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Prairie Messenger goes through conversion in 1960s

Prairie Messenger: more than 100 years of journalism


By Paul Paproski, OSB


This is the fifth of seven articles on the Prairie Messenger and the past 100 years of the journalism of the Benedictine monks of St. Peter’s Abbey.

Early Prairie Messenger

St. Paul is famous for going through a conversion on the road to Damascus where he made a dramatic change in his way of thinking. The Prairie Messenger went through a transformation in its Jan. 25, 1962, edition, a special feast day of St. Paul.

“The feast of the Conversion of St. Paul marks the conversion of The Prairie Messenger also,” editor Augustine Nenzel, OSB, said in the headline story. “And almost as radical a conversion, at least so far as outward appearances go!”

The weekly went from an eight-page broadsheet to a trim 16-page tabloid. The pages, once seven columns wide, were now five columns. The decision to change the newspaper came after much discussion and careful preparation, and “some pressure from within the Benedictine community,” Nenzel wrote. The change in appearance was approved to help the newspaper better serve the readership and make it easier to read, he said. Abbot Jerome Weber urged readers to support The Prairie Messenger, which was modified, he said, to present the newspaper “in a more pleasing form, and with a content which will help your knowledge and love for your Catholic faith increase.”

The new look gave a new appearance to the masthead where the article (“the”) was dropped from Prairie Messenger and the letters P and M were transformed. The “P” became a monogram for Christ and “M” a symbol for Mary. The Catholic weekly was dedicated to Christ and his Blessed Mother.

The Archdiocese of Regina, the Diocese of Saskatoon and the Abbacy of St. Peter were given their own separate pages, and the dioceses of Prince Albert and Gravelbourg shared a page. Nenzel announced that a new columnist was added to the “already rather imposing list of good columnists.” Among the columnists were Rev. Leander Dosch, OSB, who answered questions on church teachings that were sent by readers. And readers could now express their opinions in a new Letters to the Editor column next to the editorial page. The page included book reviews.

Columnists provided insight into church teachings, family life and issues affecting community and rural life. A bishop and two clergy provided regular submissions on spiritual and moral issues. Two laypersons were among the columnists and both were women. One wrote about traditional family life and another answered questions on the Youth page. Bro. Ben answered letters of children on the Junior page. Noted columnist Grant Maxwell gave a layperson’s perspective on church life. A columnist wrote about rural issues while movie and television reviews were submitted by another.

The change in the look of the Prairie Messenger was the second most important story for the newspaper in 1962. The first edition on Jan. 4 announced that Pope John XXIII was convoking the Second Vatican Council. The pope, in announcing the council, spoke of his desire for the sanctification of church members, Christian unity and world peace. Pope John made a dramatic gesture to Christians, asking both Catholics and non-Catholics to pray for the council’s success. He welcomed visits from Protestant leaders and told Jewish leaders he was their brother. Pope John had been elected pontiff in 1958 and was transforming the way the church looked on the world. He was ecumenical, a proponent of church unity, peace and social justice. Other church leaders shared the pope’s openness to church unity.

Headlines in the Prairie Messenger featured Pope John appealing to the nations to embrace peace and co-operation to end hunger and unemployment. Pope John expressed these desires in his groundbreaking encyclical, Mater and Magistra (Mother and Teacher). Published a year earlier, it spoke of the dignity and rights of all persons and the importance of carrying out social progress in a Christian spirit. His next encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), issued in 1962, reiterated his desire for peace. The encyclical illustrated the pope’s desire for ecumenism by reaching out to not only Catholics, but “all men of goodwill.”

Rev. James Gray, OSB, was associate editor when the Prairie Messenger underwent a facelift, and he became editor several months later. Gray expressed his support for Pope John’s call for renewal and change in the church and world. He embraced the pope’s invitation to the clergy and laity to re-examine their roles in the church, and their relationships among Christians and non-Christians. He encouraged laity to become involved in the church.

The Prairie Messenger made everyone aware of the preparations for the ecumenical council through its stories and in-depth articles on the history of church councils and preparations of the upcoming council. New papal encyclicals and documents were discussed or published.

The attitude of the Catholic weekly toward the new face of the papacy was expressed when John XXIII died in June of 1963. The headline story and front-page editorial spoke of the pontiff as “the people’s pope” and “a man who had won the hearts of all.” He was praised for his mission of justice, truth and fraternal charity. The election of Pope Paul VI was greeted with enthusiasm, since he was a progressive who would continue in the mission of his predecessor.

“Renewal” was in vogue and it was embraced wholeheartedly by Gray who, in his editorials, encouraged the clergy and laity to dialogue and re-examine their relationships and roles in the church. Gray went against the tradition of previous editors by boldly criticizing officials in the curia who were opposed to change, reminding them that the Vatican offices do not have a monopoly on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The church was becoming visionary thanks to its openness to renewal, he noted.

A strong proponent of social justice and peace, the editorial page became a voice for the poor, forgotten and exploited. Closer to home, Gray supported the concept of universal health care, co-operatives, justice and reconciliation. He was outspoken against those in power who used their positions for selfish purposes. Headline stories brought forth the social conditions of the poor and exploited, and the suffering caused by the evils of communism and atheistic socialism, dictatorships and unbridled capitalism.

The 1960s ushered in a new age of renewal and optimism and the Prairie Messenger became part of that, in 1966, by revamping its masthead. It dropped the religious symbols on the P and M and enlarged its name to Prairie Messenger, Saskatchewan Catholic Weekly.

Everyone in the church was affected by change and the most notable change was in the celebration of mass, which was now in the vernacular, and invited public participation. The laity were invited to have leadership in church ministry and administration. A new rite was adopted to accommodate mixed marriages. In 1969, the first “ecumenical wedding” at St. Augustine Parish, Humboldt, Sask., took place. Many expressed their surprise that such a wedding was possible.

Along with the optimism of the era were new challenges and struggles. Traditional moral values were being rejected by a new generation that was losing interest in religious institutions. The priest, once looked upon as a moral leader, now had an uncertain future as the value of the celibate, all-male priesthood began to be questioned. Church attendance was dropping and vocations to religious life and the priesthood were on the decline. Current vocation trends pointed to a future shortage of clergy.

Paproski is a monk of St. Peter’s Abbey, pastor, archivist and historian.