By Kathleen Naab
KANSAS CITY, Kansas, MARCH 29, 2011 (Zenit.org).- David Cheney says his Web site catholic-hierarchy.org is simply a hobby grown out of control -- something he squeezes into a few moments before heading to his day job, or tackles by sifting through Vatican yearbooks, history texts and feedback from users.
It's a hobby, however, that is providing a silent, unique service to the Church.
Catholic-hierarchy.org profiles more than 30,000 bishops -- the entire current hierarchy of the Church, with the exception of China. But it also goes back in time (to the colonization era for the Americas, and the Reformation for Europe), with facts such as who ordained whom, and how long this or that bishop served in this or that see. Viewers can find bishops listed according to age (the youngest, a Romanian, is only 40.29 years old), or the official names of the Barnabites and the Baladites (the Clerics Regular of St. Paul and the Order of Lebanese Maronite, respectively).
ZENIT's own editorial director, Jesús Colina, has this to say about it: "My staff and I consult catholic-hierarchy.org dozens of times a day. Behind basically every reference we make to any member of the Church hierarchy -- and we make thousands -- there's a quick look at this site."
ZENIT decided to meet the man behind catholic-hierarchy.org. Cheney is a layman, a cradle Catholic from the Kansas City area, with a love for travel, and currently employed in computer support. In this interview, he explains the history -- and perhaps the future -- of the site.
ZENIT: Are you a history buff? A technology aficionado? A great lover of the Church? Or just fascinated by the details of bishops' histories? In other words, what was the motivation to create this Web site?
Cheney: The earliest versions of the site only covered Texas -- where I lived at the time -- and only covered living bishops. When I moved back to the midwest, I started to expand it, first to all of the U.S. and then adding deceased bishops. Eventually it expanded to the entire world and most bishops from the last couple of centuries. Currently it has more than 30,000 bishops in the databases.
At the time I first started working on the project, there were less than a dozen U.S. dioceses with Web sites. It was mostly meant to provide basic information that wasn't available on the Internet at the time.
I have always been interested in history and the several bishops that I have known over the years have all been fascinating folks.
ZENIT: You update the site regularly, and appointments are reported as soon as they are announced. How do you get your information? How much time do you invest on a daily basis?
Cheney: Most of the daily updates are based on the Bollettino -- an Italian-language Vatican service. It publishes daily press releases a bit after 5 a.m. my time -- 12 noon Rome time. Depending on my work schedule, some days I can process the changes and have the Web site updated before I head off to my day job. But sometimes they will have additional late announcements or there are simply too many changes and then I'll post the updates in the afternoon, after work.
Most of the consecration information comes from Charles N. Bransom, Jr. -- an expert in that field. A lot of other information, like deaths and installations, typically are found either on the Web or from users of the Web site via the feedback form.
Older information comes from a variety of sources, most of which are listed on the Web site. The most significant are the Annuario Pontificio and Hierarchia Catholica Medii et Recentioris Aevi.
ZENIT: How do you support the site, economically speaking?
Cheney: There are some advertisements that appear on the Web site and those provide enough income to cover the basic costs -- domain name, hosting services, some reference works, etc. -- and I do get occasional donations. The manpower -- a.k.a., me -- is all donated.
ZENIT: Have you received any feedback on the site from the Church hierarchy? And the laity? Do you know how many visits you get each day?
Cheney: I typically get about 6,500 visitors a day viewing over 40,000 pages a day. Notices of new appointments, retirements, etc. are also sent out to about 1,600 subscribers via two online groups, and another 1,000 subscribe to the RSS feed.
I get quite a bit of feedback on the Web site. Some of it is for things like genealogy information or baptismal records, or requests to pass things on to bishops -- things that I just don't have any way to do, unfortunately. But I also get a good number of minor corrections and additions, which are a huge help. Details like installation dates and who ordained a bishop to the priesthood are often difficult to find except from local sources.
I do get some feedback from bishops -- or from someone on their staff -- often to make minor corrections or additions.
ZENIT: So you know more or less who uses the site?
Cheney: Just based on the feedback, it seems to get a lot of use from chancery staffs, folks in the religious and secular press, seminarians, history buffs, and folks in dioceses that are vacant or when the ordinary is close to retirement age.
The visitors are from all over. In the last month, for example, the top five countries for visitors are: United States, Italy, Germany, Poland and Canada. In that same time period, I had visitors from 204 different countries.
ZENIT: So all of the Church hierarchy is posted on the site, or is there some information that still needs to be inputted from a particular area or epoch of the Church? Where does the historical information come from?
Cheney: All of the current hierarchy is listed on the site with one exception, and that is China. Because of the unique situation there, it seems best not to show the information of modern bishops -- which are now often acknowledged by the Vatican after their death, if not before.
The other difficult area is bishops not currently in full union with the Church. That includes the Lefebvre bishops and the Orthodox. I look forward to the day when I can add them to the site.
Most of the information for the Americas -- North, Central, and South -- is fairly complete with the exception of the early colonial period where the records are often difficult to obtain and/or contradictory.
Most of Europe is in good shape for the last few centuries. It gets much more difficult once you start reaching the Reformation era. A lot of dioceses disappeared and reappeared in different configurations and I'm only at the beginning stages of getting those structures in place.
Another challenging area for me is the Eastern Catholic Churches, mostly because I don't have a good understanding of the structures. The site has improved a lot in this area, but it still has a ways to go.
ZENIT: Benedict XVI is a great advocate of new communications technology in this so-called digital world, though he also voices caution. For this year's World Communications Day, he noted: "There exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world." Do you see your site as a contribution to this?
Cheney: One of the suggestions I get from time to time is to add "valid" bishops that are not in union with Rome. That is one area that I won't compromise on. As for what is on the site, it's mostly just facts, at least for now. If I am ever able to expand the site to include more information about their time and activities, then that will become a much bigger challenge.
ZENIT: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Cheney: With this project, I have enough data that it will literally take years to do the data entry. And that, of course, doesn't include the almost daily changes that occur.
I have another, much smaller Web site, www.cathcorn.org, that has several smaller projects. I really haven't had the time to work on it.
There are a number of other projects that I'd love to do. One that I've considered for a long time is creating a site that documents the tombs and monuments in the churches of Rome. Of course that would require a rather extended stay in Rome, which I wouldn't mind at all either!
By Kathleen Naab