The day after Christmas last year the Vatican announced its debut iPhone app — an electronic version of the Breviary (Catholic prayers and readings) in five languages. Monsignor Paul Tighe, secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications told the Associated Press that the church is “learning to use the new technologies primarily as a tool or as a means of evangelizing, as a way of being able to share its own message with the world.” Less than a month later the Vatican announced a deal with Google, which owns YouTube, giving the Pope his own YouTube channel. According to digitaljournal.com, viewers can watch the Pope pontificate at various church events.
At about the same time Monsignor Walter Nolan, right, the 76-year-old pastor at St. Paul’s Catholic Church on Nassau Street, was tiring of going through cell phone after cell phone, thanks to the chewing frenzies of his chocolate lab puppy, Toby. When his phone contract was up, Nolan says, “I figured with all the running around I do, I’d do much better with a BlackBerry.” Now he’s plugged in 24/7 and can check his two E-mail accounts wherever he is, and just as importantly, check his two favorite sports websites, ESPN and the Mets.
He also checks the daily news bulletins and Catholic News USA headlines. As a member of a national priest conference, he uses his BlackBerry to “swap thoughts” with other priests. A self-described collector of stories, Nolan often tucks away stories he has read on his BlackBerry, perhaps to be used later in a homily or sermon.
For Nolan, who rises at 5:30 a.m. every day (often having been called in the middle of the night to attend to a sick or dying parishioner), life can be hectic: “I’ll be at a big meeting on Friday, then hop a plane to South Carolina to be part of an ordination of a priest I know, then fly back Saturday night to do two masses at St. Paul’s, then I’ll be in a car to Manalapan to be part of a friend’s installation as a pastor. I could not be comfortable doing that without the BlackBerry.”
Last year — for Catholics, the year of St. Paul — Bishop John Smith of the Trenton diocese invited Nolan and several other priests on a 10-day trip to Turkey and Greece to follow St. Paul’s steps and visit historical sites pertaining to the saint. “I used it more or less as a retreat,” says Nolan. “The nice thing was that my staff could get a hold of me, ask any question they wanted to. It was almost like I wasn’t even gone, in terms of making decisions. I set meetings up. I didn’t miss a beat.”
On the trip he took full advantage of his Blackberry’s international capabilities and also texted back and forth with colleagues and parishioners — and his sister, who lives in their hometown of Jersey City. When he returned he put all his photos of the trip on a digital photo frame, which automatically scrolls through the photos, on the side table in his office.
Just last week, one of his parishioners, a member of Jasna Polana, finally convinced Nolan to join him in a round of golf, after bugging him for ages. “I don’t normally like to take time away from here, but I could do that [because of the BlackBerry].” It turned out that on that day, Nolan was in the middle of handling a crisis with a parishioner and had several phone calls and E-mails out to people to help. “Around about the 16th hole — case solved, situation resolved.”
Nolan grew up in Jersey City, where his father was a steam fitter and his mom stayed at home. He graduated from Fordham University with a degree in pharmacy in 1954. He was a pharmacist for many years until he decided to go to divinity school.
He has spent his entire religious career in the area, starting out as a priest at St. Gregory’s in Hamilton. He then became chaplain at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville (where the football field is named after him), then chaplain at Rider University, then priest personnel director for the diocese. In 1997, after the priest at St. Paul’s died, he was asked to come to Princeton. “Well, asked isn’t really the right word,” says Nolan. “The bishop tells you.”
Nolan knows he has to bump up his technology quotient to stay with the times. He uses a GPS and his BlueTooth in the car and sets the alarm on his BlackBerry to make sure he leaves for meetings and appointments on time. There’s a camera set up in the choir loft and the church videotapes a mass each weekend and sends it to the Princeton Care Center, a nursing home.
“We now have a website — everything’s on that website — and we’re thinking about more things, maybe putting homilies and sermons on Facebook and Twitter.” He says young people are so used to E-mail, for example, that they barely even use the phone anymore. “I’ll get an E-mail from someone who wants to get married and then two weeks later they call and say, ‘When’s our first appointment?’”
Nolan might not have an E-mail address for God in his BlackBerry’s address book, but he came up with something just as good. A couple of Christmas Eves ago, Nolan hatched the brilliant idea of having someone call him in the middle of the children’s service, when all the children are gathered up front. When Nolan’s BlackBerry rings he says to the kids, “Hold on, let me get this. Hello?” Then he covers the receiver and stage whispers to the kids, “It’s God!”
He says their eyes get as big as saucers. Nolan then proceeds to tell God that a whole lot of very good children are right in front of him. He pulls out several of their “ways I’ve been good this year” messages, which the kids have handwritten on little pieces of paper and tucked under the baby Jesus on a pillow, and reads them into the phone. Even when Nolan’s saying mass or hearing confessions, he’s never far from the virtual world. “I just put my BlackBerry on vibrate.”