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Ten Years of Online Faith

In September, the Catholic Information Network marked its tenth anniversary of online evangelization and faith-building. One of the first Catholic presences in cyberspace, CIN continues to grow and adapt, providing many specialized forums (“mail lists”) to discuss Catholic topics and serving as a repository of papal documents, tracts, and articles. The Web site is at www.cin.org.

I knew CIN sponsors Mike and Sharon Mollerus online for a couple of years before I met them in the flesh. Having been a sysop (system operator) of a computer bulletin board system (BBS), I knew what dedication they showed in keeping CIN afloat, through many upgrades and crashes. It is a costly and time-devouring ministry. Why do they do it?

Sharon recently talked with me about CIN’s past ten years and looked ahead to the next few. The interview was conducted, of course, by e-mail, even though we now live scarcely two miles apart.

NEWKIRK: Can you tell me a little about CIN—what it is and what purpose it serves?

MOLLERUS: CIN is an electronic information service for Catholics and those inquiring about the faith. Previously a BBS network, it now operates primarily through a dedicated server on the Internet. CIN was founded to offer information on the Catholic faith, especially through the writings of the Holy Father, by way of the unthreatening and even anonymous electronic medium. It also offers a place for Catholics to gather and share their faith on a daily basis.

NEWKIRK: Besides files and mail lists, what else does CIN offer?

MOLLERUS: It offers archives of the mail lists along with a search engine [an electronic index], which given the nature of many of our specialized mail lists, offers a unique research source. For example, we archive mail lists on Natural Family Planning, Carmelite Spirituality, Eastern Catholics. People with specific interests can consult lists that contain invaluable information on particular topics. Additionally, through Web-based message boards, people can post announcements of upcoming events and other services of interest to Catholics. We see the Internet as an avenue for important interaction between Catholics. Our Montfort Spirituality mail list, for example, is the equivalent of an online study group led by one of the leading Mariologists in the world, Fr. Pat Gaffney. Rather than simply offering a repository of Catholic texts, the interactive mail lists and Web-boards open up an exchange among Catholics and others. 

NEWKIRK: How did CIN come into being? Were there many other Catholic groups online then?

MOLLERUS: Our close friends Martin and Jeanne Anne Ford first came up with the idea of CIN. In the summer of 1987, Martin was visiting BBSs in the San Francisco area, particularly those run by Fundamentalists. These Bible Christians had started many BBSs throughout the country and Catholics almost none. He asked me to help defend the faith on one such BBS in Oakland. We were soon kicked off! At that point we decided we would start a Catholic board and would invite all to visit and discuss with us. As much as possible, and requiring common decency, we have maintained an open board, ready to discuss any and all issues with those who will join us. In September 1987, the Holy Father visited San Francisco, and we started our board in honor of his visit. Our first task was to track down and make available in electronic form the talks he was giving in San Francisco. We believed that his teachings were so little known and so relevant to the daily issues in our lives that we wanted to make them more readily available to the general public. One of the operating principles of the electronic age is providing unmediated, undigested information in its original form. As we read transcripts of Congressional hearings, so we can read what the Holy Father actually said in its entire context, rather than a news service blurb.

NEWKIRK: Then what?

MOLLERUS: Once we set up the first CIN node, we discovered a few isolated Catholic boards in the U.S.—for example, one in Houston and the Fordham Jesuit board in New York. We set up a network between these boards, echoing [relaying] messages every evening through common echo conferences. Thus, CIN was the first Catholic electronic network linking Catholic boards. Within the first few months, Paul Sadek contacted me and told me about Fishnet. Fishnet, run by Fr. Hal Stockert, is the Catholic section of a large ecumenical electronic network. The members had been typing and gathering Vatican II documents and encyclicals and holding online ecumenical discussions. It was very exciting to discover others with the same interest of making these Catholic texts available widely and, in our case, always free of charge. Our close collaboration and friendship with Fishnet continues.

NEWKIRK: I know you started with a BBS system. How have things changed since the coming of the Internet?

MOLLERUS: The BBS system was well-organized for echoing messages (the equivalent of mail lists). However, it was always difficult to distribute large texts, such as papal documents. There was a pay service offering such, but originally the typing and exchange of documents was a cooperative effort. Also, to keep phone costs down, people needed to connect with a local BBS that carried the CIN mail lists. Fortunately, as CIN was on the GT Network, many secular BBSs carried CIN discussion and information lists! In this way, within a short time our Catholic discussion lists were reaching as far as Australia, the U.K., and Canada. We have become used to this kind of exchange on the Internet, but ten years ago it was very new and exciting! 

