Dominican Father Peter Cameron has been the editor in chief of the American edition of Magnificat since 1998. He also serves as the chairman of homiletics at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Yonkers, N.Y., and he is an author and playwright.
In December 2013, Magnificat celebrated the 15th anniversary of its first edition in the United States, and it now has 250,000 subscribers. The monthly publication was founded by Pierre-Marie Dumont, a French Catholic and father of 12, who also serves as its publisher. Dumont has said that he chose the name “Magnificat” because it expressed “Mary’s unreserved ‘Yes’ to God’s amazing invitation to bring Jesus into her life and into the world! Her ‘Yes’ is what I wanted to live out in my life, and I wanted this publication to model and facilitate that ‘Yes’ for Catholics around the world.”
On Jan. 8, Father Cameron spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about his own efforts to fulfill Dumont’s vision for Magnificat and the spiritual graces that flow from this work. He reflected on feedback from readers and outlined Magnificat’s latest initiatives, including conferences that have drawn thousands of Catholics eager to experience the deep sense of community generated by this remarkable publication in a new way.
How was Magnificat first conceived by its founding publisher, Pierre-Marie Dumont?
The conception of Magnificat began from the perception of the need. Dumont recognized from reading documents of the Second Vatican Council that the Council’s priority was making the liturgy of the Church especially accessible to the laity, in particular the Liturgy of the Hours.
He went to his superior at the largest Catholic publishing house in France and asked to try an experiment that would present the liturgy of the Church, along with an adapted version of the breviary, the Liturgy of the Hours.
He wanted to draw people into the mysteries of the faith in a way that would integrate worship, which is the public work of Christians, with personal prayer and an understanding of what it means to be a Catholic Christian in the world today.
It was first introduced in France in 1992, and it took off immediately. The decision was made to try a second language in German. In 1998, he wanted to do an edition in America and asked me be the editor in chief, and I said I would be honored.
Have you considered using the official Liturgy of the Hours, rather than an abridged version of morning and evening prayers?
As I mentioned, in its inception, the point of Magnificat was to provide for the laity, who might have difficulty praying the entire Liturgy of the Hours, given the demands of their life.
Second, if the entire Liturgy of the Hours were put in Magnificat, it would be the size of a brick.
People love its portability. It is small. There is something enticing about how it slips in the pocket or the purse in the handiest possible way. Still, the Magnificat version has led many readers to go out and buy the breviary and pray it.
How has Magnificat’s mission changed or developed over the past 15 years?
The mission is very clear, and, if anything, over the last 15 years, we have deepened our dedication to it. The longer Magnificat is around, the more it becomes plain and clear that there is a hunger to know God and know him in a way that enables people to experience his presence.
For some reason, until Magnificat existed, this hunger was not being addressed or satisfied. That is why in Magnificat you will find no hint of moralism, which Pope Benedict XVI despised and spoke against adamantly. You will not find any psychologized spirituality. People recognize that and respond to it.
What criteria do you use to select and solicit contributions for Magnificat, such as conversion stories and spiritual reflections?
The whole work of Magnificat is “mystagogical.” It exists to lead people to a personal experience of the mystery of God. That is the reason why the liturgy exists.
Everything in Magnificat flows from and leads to the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of Christian life. Every aspect — from prayers to the art, to the lives of the saints, to the lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), to the meditations — all share in that same reality.
Magnificat has spanned three pontificates. How has the publication responded to the themes introduced by each pope?
From the moment that Pope Francis ascended the throne of St. Peter, he began to use the expression “the culture of encounter.” The last time I checked, he had used that expression 15 times, and it’s probably double that by now. Magnificat exists to promote a culture of encounter with Jesus Christ, with his Blessed Mother, with his Church, with his saints and with all people.
This carries through with Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), when he says, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
This is the true fruit of the teaching and personal witness of the soon-to-be St. John Paul II: The importance of encounter is highlighted not only in his works, but in the particular style that he lived out his papacy. That is the purpose of Magnificat in a nutshell: It is as close to the mind and the heart of the Church as a publication can be.
