I didn’t read the Prairie Messenger until I was 21.
Now, I don’t know what I’ll do without it.
Brand new to Saskatchewan in 1974 and tasked with animating social justice efforts in the Archdiocese of Regina, I had a lot to learn. The first event I organized could have been a failure — only a smattering of people showed up to a public meeting on the federal government’s new immigration policy.
The presentations were excellent — Rev. Jim Weisgerber spoke to the churches’ desired policy outcomes on the subject, and Larry Brown aptly described the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour’s demands.
But nobody would have known — except for the fact that I had reached out blindly to a young journalist I didn’t even know — a fellow named Dennis Gruending — and asked him to cover the meeting. Dennis’ wonderful article in the PM provided us with a terrific summary to share. The event thus had a greater impact.
That day, young Joe learned a lot. I made friends for life with these remarkable social justice advocates — and I came to understand the value of the Prairie Messenger.
Later in the 1970s, debates around the development of uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan demanded attention. The bishops of the province released their first joint statement in 30 years on the moral implications of such developments. But only in the pages of the PM did the ethical questions get the regular and considered attention they deserved.
It seemed that if you wanted to read challenging viewpoints from a progressive, faith-filled Christian viewpoint, the PM was the go-to source for inspiration. When I later came to meet several esteemed editors of the paper (like Fathers Gray and Britz, Art Babych, and Maureen Weber) I developed further insight into why the PM served this important role in church and society.
Having good people in leadership can make a real difference. And leaders who allow and even encourage good writing and challenging thinking are pearls of great value.
I want to echo what Archbishop emeritus Jim Weisgerber recently wrote in these pages: “It is important to single out the solid and long-standing commitment to the pursuit of social justice that has characterized the Prairie Messenger.”
Moreover, what was unique about the PM was that it also opened up spaces for debate and presented ideas toward needed reform in the church. For example, the PM carried several opinion articles criticizing the decision of the bishops’ conference to abandon a decade and a half of ecumenical work in KAIROS, the social justice coalition of the major churches. An explanatory defence of the decision by then-bishop of Saskatoon Don Bolen was also published. Elsewhere, the decision of the bishops was merely reported. The PM was the only source, anywhere, where dialogue and debate were entertained.
Yes, the PM published material not found anywhere else. When doing research for his 2016 book, Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis, Mark K. Shriver (of the Kennedy clan) recounts how he struggled to find any confirmation of an unheard-of meeting of 150 community activists invited to the Vatican.
Apparently, he then “stumbled upon . . . an article in a Catholic journal called the Prairie Messenger.” Shriver recounts that the article’s first sentence grabbed him: “Chances are you will never have heard of this encounter.” (He was right about that!) The article went on, “There is no document about it in English. Only one person attended from Canada.”
According to Shriver’s web searches and interviews, the PM was one of the only publications to publish a report on Pope Francis’ October 2014 World Meeting of Popular Movements, a meeting where the pope was quoted as saying, “It is strange, but if I talk about this, some say that the pope is a communist. They do not understand that love for the poor is at the centre of the Gospel. Land, housing and work, what you struggle for, are sacred rights. To make this claim is nothing unusual, it is the social teaching of the church.”
Today, in a church that lacks democratic structures, there is a pressing need for spaces allowing critical debate and clarification of values. Institutional churches are diminishing in the West, and among the young, and still struggle to advance gender equality. Most of the Catholic press seems tame, self-congratulatory, and frankly, rather boring. The closures of Edmonton’s Western Catholic Reporter, the Presbyterian Record, and Scarboro Missions magazine, may all be signs that religious print journalism is going extinct.
Is there room for a new, online medium that displays a faithful, loyal, but critical role, that opens up debate, that includes a wider range of perspectives?
As an homage of thanksgiving to the Benedictine monks and their associates who offered the PM to readers for over a century, I’m interested in exploring possibilities for such a necessary platform today.
Gunn serves as the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.