Four Priests of the Word

A Catholic literary revival has been quietly under way in this country for more than two decades.

As long as human nature continues to be a bundle of tensions and contradictions, pining for truth and yet succumbing to pride, there will always be dissent in the Church. We therefore should expect some dissent and not despair when we see it.

Nonetheless, the 40-year wholesale flaunting of Church teaching, especially on sexual ethics, by huge numbers of hierarchy, clergy, religious, and laity has definitely slowed. The dissenters are intellectually tired. Their leaders, now well past middle age, inspire almost no one. With the current scandals, this mammoth engine of dissent confronts an insurmountable obstacle; it cannot continue as before to set its own rules. The result, we have reason to think, may be a purification of the Church. Some, such as newly-appointed Archbishop of Milwaukee, Timothy Dolan, anticipate a renewal on the scale of the Catholic Reformation after the Council of Trent.

Preceding any latter-day Catholic Reformation, however, is surely the Catholic revival that has been quietly underway in this country for more than two decades. The renaissance that presently is gaining speed is the fruit of careful ground work that is deeply cultural, paying attention, as does all Christian culture, to the truth of the Word. Thus the Catholic revival has been and continues to be indispensably literary, infusing Catholic culture with the Word through books and periodicals.

The essential characters of the Catholic revival are numerous indeed, but in this time of suffering for the priesthood, it is appropriate to credit four priests who particularly have inspired and served through their publications the renewal of Catholic culture. Each of these priests is unique in his gifts and in his approach. Yet each of them complements the others, and without any one of their publications, the Church would be the poorer. In no particular order, then, here are the four priests.

Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., new chancellor of Ave Maria University, is almost a household name in Catholic publishing. Ignatius Press, which Fr. Fessio co-founded with Carolyn Lemon in 1980, has provided the best Catholic books on the shelves of laity, seminarians, priests, and everyone interested in serious Catholic literature. After the demise of the old Sheed and Ward and a few other Catholic publishing houses, Catholic culture fell into a desert period. At the behest of the late Henri de Lubac, Fr. Fessio initiated Ignatius Press in order to make available the works of the philosopher/theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr. Ignatius soon expanded to offer not only beautiful new editions of older authors, such as G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, and John Henry Newman, but it also published newer authors such as Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, James Schall, Karl Keating, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Michael O’Brien, Benedict Groeschel, and even Pope John Paul II. It branched into children’s literature. It published the new Catechism. In short, Ignatius became the trusted publishing house of the best Catholic literature. Without Ignatius Press, we may safely say, there would be no Catholic revival. Fr. Fessio through Ignatius Press has made available to the serious Catholic student of all ages the ingredients of formation in Catholic culture.

It is not surprising that the staff of Ignatius Press works together in the spirit of a religious community. Authors who have had contact with them are struck by their humility, their keen intellectual and artistic gifts, and their aspirations to holiness. Fr. Fessio himself, musing on his long path with Ignatius Press, says, “My greatest blessing has been the people who work with me; and from the beginning we have made the Church’s fundamental forms of prayer part of our daily life—Mass, the Divine Office, the Rosary, personal prayer. Each day at morning prayer we add the intercession: ‘Prosper the work of our hands, O Lord, and to your name give glory.’ God has blessed us.”

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of the journal, First Things, has labored mightily, ever since his days as a Lutheran pastor in New York, to make the public square hospitable to religious faith. Long before his conversion to the Catholic Church, he was a powerful voice alerting Americans to the danger of barring matters of faith from the public arena, insisting that America from its founding has been a country in which Judaeo-Christian roots have defined its true character. To secularize our public life and to confine religion to the private domain, denying in public debate and in law the voice of religion, is to harm Christians and Jews alike. Refusing to acknowledge the reality of the sacred subverts the health and flourishing of American culture. Only by affirming the totality of the human person as a creature both material and spiritual can Americans be truly free to come to any realization of the grand project our Founders envisioned. Freedom to think about, speak about, and exercise religious faith is absolutely crucial to the American enterprise. The naked public square, where mention of the things of faith is hushed up, is a particularly insidious form of totalitarianism.

Fr. Neuhaus has set an exceedingly high standard of intellectual debate about religion and public life. First Things is published under the auspices of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, “whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.” Fr. Neuhaus’ editorial board includes some of the soundest stalwarts of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities: Midge Decter, Mary Ann Glendon, Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert Meilaender, David Novak, Michael Novak, and George Weigel.

Weigel sums up the role of Fr. Neuhaus’ work in First Things: “The impact of First Things has been enormous. It’s now one of the most widely read serious journals of opinion in the country, demonstrating the vitality of contemporary Christian and Jewish thought and its importance for our public life. But the thing that most impresses me about Fr. Neuhaus is not his editorial skills, or his writing talent, but his leadership. He really inspires the people who work for him, and the result is obvious in the magazine.”

Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., is editor-in-chief of the English edition of Magnificat. This beautiful little monthly, small enough to drop into a pocket or purse and carry to Mass and throughout the day, was introduced in 1998. Now up to 124,000 subscribers, it was the brainchild of Pierre-Marie Dumont, a French layman, father of twelve children, and director of the Groupe Fleurus-Mame, largest Catholic publishing house in France. Dumont created Magnificat as a response to the invitation of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope John Paul II to introduce lay people to the prayer of the Divine Office. Thus every issue of Magnificat, always enfolded in a stunningly lovely cover, includes for each day of the month the complete Mass text and adaptations of the morning, evening, and night prayers of the Church. There are also in the English edition editorials by Fr. Peter, introductory essays by notable writers, meditations from classic spiritual works, and a concluding essay on a piece of Christian art, written by the Dominican art historian, Fr. Michael Morris.

Judging from the number of faithful who carry Magnificat to Mass, ever more Catholics are ignoring the shoddy paper leaflets in the pew in favor of Magnificat. The very beauty of Magnificat is surely part of its attraction. As Fr. Peter recently told Envoy Magazine, Magnificat is poetic. “Everything—its size, the glossy cover, the delicate pages, even the artwork and choice of font—Magnificat is simply a work of art.”

Fr. Peter, who credits Pierre Dumont for the Magnificat vision, further told Envoy, “The heart of our vocation is the Eucharist, the source and summit of everything we do. Magnificat was designed to promote the Eucharist, by grounding everything in liturgy.” Every article and every prayer, he stresses, “has a mystagogical dimension that reaches into and then beyond the intellect.”

Fr. Peter is fond of speaking of the Magnificat family. The soaring popularity of Magnificat in just four years has generated a natural bond among its readers, resulting in a Gloria Congress convening in New York and other proposals to cement Magnificat subscribers in their love of the liturgy.

Magnificat is the first major instrument to break through the often bleak and arid liturgical life of the post-sixties parish. Its astonishing success surely indicates how the faithful, long in search of a vehicle to lead them to the beauty of Christ and the Eucharist, latch on to that vehicle when they find it. Fr. Peter himself marvels at their attachment. He told Envoy that readers think of Magnficat as a friend. “It’s habit forming. People just love it.”

Fr. Owen Kearns, L.C., is publisher of The National Catholic Register. When the Legionaries of Christ bought the paper, it was floundering, and its circulation was declining. As former vocation director of his order, Fr. Owen never made any pretense of expertise in journalism. Nonetheless, he proved to have extraordinary journalistic savvy. He revitalized his skeleton staff and hired a gifted young editor, Tom Hoopes. The Register’s circulation has quadrupled under Fr. Owen’s hand, and The Register has moved to the forefront as the national Catholic paper of record.

The Register accepts the magisterium and supports the pope. “That means,” says Tom Hoopes, “we don’t abandon him when he goes places we wouldn’t have gone on our own.”

Neither does The Register politicize the Church, forcing it into a left/right model. Says Hoopes, “We see the Church as Vatican II does, as Cardinal Ratzinger does, as a communion. Catholic journalists aren’t just journalists; they’re Catholic, and a Catholic’s job is to build communion, not tear at it.”

Consequently, he says, “a reader of The Register will come away challenged and inspired to act, not angry and discouraged.”

Hoopes attributes to Fr. Owen “the wisdom of Solomon and the attention to detail of Leviticus,” shaping The Register’s direction and design but also minding the small things. Hoopes frankly says he has never enjoyed working for anyone as much as for Fr. Owen. “I think it’s because he’s a priest first, a pastor,” both patient and giving freedom to his staff. “He sets the boundaries, and we editors do our thing within them. It creates a great creative atmosphere.”

Hoopes also thinks that Fr. Owen’s success as a publisher comes from being a priest first. “He’s not a newspaper man who happens to be a priest; he’s a priest who happens to have become the publisher of a newspaper.”

The weekly Register in the mailbox is the meat and potatoes of the Catholic literary diet. Its reliable news stories, courageous editorials, enlightening features, and cutting edge coverage of bioethical issues make The Register the one newspaper of which many readers take in every word and from which they run clipping services for their families. No Catholic revival is possible without a solid Catholic newspaper—and The Register is it.

The four literary priests who contribute so profoundly to the Catholic revival each reflect their particular but complementary charisms. Fr. Joseph Fessio, in the best Jesuit tradition, has made Ignatius Press an expression of faith informed by reason. Fr. Richard Neuhaus, a diocesan priest, shows in First Things how public life requires the religious viewpoint in order that we may live in ordered liberty. Fr. Peter John Cameron in Magnificat makes available to the faithful the Dominican gift of evangelization and apostolic action as the fruit of contemplation. Finally, Fr. Owen Kearns in The National Catholic Register puts to work the Legionary charism of forming the laity to build up the kingdom of Christ.

Four priests are making a revival. The Church could not do without any of them.

Anne Husted Burleigh About Anne Husted Burleigh

Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner's Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.