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The passing of the Prairie Messenger: musings on past, present and future

By Bede Hubbard


As with the majority of editors of the Prairie Messenger (familiarly referred to as the PM), I had the privilege of knowing a number of my predecessors — Wilfrid Hergott, Augustine Nenzel, James Gray, Michael Pomedli — and engaging in at least occasional, if not at times frequent, conversation also with those who succeeded me, such as Andrew Britz and Peter Novecosky.

Important and formative as this was, just as significant was the daily support and advice from the larger supporting cast without whom no periodical is possible — assistant and copy editors, proof readers, press operators, layout and business staff. These contributors may be anonymous and invisible to readers but are no less indispensable. PM editors appreciated this, for most had been appointed after being part of that background: correcting proofs, book reviewing, writing a column, helping with the printing or mailing. For many years the greater part of PM staff was from the monastic community of St. Peter’s Abbey; today the majority live in the surrounding communities of Muenster and Humboldt.

Within months of arriving in 1903, the Benedictines began a Catholic weekly, first in German and then almost 20 years later in English as well. This is no historical aberration. The temporal is a window to the eternal, just as the eternal gives light on the passing and changing of time. During the Middle Ages, monasteries recorded the events of the day — a tradition continuing over centuries. Monastic records from the 19th century on garden plants led to the first discoveries in genetics. Observations by monks on how active participation in the liturgy forms and sustains faith, hope and charity were an impetus for the Second Vatican Council.

The past . . .

The PM was part of the life of the monastic community, as well of its staff and students. Monks and staff felt free to comment on the paper, while high school boarders at St. Peter’s College welcomed the complimentary copies as a study hall alternative to homework. Compared to the enragement and negativity that so frequently accompany media today, and while instances abound in secular media of “free press” proprietors demanding adherence to corporately approved positions, I never knew of a PM editor not treated respectfully by the monastic community, nor obliged by the abbot to modify an editorial stance or the journal’s content.

Obviously, the newspaper did evolve over the years and from editor to editor, reflecting the needs and priorities of each generation as well as the perspectives and preferences of the editor. But what strikes me most is the underlying sense of continuity over 95 years — the consistent effort to articulate what Vatican II was to call the “joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of the age (The Church in the Modern World, 1).

After moving away from St. Peter’s and into another form of publishing, someone with many more years in the field shared his experience that a periodical is “a machine always needing to be fed and maintained.” Editors soon grasp what are the daily limitations and constraints to their freedom: schedules, number of pages, costs, availability as well as flexibility of writers and staff, expectations and demands of the readership, and the challenging, at times tragic, mysteries of human communication. But there was and is so much more. The exuberance of “putting the paper to bed” and handing it over to the printer. The mechanical marvel of the press transforming thoughts and words thousands of times within minutes into newspapers, folded and ready to be addressed for mailing. Moments of communion when writers and readers with the help of many intermediaries deepened and shared common insight and understanding. The happy wonder when an idea or thought at first inadequately expressed has been grasped and better articulated in a letter to the editor or by another writer, sometimes in a different periodical!

The present . . .

Benedictine monks commit themselves to obedience, stability (living with the same community) and “conversatio morum” (living Jesus’ lifestyle of poverty and celibacy). The Latin word “conversatio” is akin both to our understanding of conversion (changing one’s life around) as well as conversation. A true conversation involves opening the heart and mind, mutually exchanging and sharing with the other, discovering how one’s own life is therein transformed. This perception has been further advanced over the past century in our understanding of “dialogue,” so richly developed in the teachings of Saint John XXIII, Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

Dialogue is a long-standing element of our Catholic heritage and is already evident in Scripture. Discourses were retained as part of the monastic tradition in the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers from the third century. The classic medieval approach to theological and philosophical argumentation was to begin by acknowledging the key points with which one disagreed in the writings of others, and to conclude one’s argument by showing how it replied to each of those points. Leading Catholic reformers when answering Protestant concerns during and after the Reformation recognized the importance of acknowledging what was right in those objections, and on the need to present them fairly and accurately. Blessed John Henry Newman’s ideal in his Idea of a University was to give students a “clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things” which is “almost prophetic from its knowledge of history” and free “from littleness and prejudices.”

The abbot during the time I was PM editor was Jerome Weber, who had closely studied Arnold J. Toynbee, a British historian and philosopher of history much admired in Canada. Toynbee saw the historian’s work as a mental and spiritual feat that requires bursting “the cramping bounds” of nationalism and whatever forces held the observer “hidebound” (A Study of History, vol. 5). It entailed the discipline of presenting data and the viewpoints of others so honestly and objectively there would be agreement even among those differing that the observations were fair and accurate. It is not the time or place to evaluate whether or how the PM under my editorship or that of others met or missed that intellectual and spiritual goal.

From the vantage point of 2018, musing back on the 95 years of PM reflections and commentaries on the life of church and society, those objectives of fairness, honesty and balance seem seldom achieved and rarely appreciated in present-day culture. The popular approach used by media in our day is conflict, action, sound bites and entertainment. Our political leaders too often rely on confrontation, segmentation, “group think” and wedge issues. Society’s spokespersons reduce even the solemn moments of tragedy and sorrow to 140-character Tweets. Our culture considers communication a public relations exercise, applying simplified formulas that reject other perspectives not in conformity with preconceived conclusions. A recent example is how the media were disconcerted to hear there could be more than one way to convey sorrow and contrition about the experiences of indigenous peoples in the former residential schools.

