Welcome to Cor et Anima Una

Dear friends,

Bishop Thomas Dowd here. The site you are reading is my personal web presence on the 'net. Thank you for stopping by! The title is taken from my episcopal motto, and it means "to be of one heart and soul". It is an ideal of how I believe the Church (and all of humanity) should live, and it is my vision for my leadership as a bishop.

I have been involved with publishing material on the Internet for a long time. I discovered the 'net while working for Ericsson in the early nineties. I was the first webmaster for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops back in the spring of 1995, when it became the first Catholic conference of bishops on the World Wide Web. I started my own website not long after, on different platforms (anybody remember Tripod? Geocities?), and after I became a priest I eventually got my own domain (starting with fatherdowd.org).

And then came blogging. I started my first blog, called Waiting in Joyful Hope, on the Blogger platform back in November 2003. The purpose was simple: to share with my parishioners the day-to-day experiences of priestly ministry. As it turned out, it was the very first blog by a Canadian Roman Catholic priest, and it was a hit. And the impact went beyond mere popularity. Sometime after a trip I made to the Philippines in May 2005 a small group of us back in Canada furnished a small Filipino elementary school with books. We didn't have to do a dime of fundraising, because I simply posted the details of the project online and asked for contributions. And people gave: all the money we needed was raised within a week! Blogging revealed to me the power of community, even if it was only online. It was Kickstarter before Kickstarter even existed.

As a platform Blogger was a bare-bones service, but it worked, and I hacked the heck out of it to extend its functionality. True story: it was then that I missed my chance to make a gazillion dollars. You see, as part of my preparation for leading a group to World Youth Day in 2005 I wrote an SMS-to-blog gateway program that let me write blog posts from cell phone text messages, and vice versa (this was the days before smartphones). Of course, I was limited to 160 characters at a time, so I got rid of the service once I was back home. After all, who would want to do that kind of microblogging? And then, a year later, this new service called "Twitter" was launched...I guess God never wanted me to be a billionaire.

I eventually moved my blog to a Wordpress platform on a new domain (fatherdowd.net). Now don't get me wrong, I love Wordpress. But to be honest, I found it too had its limits. I had started to work in the administration in the Archdiocese, which put a crimp in my blogging style, but from my point of view it was just a chance to turn some lemons into lemonade. Some friends of mine and I started a new web-based Christian ministry called Adventus.org, and we had high hopes for it. While we started again with Wordpress, we wanted more than a blog: we wanted a portal that would lead people into a rich community of personal growth in faith. Students from a nearby college started doing internships to build the tools we needed. It would have been "gamification" and "web 2.0" before people even knew the terms. Alas, it did not come to pass. The tools we had were just not capable of doing the job, and people had a hard time understanding what it was all about. This included Revenue Canada, who refused us status as a registered charity. Had we wanted to build a physical building for the purpose of gathering and forming a community of faith, it would not have been a problem, but the virtual "spiritual home" we wanted to create didn't make the cut: they just didn't think "running a website" was a credible form of genuine religious ministry. I wonder if that thinking has changed since 2006...

Although my work at the diocese had precluded me from blogging like in the old days, I still kept my personal website going as a useful tool for my ministry, still hacking away, trying to develop my own platform to be able to offer the content I really wanted. At one point I wrote my own web application that let people request mass intentions, and requests came in from all over the world. It reminded me of what the good programming was capable of doing to support the work of a priest. So when I was named a bishop in July 2011, I felt the time had come to reboot my web presence. The old domain was retired, and bishopdowd.net was launched.

The media got wind of my experience and I was nicknamed the "blogging bishop" and the "Facebooking father". Still, even that new burst of activity faded. As always, my interest wasn't just in the publishing side. I was, and remain, fascinated by how these new tools help build up (and indeed shape) people and communities. So I started to explore using Drupal as a new site platform. Drupal was pretty brutal to use, with a ridiculously steep learning curve, and while it possessed a lot of the functionality I had been slowly working on for my own platform it didn't integrate it very well. That changed when version 8.0 was released. What a difference! It is more than just a blog or site builder, it is a whole content management framework that make it easy to build entire web applications with a few mouse clicks. And if that sounds really geeky to you, well yes, yes it is. (smile) The new Drupal isn't perfect, as I'd like to see it be more of a "community management framework" than something focused on content, but it is a big improvement and something I can work with.

As of this writing, I am now in a new phase of my Drupal evolution. I briefly switched back to Blogger, believe it or not, just because the tool was so much easier to use, but now that more and more modules have been released that extend the operation of Drupal, it has allowed for a vastly improved content creation experience. I also learned from my mistakes in my initial Drupal setup, mistakes which are harder to fix once you've created new content (Drupal is not very forgiving that way). Finally, I decided to get a new domain name, thomasdowd.ca, to host my web site. I want my site to be as multilingual friendly as possible, and the older "bishopdowd,net" didn't cut it, as the word "bishop" is an English-only term. Also, I wanted to make it clear that my content was being served from a Canadian server (this is for legal reasons related to copyright), and so I am in the process of moving my content to that new service provider.

So once more into the breach! Not because I need distractions from what I do as a bishop, believe me, but because I think this is part of what I should be doing as a bishop. To be honest, I'm not sure we in the Church quite realise yet what these tools mean and how they can be put to practical use. More than once I've been asked to advise on this or that website or social media platform, but it's not about (and has never really been) about the technology, it is about how that technology builds connections between people and ideas. It's about more than just software, it involves profound issues like the commercialization of relationships, the meaning of privacy, the nature of property, net neutrality, and so on. These are moral questions, often related to social justice, as much as they are technical ones. They can even stretch into the spiritual. After all, Catholics profess belief in something called the communion of saints, the idea that all believers are connected with each other by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The communion of saints is, if you think about it, the ultimate social network, not dependent on geographical locality at all and transcending even the veil of death itself. In a certain way, the Church should be more than just ready to embrace the potential of what these technologies have to offer: as "experts in humanity", we should be at the forefront of their development, in all its aspects: software, hardware, legal issues, community development, and so on.

If Jesus was walking the earth today, he'd have a blog. And who knows, perhaps he'd add yet another parable to describe the Kingdom of God: "The Kingdom of God is like a community based web platform, with people connected from all over the world, speaking different languages, coming from different cultures, establishing friendships and collaborating, learning from one another and sharing who they are and what they know for the benefit of all." I'll admit it doesn't have the poetry of the Gospels, but it's romance to a geek heart like mine.

God bless!