In the beginning, there was the spoof, and the spoof was good.

"Microsoft Bids to Acquire Catholic Church," read the headline of an authentic-looking Associated Press news wire story that quickly became one of the most widely circulated practical jokes yet in cyberspace.The first two paragraphs bore a certain verisimilitude:

"VATICAN CITY (AP) - In a joint press conference in St. Peter's Square this morning, Micro-soft Corp. and the Vatican announced that the Redmond software giant will acquire the Roman Catholic Church in exchange for `an unspecified number of shares of Microsoft common stock.'

"With the acquisition, Pope John Paul II will become the senior vice president of the combined company's new Religious Software Division, while Microsoft senior vice presidents Michael Maples and Steven Ballmer will be invested in the College of Cardinals, said Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates."

The bogus article, which went on to provide details of Microsoft's plans to license electronic rights to the Bible and to offer sacraments on line, appeared anonymously in early December on the Internet, a global computer network used by millions of people.

Within hours, in accordance with longstanding Internet procedures, the humor was copied and passed electronically to friends, electronic mailing lists and discussion groups on other computer networks.

Eventually, the story reached talk show host Rush Limbaugh, a frequent user of the Compuserve network, who read it on his nationally syndicated television program as part of his opening monologue.

Outraged listeners who didn't get the joke contacted Microsoft Corp., which after fielding complaints for several days issued its own electronic news release on Dec. 16.

"In response to a fictitious Associated Press story," the company's release began, "Microsoft wishes to clarify that the story has no truth and was not generated by the company."

Later that day, Associated Press - apparently the real Associated Press this time - issued its own electronic clarification of Microsoft's clarification.

"The fake news story purported to have been written by The Associated Press," the AP release said. "The news service said it had no connection with the joke."

Microsoft responded by issuing a clarification of AP's clarification of Microsoft's clarification.

"The AP did not originate or distribute a wire story based on a made-up story circulated over the Internet," the Microsoft report said. "Microsoft apologizes to anyone who was offended by the document."

"Offended?" John A. McCoy, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in western Washington, responded. "We thought our prayers had finally been answered."