Vatican City, Nov. 20--(RNS) Pope John Paul II this week will become the first Roman Catholic pontiff to issue an official church document via the Internet, the Vatican said Monday.

The Vatican said that in a ceremony in the Apostolic Palace on Thursday (Nov. 22), John Paul will sign his message summing up the work of a meeting of the bishops of Oceania held at the Vatican in late 1998. "After signing the document, the Holy Father will transmit the text of the exhortation via Internet to all the dioceses of Oceania in English and French versions," the Vatican said.

The pope previously has traveled to the region concerned to issue his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation following a continental Synod of Bishops. The Vatican gave no explanation for the change in custom, but John Paul is 81 years old and suffers from a neurological disease that limits his mobility. Although he has continued to travel and plans to visit Bulgaria in May, his trips outside Italy have become shorter in recent years. "In fact," the announcement said, "given the geographical dispersion and the expanse of the continent (of Oceania), electronic communication had an important role during all the synodal process from the initial preparations."

The Vatican said it would be the first time in the history of the church that a pope has issued a pontifical document electronically. The Vatican has for several years posted documents on its Web site (www.vatican.va), but only after distributing them in print.

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