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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

Four decades of your story

Forty years. A tiny blip in the trajectory of a 2,000-year-old church.

Four decades, however, has been nearly the entire span since a new pope wondered why, “though everyone says they want peace and harmony … conflicts grew more acute and threats multiplied.

“What should the church do?” asked John XXIII at the start of his tenure. “Should Christ’s mystical barque simply drift along, tossed this way and that by the ebb and flow of the tides? Instead of issuing new warnings, shouldn’t she stand out as a beacon of light? What could that exemplary light be?”

It turned out that the question was mildly rhetorical because apparently the new pope, with a deep empathy for the broad human community as well as that portion of it called Catholic, already had an answer in mind. The new light would be the reform council that would become known as Vatican II.

The beacon illuminates far and wide, lending its considerable moral force to issues of human rights and justice, often in areas where few tread.

~ ~ ~

Many in the church were anticipating the insights ahead of the council, and so it was with the small group in the middle of the United States who decided that the church would benefit from an independent newspaper dedicated to “pressing for as much information as can be had about events and their meaning,” as an editorial in the first issue declared.

What became clear over the years was that NCR, journalistically distinctive, was also significant as a gathering spot for Catholics looking for a place where they could come and discuss and float ideas without fear of being silenced.

~ ~ ~

I have been associated with this paper for more than half its history, first as a freelancer while working for a daily paper in Pennsylvania, full-time for the past 10 years and as editor for more than four years. I am the fortunate inheritor of the vision and the legacy of such giant editors as Robert Hoyt, Arthur Jones, Tom Fox and Michael Farrell. They paved the way, often courageously, so that the idea of independent journalism in the church -- while still certainly an irritant to some -- is no longer an oddity.

I could talk about the Catholic church and journalism for days. They are endlessly fascinating topics to me, and I find the opportunity to indulge both interests without limit at NCR. But what really stops me short, especially in those moments of doubt about what this odd little publication in the heartland has to offer, is the continuing power and comfort of that group that congregates around this project.

~ ~ ~

In the end, you, wonderful readers, are the history of NCR. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has either called, e-mailed or come up to me at some conference gushing with appreciation for NCR and what a wonderful job we do and how we help them remain sane and connected to church and on and on. It’s all very flattering. But I am also dead serious when I say that our primary work is to serve as conduit for readers’ stories and thoughts.

The most difficult part of the task is to convey the awesome fidelity of ordinary Catholics. It is impossible to imagine what the state of the church might be today if we had to deal with the sex abuse crisis, for instance, without the theology and hope of Vatican II. To theologians of different stripes, “people of God” may be a designation rife with arguable implications.

What I have seen is “people of God” as the expression of self-assurance that allows ordinary Catholics to stand firm and derive hope even amid the worst internal crisis to beset the church in modern history. The phrase explains the motivation behind the tens of thousands of highly educated lay ministers. Lay missioners, inner-city workers, parish liturgists, social justice activists, lay associate pastors -- they’ve all taken that phrase, people of God, seriously, as a liberating mandate.

We’re all in it together, priests, bishops, lay people, women and men. That’s why, I think, the mystical barque hasn’t overturned in the current storms. Lay people have learned that they can be a balance in the storm.

That’s the story of NCR. Read it in your own lives. That’s why we’ve included an extensive history of NCR in your letters in the second section of this issue, the section that celebrates our four decades.

We figured that the best way to observe this marker in our history is to give you what we think we do best -- a reported story. We rarely do one on ourselves, with good reason. On this occasion, a celebration to be sure, we hope we haven’t lost our edge. You’ll find in Jeff Guntzel’s piece lots who love us, but also those whose reservations and analyses call us to account.

~ ~ ~

To stand in front of 40 years of this little paper’s efforts, even for one fairly familiar with it, is a humbling experience. It is to encounter the reality of that often-used but so apt James Joyce observation that Catholicism is “here comes everybody.”

It is to understand the late Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray’s explanation that legitimate Catholic journalism chronicles the story of the wayfaring church, the church that walks through the dirty stuff of history.

Friend and Catholic author Eugene Kennedy loves to repeat, to whomever will hear, the response of John XXIII to someone who asked why he called the council: “To make the human sojourn on earth less sad.”

Thanks for the memories
Do you have an NCR story that you want to share? Send your stories to or Memories, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City MO 64111.

We will publish the best stories over the next year. Please keep the stories to 150 words or fewer.

I hope that NCR has contributed to making the human sojourn less sad at least by keeping the door open for everybody. I hold two guiding images in this work: One is the awful moment of the denial of Jesus by Peter and the realization that the Christian endeavor survived; the other is that of Jesus at table with all of his disciples, including the denier, the betrayer and the doubter. It seems to me we don’t need many rules beyond that example of extravagant acceptance.

We hope you will always feel welcome.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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