In the last couple of months, Magnificat has introduced new features that look at the historic innovations accomplished by the Church, as well as reflections on matrimony, motherhood and family life. There is a section on non-canonized witnesses to the faith.
We are constantly improving the quality of Magnificat and making it more excellent. When I have a chance at an event sponsored by the Magnificat Foundation, I ask people, “What do you like about Magnificat? What don’t you like? And what would you like to see added?” Some new features reflect feedback we have received from readers, and they are geared to assist the New Evangelization by presenting the faith in a way that is more accessible and attractive.
Do you see a change in Magnificat’s readership? Has it broadened significantly, and have the letters changed?
There are a number of young people, especially college-age people, who are great enthusiasts of Magnificat. I don’t know if that was the case when we began, but it is the case now.
The letters we receive are testimonies for how Magnificat has helped people meet God or find the strength to bear up under a terrible burden or circumstance. They come from elderly people and young couples.
I remember one letter in which a mother wrote to us. It was getting close to Christmas, and she asked her young son what he wanted for Christmas. He said a subscription to Magnificat.
During talks I have given, I have recalled a terrible story about a young man, who was driving under the influence of alcohol and accidentally killed a young woman. The girl’s mother contacted us because she wanted to add a gift subscription to her account, and the gift subscription was for the man who killed her daughter. I only know that story from customer service. The mother never made a big deal about it.
One of the great advantages of Magnificat is that, as soon as you see someone holding it, you know you are looking at a friend.
A reader said that, during an Italian Mass at the Vatican, they were trying to follow along with Magnificat and looked across the pews and saw a book containing a thin red line along the pages, and they knew from a distance that it was Magnificat. Afterwards, they went to speak with [the people who were using it]. Something as simple as a book can make friends out of strangers. That’s what evangelization is all about.
On a personal, spiritual level, what has it been like to edit a Catholic publication that celebrates the riches of the liturgy, the wisdom of the Church Fathers and the beauty and truth of Christian culture in all its forms?
One of my favorite things to do is to proofread the "Meditation of the Day," and since we do a month at a time, reading these meditations is like being on a mini retreat. Sometimes, after I have finished the 30th meditation for the month, I feel over-awed by the beauty of God and the power of grace. The mercy and the tenderness and the hope they generate — these 30 pieces of paper — almost feel sacramental. I certainly would not have had access to great spiritual masters of the Church if it were not for Magnificat.
One reason why readers really like Magnificat is because it introduces them to the minds and the hearts of great spiritual masters. They are amazed that someone from the 15th century says something that corresponds to their own struggles.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was overwhelmed, as were many other subscribers, when I read the meditation for that day, because it was about God working in terrible circumstances. It was almost, in a freakish way, providentially perfect for that day; yet the meditations were chosen at least six months in advance.
What new initiatives are you planning?
We are moving forward in a number of different ways now.
There is a Magnificat Foundation, which is separate from the magazine, legally, but it involves the publisher. The purpose is to extend the reach of Magnificat in ways that can’t be accomplished through its pages.
We have offered a "Magnificat Day” in New York, Boston, Orange County, Calif., and Philadelphia. The inspiration for the day is to take Magnificat and actually live it, so people pray together, listen to beautiful music. Instead of articles, there are talks.
Magnificat has begun to publish books. We recently published a book on retreat conferences given by Pope Francis, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires: In Him Alone Is Our Hope.
We put out special editions that we call “companions.” They correspond with important events, like the Year of Faith, or when the new translation of the Roman Missal was introduced, and they offer commentary that helps people understand and pray better.
We are limited by the number of pages we can add. If Magnificat becomes much thicker, it loses its allure. It is like a poem. If you are writing a haiku or a sonnet, you have to write within the prescribed limits and make it as beautiful and insightful as you can, given those parameters.