NEWKIRK: What’s the situation today?

MOLLERUS: Now, the Internet makes access much easier and cheaper for the individual, and so many more people, previously out of range of a local BBS, can have contact, but it is considerably more expensive to operate our network. Files and archives are much easier to access through the Web, especially for those with less technical knowledge. On the other hand, the expenses of providing CIN have gone up considerably. As we have always been committed to offering a completely free service, we opened St. Gabriel Gift & Book Nook (www.stgabriel.com) on the Internet. The proceeds of this store help pay our server costs, including the monthly connect costs. As the technical standards are always changing, this allows us to make the upgrades we need to keep the mail lists and other services moving. Along with St. Gabriel’s and because of it, we developed an inexpensive shopping basket program (Spreesoft, www.spreesoft.com) which we are just starting to market, also to help CIN. 

NEWKIRK: Who takes care of the technical end of things? 

MOLLERUS: Mike handles the technical end—upgrades, troubleshooting, security. He is also the “heavy” when moderation or policy problems come up. I design the Web pages, answer all the mail (well, most of it!), and generally run the mail lists. The role of the list moderator has become more autonomous than in the past, especially now that the software allows off-site moderators technical measures to control their lists. [A moderator oversees discussion on a mail list, reminding participants to stay on topic and observe the rules.] We run our lists on a few principles and after that try to give wide authority to the moderator. Those principles are that moderators must be faithful to the magisterium, they must be open and courteous to others, including those they don’t agree with, and we don’t allow attacks on others, including bishops, priests, etc. There is perhaps a place for muckraking, but CIN is not it. Otherwise, the moderators run their own lists. Not every list is “open forum,” although CIN Main always will be. Many lists are kept strictly on-topic for the sake of their purpose.

NEWKIRK: How is CIN funded?

MOLLERUS: Martin and Jeanne Anne Ford bought the first CIN computer. It was replaced several times by us, and in the days of the BBS each BBS operator purchased and maintained his own system. With the Internet we have paid most of the expenses out of our own pockets. Just recently, we are getting a little help from St. Gabriel’s. We have avoided asking for money, and we have never charged for our services and have no intention of doing so. One summer, about seven years ago, we had a GT Network meeting in San Francisco, the network which had, until its demise, carried CIN for many years. At that meeting there was a raffle for two U.S. Robotics Courier modems, very fine and expensive equipment at the time. It was a small gathering and I put some of my money into tickets. We were about evenly split between CIN sysops [BBS system operators] and “secular” sysops. I walked away with both modems (one given to another CIN node and one for ourselves) and a good deal of software! We were all blown away by my “luck”! At that time, Paul Meiners, the Catholic founder of the GT Network and author of its BBS software, said we deserved it for the good work we were doing. It was thanks to the GT Network that we were able to piggyback so far with the CIN mail lists early on.

NEWKIRK: How have CIN lists changed over the years? Any difference in the type of user?

MOLLERUS: One of the finest developments on CIN has been the specialized Catholic list. We have always had lists such as CIN Prayer, dedicated only to the daily Mass readings, a reading from The Imitation of Christ, and a few prayer intentions. But now we have lists such as Carmelite Spirituality, Eastern Catholics, and Montfort Spirituality, which are small and very focused. CIN East was the first place for the announcement of the U.S. ordination of a married Melkite priest last Christmas. CIN Carmelite also has been a source for breaking news during St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s centenary year. These lists allow people with a specific interest to gather and to exchange in a way not previously possible because of distance. CIN Jubilee 2000 is another notable list, run by Fr. Richard Gant, S.O.L.T., for news and links relating to the millennium observances. In the BBS days, most of the hotter exchanges were between Catholics and Fundamentalists. We did not have so many arguments among Catholics as we do now, e.g., over women priests and homosexuality. On the other hand, perhaps because there are so many mail lists and avenues, CIN has developed a solid community of people who genuinely like each other and like to stay in daily contact (when the server isn’t down). This group seems to be dominated by converts, a good thing, we cradle-Catholic founders believe! 

NEWKIRK: Have you made many real-world friends through CIN?

MOLLERUS: It is strange to have such frequent contact with electronic friends and more infrequent with the real-world ones. After all, you have to set up something, like dinner or a visit to the park, to see the latter. With modem friends you just zip off a note or catch them live through chat. People on CIN are very accessible to each other. We have met a number of people from CIN as they came through town and visited us for dinner. I am very close to some people I have not yet met in real life.

