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What to do with NCR’s Message in a Bottle

At first I looked forward with apprehension and even distaste to that moment when time would do a somersault and the old millennium meld into the new. There would be too much hype, endless verbiage and fuss. But now I can’t shake off the notion that this is a pivotal moment, and we will lament ever after if we fail to live it to the full.

So this is a warning or an appeal -- whichever works for you -- not to shrug off the occasion. It’s not about partying -- though that’s fine, too; it’s about awareness if not awe. There’s just a chance we might ask ourselves, with more poignancy than usual: What’s it all about? Whatever it is.

In this column, in the Oct. 1 issue, we announced NCR’s Message in a Bottle as a unique way to celebrate this pretty big deal. We knew what would happen if we didn’t get ahead of the game: Readers would begin to hear that old music of the spheres, oh, about mid-December and rush their golden thoughts to NCR at a time we would be long past caring.

We want your thoughts now. They may come as a letter or poem or essay or column or some brand new genre. Shorter is better, because we expect a mighty volume of entries. We must assert the right to reject and select as necessary and to edit for size and style. Write on whatever topic you wish, so long as it’s relevant to the millennium. We know you’d never be boring, but on this occasion especially make it mind-boggling. It’s going to be an amazing bottle with an amazing message.

Yes, there will be a real bottle, and we’ll put the message in it -- the supplement to our Dec. 31, 1999-Jan. 7, 2000, issue. The bottle has not been chosen. You may have suggestions for this -- but please don’t send any bottles.

There remains the matter of what to do with the loaded bottle. Cork it, of course, and then launch it -- but where? Again, readers may be able to help with suggestions. On some historic river or lake or some wide ocean; with a special ceremony or without. The idea is that it travel far in time and tide before being picked up on some romantic strand by God knows whom God knows when.

This paper aims to be interactive, and our readers are among the best on the planet at writing. This is, yes, a warning to start thinking about the millennium in good time. It’s special -- there won’t be another for a while.

I have learned I must say things at least twice before readers respond in decent numbers. I’m not sure if that says more about me or you -- I opt to blame you.

Deadline is Nov. 15. Send submissions to NCR Message in a Bottle, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111. Or, better still, e-mail to ncrbottle@aol.com

Then go tell everyone.

Science has done amazing things, and especially this century. It has brought the heavens nearer, looked into the heart of the atom. It has helped humans subdue the earth, and, for better or worse, each other. Pam Schaeffer’s story on page 11 deals with some of science’s most personal recent victories -- and challenges.

Big words and concepts such as biotechnology are rocks most of us stumble on. We know the subject is very important and touches us more personally than most scientific breakthroughs, but we are daunted by its complexity. Unable to get our heads around it, we all too often walk away from it.

The great achievement of Schaeffer’s article is that it makes this vast, complex field comprehensible and accessible. Not only that, the subject turns out to be intriguing.

Readers sometimes complain about the length of some NCR articles, and we try to feel their pain and stay short. On the other hand, some stories simply can’t be told in a few hundred words -- and this is one of them. What’s more, this week’s bioethics story is but the first of two parts -- we will have the second next week. Do yourself a favor: If you have no time to read it now, put it away for the future. A time will surely come when you will want to read it -- because it’s about you. And Schaeffer advises that you shouldn’t wait too long, because changes come almost daily in the field of genetic research.

John Allen was no more than an hour in Rome when he was already reporting back to Kansas City on his ubiquitous cell phone. He sounded ebullient. He was already staking out the offices of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- I’m not making this up. That day, no cigar. But better luck two days later when Allen caught up with the doctrinal czar after Mass in St. Peter’s. History does not record what was said, but Ratzinger did not invite NCR’s opinion editor to dinner.

Meanwhile, publisher Tom Fox arrived in the Eternal City with a handy new camera that sends digital pictures all over the place -- you may have received one already. Check our Web site for some samples: http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/eurosyndindex.htm

Behind this frolic, serious and perhaps historic events are happening at the Synod for Europe. I have no wish to steal the Fox-Allen thunder even if I could. Coverage begins in this issue and will continue in the coming weeks, not to mention updates at NCR’s Web site.

Most observers agree this is a papacy winding down -- grandly, on a wave of millennial exaltation but winding down nonetheless. The thoughts of both hierarchy and faithful no doubt wander to the future and its possibilities. It’s likely the next pope is at the synod. It’s likely that signs of the times are thick on the ground in Rome during these critical synod proceedings, and that hints about the future of our church abound by the Tiber.

And one more thing: I predict that, before the synod is over, Ratzinger will be staking out Allen’s place in the hope that John can fit him into his dinner schedule.

Chicago’s St. Peter’s Church, better known as St. Peter’s in the Loop, each year confers the Pax et Bonum Award on “someone who personifies the ideal of St. Francis of Assisi.” This time it was awarded to Msgr. Jack Egan, now stationed at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral, and I don’t think St. Francis would mind at all.

One of the most beloved priests in America, Egan has been involved in a multitude of local and national church projects throughout his long career. He also spent several eventful years at the University of Notre Dame. He was, furthermore, for many years a member of the board of the National Catholic Reporter.

“You have … been a mentor to an enormous number of church leaders,” Franciscan Fr. Thomas Aldworth wrote in his nomination letter. “We here at St. Peter’s believe that you certainly exemplify all that St. Francis proclaimed in his life and legacy.” He can say that again.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 1999