This is the last of seven articles by Paproski on the Prairie Messenger and the past 100 years of journalism by the Benedictine monks of St. Peter’s Abbey.
When Rev. Andrew Britz, OSB, was chair of the Prairie Messenger Advisory Board, he wrote an article in 1982 entitled, “A time to dream new dreams.” The article commemorated the Prairie Messenger on its 60th anniversary and explained the mandate of the Catholic weekly. In 1983, Britz became editor of the Prairie Messenger, serving in that position for 21 years. He was succeeded, in 2004, by Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB.
“The Prairie Messenger seeks to mirror for the church on the Prairies the whole reality of our lives as God’s pilgrim people,” Britz explained in his anniversary article. “There is so much that is beautiful and is a pure joy to mirror: the vigour of the faith of our forefathers, the intuitive sense of justice that has marked Prairie life throughout most of its history, the abiding love for the eucharist on the Lord’s Day, the willingness of people to work together on local concerns — to name just a few.”
The Catholic weekly, he added, has faced many challenges because of its role as a mirror which reflects everything, whether celebrations and triumphs or conflicts and failures. This policy has stirred controversy and upheaval. Readers have expressed disapproval with editorials, articles and photos. The Prairie Messenger, he said, was familiar with controversy. In the 1940s the newspaper was accused of being too partisan in politics. In the 1950s it was chastised for being incorrect about co-ops and social justice. In the 1960s it was held in suspect for being unfaithful to theology. The weekly was castigated, in the 1970s, for being too critical of church structures.
“The Prairie Messenger sees the role of a Catholic newspaper in prophetic terms,” Britz noted. “It is to deepen the love of our readers for our Catholic traditions, and thereby give them the courage to look to the future and work for a new church in a new age. To work for newness entails, whether we like it or not, a criticism of the present state of affairs.”
The Prairie Messenger entered the 1980s with the charism of being prophetic, a mirror that reflected the stories of people from all walks of life, within and outside of the church. The Catholic weekly strived to be of service to everyone while not being subservient to anyone. It faced the challenge of never having enough correspondents to cover local events while having limited space for all the stories that that came through news services. National and international stories were carefully chosen by Britz, who was aware that spin doctors were always at work to protect their own interests. Editorials were written with the goal of being truthful and fair, yet with the realization that pure objectivity does not exist.
The Prairie Messenger was continuing the legacy of The Bote, founded in 1904, to support a German-Catholic colony and German-Catholic traditions, and St. Peter’s Messenger, a traditional Catholic paper first published in 1923, to appeal to a readership that adopted the English language. The Prairie Messenger, in the 1980s, responded to the optimism of the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965), which opened the church to renewal. The Catholic weekly was aware that a new generation was bringing new experiences and expectations into church life. The weekly invited them to share their stories of faith life.
The Second Vatican Council was a momentous event for the Catholic Church. It not only brought renewal to the church, but encouraged Catholics to re-evaluate their place in church and society. The council reminded the People of God of the church’s concern for: social justice, the dignity of all people, the role of the laity in the church, the call to conversion, the importance of understanding Scripture and liturgy. The church began to dialogue with other Christians and non-Christians.
In 1985 Britz expressed his disappointment in the direction of the Catholic Church some 20 years following the council. Changes in liturgy had been resolved, he noted, but there were deeper questions about the nature of priesthood, the domain of the clergy, and the role of women in the church. Dialogue, which had begun in the 1960s, had been closed by an authoritarian hierarchy. The editorial pages sometimes referred to the term sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) that been expressed by the Second Vatican Council. The sensus fidelium was a tradition in the early church, Britz noted, in the choosing of bishops. There was a sense of collegiality amongst the first bishops and the pope who shared in governance.
Prophets were people who could dream, Britz noted, and he expressed his hopes and dreams in editorials for the day when there was collegiality of bishops, especially in the choosing of bishops who identified with their people. He dreamt of the day when laity had a greater role in decision-making and there was more equality for women. He believed the time had come for celibacy to become an option in the priesthood and for women to be ordained. The Catholic Church, in its mandate to be ecumenical, needed to accept the eucharistic traditions of other denominations. The dignity of everyone, whether Christian or non-Christian, heterosexual or homosexual, needed to be respected. Discrimination against any person or group was contrary to Christianity.
Britz was not alone in his understanding about the optimism of the Second Vatican Council. There were many who believed the council was going to bring more profound changes to the church.
Britz praised everyone, inside and outside of the church, who supported the hopefulness of the Second Vatican Council. The Archbishop of Canterbury was among the first church leaders lauded by Britz for support of church unity and ecumenism. Conversely, Pope John Paul II was criticized for his authoritarianism.
Admiration was expressed for everyone who worked for peace, particularly the pope, when public opinion in some nations was in favour of war. He and other leaders were commended for bringing greater awareness to the plight of the poor, marginalized and oppressed. The editorial page reminded readers that change was possible in the church and the church could be criticized because it was made up of sinners who not only sinned, but sometimes made bad decisions. An example of poor decision-making in a sinful church was the hierarchy’s mishandling of the clergy sex-abuse crisis.
The Prairie Messenger continued its tradition, under editors Britz and Novecosky, of maintaining a keen interest in societal issues. The editors, sharing a social-Gospel outlook, challenged attitudes that viewed success as more of everything, whether more: development, jobs, material goods, money or power. Stories and editorials reminded readers that society is successful when people have access to basic rights such as: education, health care, fair wages, a safe working environment, equality, dignity and justice.
Front page and feature stories have highlighted the plight of people and groups who have been ignored and marginalized. They have expressed the dreams of those who want a more just society. Stories on church life have made known a church united by common traditions, immersed in many cultures, which have diverse understandings of church life. Coverage of events highlighted celebrations of faith life and the visions of those who would like the church to be open to the renewal and optimism of the Second Vatican Council.
The Prairie Messenger, in its role as a mirror, has welcomed people of many faith backgrounds to submit articles on Scripture and faith issues. Columnists have included: a rabbi, Protestant pastors, Catholic priests and nuns and lay people. They have provided material on liturgy, spirituality, canon law, and Scripture. Mothers and fathers have written about family life and issues important to them. Columnists have been free to express opinions that challenge teachings of the church.
Readers are aware of the prophetic role of the Catholic weekly. Letters to the editor have expressed dismay over criticism of the church. Some have accused the newspaper of heresy and balked at the notion of the newspaper being prophetic. Most letters, however, have given support to the Catholic weekly.
The Second Vatican Council was held in a decade when society was in flux and people were questioning and/or rejecting Christian beliefs. The church began to lose its place in society as attendance declined and vocations to the priesthood and religious life dropped. St. Peter’s Abbacy, in 1998, facing an aging priesthood and lack of vocations, was absorbed into the Saskatoon diocese. The religious jurisdiction of the former St. Peter’s Colony was gone.
The Prairie Messenger, similar to The Bote and St. Peter’s Messenger, has struggled to keep up to financial demands. The Benedictine community, not able to support the deficits of the Prairie Messenger, and aware that subscriptions had been declining, decided to close the apostolate in May of 2018.
The loss of the Catholic weekly will end more than 100 years of prophetic journalism by the Benedictine monks of St. Peter’s Abbey. The church is always in need of prophets, Britz once wrote. Prophets encourage us to dream and look to the future with hope and courage. There have always been prophets in the church. More prophets will come who will remind us that there is “a time to dream new dreams.”
Paproski is a monk of St. Peter’s Abbey, pastor, archivist and historian.