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Monk targets Catholic slice of on-line market

NCR Staff

Think of him as a cross between St. Paul and Bill Gates. Br. Mary Aquinas Woodworth wants to evangelize in cyberspace and to do it in a way that builds both an apostolic and a financial bottom line.

Woodworth, who designed the well-known Monastery of Christ in the Desert Web site, was in Denver to try to sell the bishops -- and any venture capitalists within earshot -- on his plan for a Catholic Internet service that would capture the user’s total online experience, from E-mail to chat to Web browsing. As he sees it, building such a domain is the next evangelical frontier.

“People spend time online, and commercial companies want as much of their attention as possible,” Woodworth told NCR. “The church should capture that attention by providing a rich spiritual environment. We need to offer all the services people are seeking, but our objective is not just to sell stuff but to give it a spiritual sense.”

Woodworth told the bishops that, if he can capture 10 percent of the Catholics estimated to be in the United States, that’s 7.5 million people -- and if they are willing to pay $5 a month for the service, a bargain compared to America Online’s $19.95, that’s $450 million in annual revenue. “We would be the number two online community in the world,” Woodworth predicted. And with Latin America’s 400 million Catholics and Europe’s 270 million, the potential for growth is virtually unlimited.

“It would be profitable to invest $100 million in the U.S. alone to own the time and attention of that audience,” Woodworth told the bishops. “We’re looking for financial backing. We’re seeking partners and venture capitalists to invest in a self-sustaining, competitive approach to the market. ... It’s very expensive to build online communities. It’s necessary for the church to change the way it does things. We need the same investment in time and talent as the commercial entities.

“We could fund extraordinary content, compelling content” with the right backing, Woodworth concluded. “I’d do it and make money.”

“America Online is the model, the competitor,” Woodworth told NCR. “They’re doing it, of course, to sell ads. The idea is to build a Catholic equivalent. The power of it is, if you do it right, people will touch the faith on a daily basis.”

Woodworth sees his service as a gateway to a “rich diversity of Catholic communities.” He insists he is not looking to exalt one version of what it means to be Catholic over others. “I’m very comfortable with the church and its teachings. I think they’re true, that there’s a deep intellectual coherence. But I’m not coming from a right-wing Catholic view,” Woodworth said. In fact, he wants to help groups as diverse as the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Worker establish online presence.

For Woodworth, the project is the latest twist in a personal journey that has taken him from the software industry into religious life, and now back into the digital maelstrom. He grew up in Denver but decided to trek to Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., for his undergraduate degree -- attracted less by its reputation for dogged Catholic conservatism than for its Great Books curriculum. It was there he decided to convert. He quickly felt the tug of religious life.

After the Carthusians told him to take some time for discernment, Woodworth turned to the other great passion of his life, computers, and went to work for a high tech software firm in Denver. He worked as a programmer and systems analyst. After a few successful years, Woodworth felt called to a mode of life even more radical than the Carthusians offered. He sought permission to become what canon law calls a “diocesan hermit” -- someone who lives in total solitude with the permission of a bishop.

That decision led Woodworth to the Santa Fe diocese and to a hermitage adjacent to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in rural New Mexico, one of the most isolated spots anywhere in the world. It was there that Woodworth lived the hermetic vocation for four years, fully intending it to be for life. “I went in thinking I’d never see a computer again,” he said.

But God, as Woodworth believes, had other plans. In 1994, the monastery had an influx of vocations, and its abbot turned to Woodworth for help in figuring out how to pay the bills. Woodworth suggested Web page design as a logical extension of the monastic tradition of illuminated manuscripts, and suddenly the monastery -- which, when Woodworth entered, had no electricity and used kerosene lamps -- was running computers off solar panels and using cellular phones to connect to the Internet.

One of the monastery’s first projects was to put up its own Website, www.christdesert.org, and that is when things really took off. “At our peak we had 10,000 hits an hour,” Woodworth said. “Actually, we probably had many more, but 10,000 exhausted the capacity of our server.”

“We took down New Mexico,” Woodworth says with a grin. The entire state is connected to the Net by one Internet service provider. The intense demand for the monastery’s Web site caused it to crash.

What is the appeal? “Amidst all the chaos on the Net, here was this peaceful, beautiful site. It gives you a taste of what monastic life is like,” Woodworth said. The site offers pictures of the monks at work and in prayer, sound clips of their chant, an E-mail slot for prayer requests, and images of the monastery itself in the different seasons. “The prayer requests have become an apostolate in themselves,” Woodworth said. “We have two brothers who now handle that full-time, doing nothing else.”

The site became a media sensation, with stories in USA Today and The New York Times and segments on “CBS Sunday Morning” and ABC’s “World New Tonight.” Woodworth himself has become something of a celebrity -- even surrounded by princes of the church, in Denver it was Woodworth most journalists sought out.

Woodworth and the monks of Christ in the Desert were invited by the Vatican to help work on the Holy See’s Web site. The experience taught him that daring new visions of what cyberspace means for the church are not going to come from Rome.

“Based on the experience working on the Vatican [Web site], I did a lot of deep thinking about the church and technology. I realized it wasn’t going to happen from the Vatican,” Woodworth said.

“High technology and the new media are not their thing. I also thought about the existing religious orders, and realized those institutions aren’t up to doing this either.”

In Denver, Woodworth brought the same message to the bishops, telling them bluntly that high tech is not, and should not be, their forte. “The cultural and managerial demands of new media design and presentation and the development of doctrine are different. ... The hierarchy is not itself the perfect environment for developing content. It’s not perpetually creative,” he said.

For that kind of creativity, Woodworth has founded what he calls “nextscribe studios,” the corporate nucleus for the Catholic Internet presence he hopes to build. He says he knows of more than 100 Catholics ready to work with him, yearning for a way to combine their passion for technology with their spiritual leanings. He eventually envisions a new religious community, the Scribes of St. Peter, whose apostolate will be in cyberspace.

“The culture of high tech work is distinct. It’s extremely demanding, it takes a lot of concentration. It often takes you eight to 10 hours to get your mind around a problem. It doesn’t fit in easily to the monastic schedule. The work demands a new kind of spirituality,” Woodworth said. “A lot of religious orders developed in an agrarian age. A whole understanding of the meaning of work was built into Benedictine spirituality, for example. It’s a question of pace, of a more passive approach to work. Work is not an active part of the spiritual life. It simply happens naturally, because of the seasons.

“The modern sense of work is, in a way, a much more perfect vision. Instead of work being a simple necessity, in a well-managed company, work is ultimately focused on the other -- what can I do to help him or her? This evolution gives us the opportunity to build a deep spirituality around work.”

After his presentation in Denver, one of the bishops rose to ask Woodworth if all of this dreaming wasn’t just a little too grandiose, too ambitious. Couldn’t we accomplish the same thing, he asked, just by pushing the national bishops’ Web site in parish bulletins?

“To really capture time and attention, you have to provide a comprehensive service,” Woodworth answered. “But the key point is that it’s sustainable, it’s possible, instead of thinking we can’t do that. The church shouldn’t give it up. There’s too much at stake.”

And if it never happens? “I’d love to go back to the hermitage,” Woodworth said. “I miss it intensely.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 17, 1998