Pope John Paul II is preparing to publish an official document over the internet for the first time. The move "underlines the Catholic Church's commitment to modern forms of social communication", the Vatican said yesterday.

The Pope himself will press the 'send' button at a ceremony in the Vatican on Thursday, delivering copies of his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in OceaniaThe Church in Oceania — by mail to far-flung dioceses around the continent, a Vatican spokeswoman said.

The document summarises the conclusions of a synod of bishops from Oceania who met in the Vatican in late 1998. Normally the Pope delivers such documents in person, making a personal visit to the continent and attending a signing ceremony there. On this occasion the ailing 81-year-old pontiff has decided to skip the trip, sign the document at a ceremony in the Vatican's Clementine Hall, and let the net take care of delivery.

"The idea is not to save money on paper or postal costs, because paper versions of the document will be sent as well," the spokeswoman said. "Instead of delivering the document by hand, he will be giving it virtually over internet. Oceania is a long way away and this saves him the journey."

Given the geographic extension of Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand and a host of island states dotted over the Pacific Ocean, the internet has already played an important role in the consultative process that led to the production of Ecclesia in Oceania, the Vatican said in a prepared statement.

"This is the first time that the Pope will be doing this in person, and it underlines the way in which he has embraced modern technology," the Vatican spokeswoman added.

Photographers and television cameras will be on hand to record the moment when the papal digit moves the Vatican into a new era of electronic publishing. The Vatican has been using the internet to disseminate its documents for several years, but this is the first time that internet becomes part of the formal publishing process and enters a centuries-old papal rite.