This is the sixth of seven articles on the Prairie Messenger and the past 100 years of journalism by the Benedictine monks of St. Peter’s Abbey.
The headline of the July 16, 1972, Prairie Messenger editorial read: “PM mirrors world.” Just three words. And they announced a profound change in the direction of the Catholic weekly. Editor at the time, Rev. Michael Pomedli, OSB, in his first editorial, explained his vision for the newspaper: “Vatican II is the first council that did not define anything but examined the road that the People of God are to tread. . . . It is only by examining Christian responses to the Spirit that we can be aware of the road we are to take. . . .”
Pomedli was inviting readers to express their opinions on church life and church issues. Similar to his predecessors, Pomedli agreed that the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s ushered in a spirit of renewal and openness. This Spirit, he believed, wanted Catholics to voice their opinions and it did not matter if they were in harmony with the teachings of the church.
The Catholic weekly was now a place where all the faithful, from the hierarchy to the parishioners, could have a say on the direction of the church. The Prairie Messenger no longer had the single role of explaining and defending church teachings as presented by the magisterium. The understanding of church had changed. The church was no longer a holy presence that needed defending from outside attacks. The church was a holy institution in need of renewal and reform and everyone had a say in its direction.
Pomedli, in his “examining Christian responses to the Spirit,” was announcing that the Spirit is present to everyone. Truth and inspiration flow from all levels of the church, he believed, not just from the hierarchy or from within the walls of the Vatican.
The Prairie Messenger of the 1970s, under Pomedli (1972-1976), and his successor, Brother Bede Hubbard, OSB (1976-1981), disclosed that the church is diverse and multicultural, a kaleidoscope of many peoples with many stories to tell. There are many understandings of church life and they may not always be in harmony with one another.
In his first editorial, Pomedli explained that he wanted “to mediate the need for social justice and personal reform.” He was aware that the Second Vatican Council stressed the importance of social justice and he gave it prominence, especially on the front page, through the narratives of those who struggled. Headline stories made visible the victims of poverty, oppression, racism, war and violence. Advocates of social justice challenged society’s pillars and decision-makers to re-evaluate their ways of thinking.
One issue clearly brought out the differences in “responses to the Spirit”: the church’s traditional teaching on marriage that opposed contraception. Pope Paul VI, in his 1968 encyclical Humane Vitae (On Human Life), defended the traditional understanding of marriage. The encyclical stirred much debate in an era when other churches were accepting contraception and opinion polls gave support to birth control. The Prairie Messenger, in a guest editorial, broke away from its traditional defence of the magisterium and sided with people who disagreed with the encyclical. The editorial stated that married couples, and not the church, should have the final say on family planning.
Abbot Jerome Weber wrote a letter to the editor politely disagreeing with the editorial and explaining the meaning of Humane Vitae. Weber’s stance was sharply rebuked by a parishioner in the diocese (St. Peter’s Abbacy) he led. The reader mocked the notion of celibate men making decisions on married life. Two other readers rebuked Weber and questioned his leadership for allowing an editorial he disagreed with to be published in a newspaper under his control, and then publically disagreeing with it. Prairie Messenger columnists, among them a Benedictine priest and diocesan priest, were among the critics of the encyclical. A female columnist said the encyclical illustrated how men have little understanding of the issues and struggles of women.
Columnists made known the diverse opinions on church life, some of which challenged church traditions. One columnist noted that, only a decade ago, the question of female priests was unthinkable. Now, with the decline in priests, it is becoming more acceptable to have women priests. Some Protestant denominations have accepted women as ministers. Rev. Richard McBrien, a Catholic priest, columnist and theologian, questioned traditional attitudes about the priesthood. It is a mistake, he said, to think the ordained priest is the dominant minister in the church. The ordained minister must support other ministries. McBrien blamed the monarchical church authority for the resignation of thousands of priests, who want a more consultative church. He noted the obligation of celibacy is based on a law of the church and not of God.
The Prairie Messenger promoted church life and a better understanding of church teachings. Columnists, among them Benedictine priests, answered questions about church teachings, and wrote meaningful articles on Scripture, Sunday readings, liturgy and the sacraments. Other columnists discussed family life and issues from a woman’s point of view.
Feature articles gave in-depth stories on a myriad of topics. Readers were informed about the history of religious communities and dioceses in Canada. Reports highlighted the work of the religious from St. Peter’s Abbey who were serving missions in Brazil. In-depth stories gave insight into the charismatic movement sweeping the church. Other reports noted a loss of interest in Christianity and a surge in cults which controlled and brainwashed members.
Canadian First Nations were given a forum to tell of their struggles and memories of oppression. Feature articles gave positive reviews of movies and songs that the Prairie Messenger, a decade or so earlier, would have rejected and condemned as immoral.
Stories on church life revealed that parishioners were being encouraged to become more involved in their parishes. The laity were learning new music, new guidelines for the sacraments of penance and confirmation, new approaches to teaching, praying and adult catechesis. Parishes were adjusting to a new lectionary and sacramentary.
Editorials supported a society that was more just and socially conscious. Greater co-operation was urged among churches and a greater role for women in the church. The Catholic Church was reminded to continue on the path of Vatican II, which Bede Hubbard said, “endorsed a church policy of decentralization and of collegiality.” Hubbard reminder readers that the church has an understanding of truth and justice but their meanings in everyday life were not always clear. “Thus Christians, with all human beings, must search, ponder, consider other viewpoints, listen and discuss.”
Readers expressed in letters their approval of the new direction of the Prairie Messenger. Many said they appreciated the discussions and stories which gave different points of view. Some cancelled their subscriptions after expressing disgust and embarrassment with the content of the newspaper.
One issue that united the editors of the 1970s with their predecessors was their dismay over the inability of the Prairie Messenger to gain a larger percentage of readers. Subscriptions in the four dioceses of Saskatchewan, at the close of the 1970s, declined, while they increased slightly outside of the province. Subscriptions, overall, went up from 13,932 in 1978 to 14,123 in 1979. The Prairie Messenger and printing press continued to be plagued with deficits.
Paproski is a monk of St. Peter’s Abbey, pastor, archivist and historian.