example, I got to hang out for an hour with my friend, writer and film critic Steven Greydanus, as he was in Washington recording some television appearances.  Although we’ve been chatting on social media for awhile, this was the first chance we’ve had to sit together and have caffeinated beverages.  As often happens on these occasions, I experienced an initial sensation of adjustment – this is a real person! – followed by very easy conversation.  When you’ve been conversing on social media, most of the preliminaries we human beings tend to go through when we initially meet are already well out of the way.

On the way home afterwards, I thought about how many good people I’ve met through social media over the years.  Cliff way up in Nova Scotia for example, loves the old-time radio shows broadcast online Sunday nights through our local DC public radio station, while Vicki out in Arkansas loves discussing art history and British TV murder mysteries.  And I have superbrethren all over the place, from the US and Canada, to the UK and France, since apparently I’m not the last son of Krypton after all.

However, it’s entirely possible that I may never meet any of these people. Technology has come quite a long way, but we’re still not at the point where Star Trek-style transporters stand in our office buildings, ready to zip us off to wherever we need to go in a cascade of light.  We remain dependent to a large extent upon circumstances, as to whether our online friends from Nevada or Australia are ever going to be passing our way, or whether we are going to find ourselves in their neck of the woods.  And yet as maudlin as that may sound, I don’t think it reduces the genuine good that social media can do, in forming permanent friendships.

There’s a lovely old hymn called “For the Beauty of the Earth”, which in America tends to appear on the hymn boards at Mass around Thanksgiving.  It was written by the English High Church Anglican poet Folliott Sandford Pierpoint in 1864, and is usually sung to the music of the hymn “Dix”, written by the German Evangelical Lutheran composer Conrad Kocher in 1838.  While the hymn’s structure of giving thanks and speaking to the beauties of nature make it a natural choice for singing at Thanksgiving, in Pierpoint’s verses there is a wonderful allusion to human relationships that transcend earthly limits.

In his litany of things to be thankful for, Pierpoint lists, “friends on earth, and friends above,” reminding us of the long-held Christian belief in the “communion of saints”.  That connection among both the living and the dead, as all await the Last Day, is something that helps to bind the Christian community together, even with all our divisions and disputes.  People of faith recognize that human limitations of time and space are no boundaries whatsoever to God, and so in that spirit we can direct our thoughts and prayers to those with us now, including those whom we may never get to know in real life, and also those who have gone before us.

Forming genuinely good, mutually beneficial friendships in real life through initial contact on social media is absolutely possible, whatever others may say to the contrary.  Sociologists tell us that online relationships are not real, even if they may feel real; they can be abusive, parasitic, and shallow.  Fortunately, I am not a sociologist, and I’m quite happy to give you many examples from my own life where true friendships have formed through initial online contact.  Such things are not automatic of course, since not everyone you meet through social media is going to become a close, personal friend, but they do actually happen.

Yet even in those relationships that never go beyond social media – someone with whom I share a laugh on Twitter, or whose travel pictures I “like” on Facebook – I find that I can and should still be of service in some capacity.  All of us, whatever our station in life, need other people. We seek words of encouragement, hope for the future, and new, helpful ideas.  We want to laugh, shed a tear, or share our frustrations with the difficulties of this life.  In that regard, dismissing the possibility that anything good can come out of social media, is a bit like questioning whether anything good can come out of Nazareth.

Never discount the fact, gentle reader, that not only may your words, your example, or your prayers have a profound impact on someone else whom you know in real life, but you may also have such an impact on those whom you only know through an online account.

Selfie with Steven Greydanus (Courtesy the latter)

Selfie with Steven Greydanus
(Courtesy the latter)