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Screen shot of the Vatican homepage
Eternal city, eternal website

Posted on 13 June 2011, 20:45

The Roman Church may be semper eadem (ever the same), but will the Vatican website ever change its design? It seems unlikely, despite the ‘redesign’ currently being hailed by Catholic commentators. The website was launched on Christmas Day 1995, and its parchment-look background has always started to look tired after even a few visits, so I’ve been interested to see when it would be dropped.

Sadly, the only thing to change in the current shakeup is the homepage (pictured above, or click here for the real thing), which now looks to me like a Casio sports watch straight out of the 1980s – packed with features that make you ask, where do I begin? I can count no less than 45 links on the page, which is hardly the simple welcome to visitors you would expect from such a heavily visited domain (almost 14,500 websites link into vatican.va).

Most of the other pages in the site look as they’ve always done – narrow columns (of about 600 pixels) packed with brown text which scroll forever with hardly a picture to break the monotony.

Refreshingly, the website is run by a woman, Sister Judith Zoebelein, who is editorial director of the Internet Office of the Holy See. She’s been at the helm since the Vatican went online, and her role as founder of the website was recognised by the Pope earlier this year. He gave her the highest honour possible for a nun: a sign of his esteem for her, of course, but also of his esteem for the Internet.

In a fascinating ad hoc video interview in 2007, Sister Judith spoke to journalists about the vision and practical work that goes into producing the Vatican website. Asked how many people work on it, she replied, ‘Seventeen. Too few, believe me!’

She seems like a sparky, progressive person, so maybe the slow pace of change could be explained by something she also said.

‘We’re trying to integrate something of technology into a 2,000 year-old institution. Sometimes I feel that the echo waves have to go all the way back 2,000 years and then they come back up again and you find the integration or the mix between the technology and the institution. To me that’s been a challenge, but it’s also fascinating.’

It looks like the challenge might currently be winning out over the fascinating.

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