Human nature is probably always tempted to overlook the importance of context, impartiality, fairmindedness and thoughtfulness, but it is particularly worrisome when we no longer appreciate these even as ideals — another word and notion long overlooked as of any cultural or personal importance. “Speaking truth to power” is the slogan of the day — but those brandishing it often fail to examine the power they themselves attempt to wield. Most media today are part of large corporate conglomerates, enterprises blind to their own political, financial and ideological force. The prophetic alternative in Scripture is to be just and righteous with all people in one’s judgments, showing neither partiality to the poor nor deference to the rich (Leviticus 19:15), but listening to the small and great alike (Deuteronomy 1:17).

While one might expect that religious communications as the poorer media cousins would be less conflicted and compromised, they are not only vulnerable, but at times captive to the cultural trends and values of the day. Commentaries are favoured and trusted over news. Institutional authority such as those speaking in the name of the church is under a cloud of suspicion. A journalist’s rapid paraphrase, no matter how ill-informed or inaccurate, is preferable to citing a carefully prepared and knowledgeable news release. Emotional experiences are considered more perceptive than factual analyses. Brief accounts with a one-sided, simplified and single focus is the preferred pattern of reporting, not balanced overviews that convey and explore the multiple aspects of a complex question.

All of this justified by assumptions that readers are unable to understand the issue, that the media have mastered it, and that it is best for society if there is but one point of view and other voices are banned from public discourse! All this is a particularly troubling sign of our present times. Government, media and cultural leaders conspire to impose their own views about abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia and gender. They curtail freedom of conscience, the dignity inherent to each human life, and the right of faith communities to express their ethical perspectives in the public square. All the while, this cultural chatter gives little effective attention to urgent national and international social issues — the discrepancies between rich and poor, and the lack of access by the marginalized to adequate education, employment, health care and housing.

For Catholic communications especially, the dominant cultural approach means greater risk, not only of impoverishing the voice of the faith community, but of rendering its vision narrow and one-sided. “Catholic” should indicate the communion of voices in the church — those of the bishops united with the pope and other clergy, as well as the voices and perceptions of consecrated life, laity, movements and associations, theologians and other experts.

Church history testifies that debate is always part of the life of the faith community — it is the way every society and each person think through questions and issues of import. But it is the pope and the bishops who ensure an underlying unity and cohesiveness within the community, past and present, locally and universally. The basic root of the word institution is “to stand.” It refers to the need for an organizational reality that continues in the midst of change, even as individuals are born and die, families come and go, and the surrounding population may grow but might also diminish and disperse, a frequent enough reality on the Prairies.

Our culture looks askance at all social institutions, especially the church. Perhaps this is mistakenly thought as a way to assert the unique importance of the human person at a time there are such serious concerns about alienation, anonymity and loneliness. Or maybe it is evidence in itself of increasing social fragmentation and isolation. But if there are not strong social institutions, a community cannot maintain its sense of identity and cohesiveness from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, it is often in the dark moments of tragedy that one most clearly recognizes and desperately seeks out a community’s institutions, as evident following the recent highway accident that tragically ended or otherwise altered so many lives of those associated with the local Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team.

The future . . .

The Prairie Messenger has been an institution that helped shape the identity and cohesiveness of the faith community on the prairies. Whenever a person or an institution comes to an end, it gives us pause to wonder about life and purpose, for every ending not only concludes a reality, but opens onto reflections about its meaning and value. Our society and Catholic communications are at an important cultural juncture. Profound social and cultural changes require finding the means to reflect, discuss and explore divergent perspectives, with a determined effort to respect differences and disagreements while working toward the righting of wrongs, all in the spirit of communion and solidarity.

The passing of the PM and of other religious periodicals provides food for deliberation, especially as new communications approaches come into place:

— Church communications and information are an urgent priority as our society and its dominant culture continue to be shaped and influenced primarily by secular media and the social media;

— Faith formation and education need to do more in preparing Catholic communities and their members to be active listeners and participants in the church’s ongoing discourse;

— While recognizing the important opportunities offered by social media, the most effective communication involves the participation of local communities and their institutional engagement;

— As secular and Catholic media become more centralized, it is increasingly important to ensure local voices and perspectives from across the county are part of the national conversations, while also finding ways to foster dialogue and reflection within the local community;

— The life and vitality of Catholic media require ongoing conversations and engagement with all the Catholic faith community;

— To be Catholic means involving both the local and the universal church, both tradition and history as well as “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the present age.”

As for the Prairie Messenger, its present staff and readers can only do what the monks who published it have always done: entrust its mission into the hands of God. The unfolding of time and the sifting of history in their own way will evaluate the accomplishments and failures. But for those who believe we are “fellow workers for God . . . God’s field, God’s building,” the most important test is what we lay on the foundation of Jesus Christ, be it “with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble — the work of each will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it” (1 Corinthians, 3:9, 12-13).

Bede Hubbard, currently Consultant to the General Secretariat of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, last year retired after 25 years as the Conference’s Assistant General Secretary. In 2016, Pope Francis named him Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Gregory the Great. He and his wife, Marie, live in Gatineau, Que.