NORTH HAVEN, Conn. — Newspapers are having a tough time surviving in this Internet age. Readership is declining when people can get their news and information online.

But as the Register begins its 80th year anniversary celebrations, its subscriber base has only grown in the past few years.

Legionary Father Owen Kearns thinks he knows why. Facing an increasingly secular world, Catholics need guidance like never before.

Father Kearns, an Irish priest who is a longtime resident of the United States is editor in chief and publisher of the Register, and he has overseen a two-year process to bring a fresh look to its pages. But he’s been directing its spirited approach to reporting the news for more than a decade.

This issue of the Register debuts a new design for the paper to mark the Register’s 80 years of serving Catholics in the United States.

While the paper has a new look, in many ways it is reconnecting with its past and with the vision of Msgr. Matthew Smith, the Register’s founder.

“For him it was a very newsy newspaper,” Father Kearns said. “The redesign will allow us to do more stories. The classic look emphasizes the longevity of the newspaper and that it has 80 years under its belt.”

That longevity — and the prestige it enjoys among many Catholics — has made it a publication that’s read by laypeople, religious, priests and bishops. It is made available to both the bishops and people working in the Vatican free of charge as a gift funded by Register readers.

“Two-thirds of the American bishops receive the newspaper,” said Father Kearns. “Practically all of the English speakers in the Vatican receive the newspaper hand-delivered to their offices.”

One bishop feels a special connection to the paper.

“The Register started in Colorado with Denver’s Msgr. Matthew Smith, and he’d be immensely proud of the National Catholic Register as part of that legacy,” said Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput. “I’ve read and enjoyed the National Catholic Register for many years. The paper today, as in the past, is a model of thorough, compelling, professional and faithful Catholic journalism.”

Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, is another fan. He called the Register “a wonderful gift to the Church.”

Father Kearns said the paper’s reception by the hierarchy is a sign of what the Register stands for. “We uphold the bishops and are at the service of the bishops,” he said. “We’re not pretending to be some authority above them. We treat them with respect, reverence and deference as the successors of the apostles.”

Chicago Cardinal Francis George called Catholic journalism “the chronicling of the operation of grace in the world.”

Tom Hoopes, Register executive editor, says that Cardinal George’s words  describe what the Register does.

“We know that we aren’t the biggest paper in the country, and that we’re not the most influential in terms of numbers,” he said. “But we also know that what we’re covering — the story of the Church’s progress on earth — is the most important story of all times. And if we help more Catholics join in the Church’s mission, our impact will be enormous and eternal.”

The Need

The Register’s circulation is approximately 34,000 nationally. It also has an Internet presence, strengthened by a recently launched redesign of its website, ncRegister.com. That site gets about 2,000 hits daily. The month of November saw some 51,000 visits.

While most of the Register’ readers are laypeople, a 2005 study by sociologist Dean Hoge of The Catholic University of America revealed that the Register has become one of the most influential publications for new priests.

A weekly newspaper like the Register actually has an advantage, according to Father Kearns. While there has been a steady decline in daily newspaper circulations, weeklies have seen an increase. He credits that increase, ironically, to the popularity of the Internet.

“The Internet is great for immediate information,” said Father Kearns. “Precisely because you can get anything and everything on the Internet, there is a crowding of information. People desire something that pulls it all together and tells you what it means. Weeklies have enough time to analyze and comment on what’s going on.

“The Register gets experts to comment, applies the teachings of the Church, and brings all the accumulated wisdom of the Church to bear on issues of the day,” he said.

That’s vitally needed, said Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria College in Naples, Fla.

“I definitely think the Church has to have the ability to express her views on things from a Catholic point of view,” said Father Fessio. “Even more so, we need that in our own time. The Register provides that point of view.”

History of Growth

The Catholic Register first appeared in Denver on Aug. 11, 1905. Not long after, it changed its name to the Denver Catholic Register and established other “Register” newspapers throughout Colorado, under the leadership of editor John McGauran.

In 1913, 22-year-old reporter Matthew Smith was hired as editor. He continued with the newspaper while studying for the priesthood. Ordained in 1923, he built up the Register System of Newspapers.

The first national edition appeared on Nov. 8, 1927. In addition, the paper produced 35 local editions, reaching a highpoint in the 1950s with a national readership of 1 million. The Dec. 6, 1954, issue of Time magazine recognized Msgr. Smith as managing the “biggest and most successful chain of religious newspapers in the world.” Msgr. Smith remained with the Register until his death in 1960.

Under his leadership, the paper stood against anti-Catholic bigotry. Msgr. Smith was proudest of his mid-1920s fight with the state’s Ku Klux Klan, which controlled the governor, the Legislature, and the Denver city government. Klansmen tried to run down Msgr. Smith with cars or entrap him at least six times.

With the advent of offset printing in the 1950s, many bishops decided to publish their own diocesan newspapers. The Register’s circulation fell.

“After the [Second Vatican] Council, there was an increased emphasis on the local Church, and bishops wanted to tell their own story,” said Fran Maier, editor of the National Catholic Register between 1979 and 1993, and now chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver. “There was a mood of general decentralization in the Church. This also happened to Our Sunday Visitor,” which also had a chain of newspapers.

Many of the papers in the Register system became diocesan newspapers. Others folded. At least 13 diocesan newspapers still bear the Register name in their titles, including the 102-year-old Denver Catholic Register.

In 1970, California businessman Patrick Frawley purchased the newspaper for $500,000 and moved it to Los Angeles. Frawley, chairman of the Schick Safety Razor Co., had grown concerned with the newspaper’s direction and hoped to produce a publication that exhibited greater fidelity to the Church.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, the paper attracted young, promising writers such as George Weigel, the future biographer of Pope John Paul II, William McGurn, who went on to the Wall Street Journal and now works for the White House, Robert Moynihan, a Rome correspondent who started the monthly magazine Inside the Vatican, Philip Lawler, now editor of Catholic World News, Dale Vree, editor of New Oxford Review, and Greg Erlandson, publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.

In 1995, a group of investors, along with the Legionaries of Christ religious order, purchased the newspaper and moved the headquarters to Connecticut, where it has been ever since.

“The mission of the Legionaries of Christ is to penetrate all walks of modern life with the transforming message of the Gospel,” said Father Kearns.

“It could have seemed a strange thing to get into the media with a newspaper in 1995,” said Father Kearns. “We knew it was going to be difficult, but we also knew that if it’s done well you achieve the stature of being a newspaper of record. Who knows what we will look like in the future, but the service we provide will be more and more necessary. As the culture picks up its aggressively secularizing pace, it’s going to be increasingly difficult for people of faith.”

Whether it exists in print or electronically, there’s always room for growth.

“There are more and more Catholics getting the benefits of what the Register is offering. You never know who will be touched by something and respond,” said Father Kearns. “Still, it’s an apostolate that depends to a large extent on funding for its growth. If Register readers step up to the plate to help fund direct-mail advertising, the Register can increase its circulation significantly. We are called to do that.”

No matter what format it’s in, Father Kearns said that Register readers are a loyal group.

“The Register brings something more than usefulness,” said Father Kearns. “People love it for the same reason they love their faith.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.