NEWKIRK: Have there been any serious problems? What was the greatest challenge or catastrophe CIN faced?

MOLLERUS: There have been many obstacles, both technically and with people. I remember moving to San Diego about seven years ago, with very little money, and our computer system went down and simply had to be replaced. Fr. Vincent Benoit, O.P., our long-time modem and “real” friend in Oregon, routed the CIN echo lists through his board while we were down. We were starting to enjoy this hiatus, except that he called us weekly to find out when we were going to take the baby back home! We managed to get another system and take over again. There have been many, many late nights, spoiled vacation times, trying to keep the system running. One of the hardest times I recall was quite a few years ago when we had a large and very acrimonious split among the CIN sysops (BBS owners). Several times we have had trouble over our decision to keep “open” boards and specifically because we allowed Evangelical controversialist James White to debate in our message areas for years. We saw that he was solidly matched by CIN users, especially Joe Gallegos. At any rate, a group of sysops finally left to start their own network, a sensible choice. We were very happy to receive two back who realized that, although we were open to all, we were solidly committed to the Church, without reservation. We have believed from the time that we were kicked off that Fundamentalist board that we need be afraid of no question that comes our way, because the Church’s doctrines are very defensible. 

NEWKIRK: What has been the benefit to you, personally, of running CIN?

MOLLERUS: For me, CIN is a duty or vocation, something I’ve realized particularly over the last few years. All lay Catholics are called to evangelize, and we have been given this special means of doing so. I usually enjoy this work very much. Mike and I attended the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco, and this is a way to put to good use our fine education, for which we are very grateful. CIN offers abundant opportunities for learning patience and offering up annoyances, large and small. Still, I need several more decades to profit, I believe!

NEWKIRK: Has it affected your home life at all?

MOLLERUS: Well, of course! Eoin O’Riain, our Irish CIN Charismatic moderator, says he thinks we take the computer to bed. CIN is the first thing every morning, but if possible we avoid it in the evening and limit Sunday time (even as a spiritual work of mercy). It is (with St. Gabriel’s) my full-time volunteer job. Fortunately, it’s flexible enough that I can drop it when family needs come up. There are often conflicts—for example, the system seems to go down at the same time one of the kids is sick or Mike has late nights at the hospital [Mike’s “day job” is as a physician]. As much as we try to keep a continuous service, this is our second apostolate, the first being our family. There are situations beyond our control, and we just keep going. I don’t think the girls understand what we do very well—it’s been a few years since our last CIN sysop/moderator party—but we do have to organize family time so that CIN doesn’t take over, something that can happen easily.

NEWKIRK: What are your plans for CIN over the next few years?

MOLLERUS: When we first went on the Internet, it was unclear what CIN’s role was. There were several large, well-funded Catholic on-line services. Since then, we have found the mail lists to be very important and in demand for people, so we will continue to offer these public lists, as well as their archives. We are expanding into French and Spanish mail lists as well. I believe CIN’s role is to continue to offer an interactive channel to Catholics and others, rather than a one-way information repository. We also have been involved in the formation of an IRC chat channel (Dalnet #catholic). In the future, we may offer Catholic chat at our site. I believe the Web-boards will also be put to more use in the future. Additionally, we were very fortunate to have Father Mateo with CIN for the first nine years until his death last year. Father Mateo answered hundreds of questions through our Ask Father conference. We are working on archiving and publishing these messages, a special patrimony we have received at CIN.

NEWKIRK: What makes all the work worthwhile?

MOLLERUS: I know many conversions have been helped along through the contacts made by means of CIN and the texts we offer. I also know that many Catholics, who might otherwise feel isolated, find their spiritual community, day-by-day, on CIN. This can be true for Catholic homeschoolers (CIN Education), natural family planning instructors (CIN NFP), or people discerning a vocation (CIN Vow). I have also set up the site to help the casual Catholic inquirer, so that by browsing through he may find something of inspiration to lead him to consider the faith more seriously. I am aware that many people visit our Mass Readings page (www.cin.org/massread.html) daily to meditate on the Scriptures of the day. It is my firm belief that many people we do not know of have found some benefit today, something perhaps to help against a temptation or a consolation in sorrow. I am confident that God multiples our small efforts and uses our sacrifices to bring his Good News to the world.

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