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You Had to Be There: Remembering My Time at the Register
Former editor in chief remembers his service and the lasting value of the publication.
By Francis X. Maier
Editor's Note: Maier will join the Register's Jeanette de Melo and Kevin Knight to commemorate the Register's 90th anniversary on EWTN Live Nov. 15.
You had to be there.
I started at the National Catholic Register the morning after Labor Day 1978. The paper was based in Los Angeles at the time and owned by the Frawley family. They were generous people, strongly conservative and thoroughly disliked by the Catholic left. None of that mattered to me, though, because I had no intention of sticking around.
Pope Paul VI had died in August. John Paul I had been elected the new pope just 10 days earlier. I’d gotten a publishing contract and small advance to write a novel, and John Prizer — a good friend, Hollywood producer and the paper’s advertising director between film gigs — brought me on staff as a part-time copy editor so I could finish my book.
Four months later, John Paul I was dead, John Paul II was Pope, I was acting editor in chief, and the book was forgotten. Two months after that, my name went on the masthead. It stayed there for nearly 15 years.
I wouldn’t trade a minute of those years for all the gold in the world. It was like being handed the keys to a Jaguar V-12 that needed an overhaul but otherwise worked just fine. A lot more than fine.
I was 30, married with kids and had two great advantages: I didn’t know (and I didn’t care) what I didn’t know; and I had a publisher-boss, Gerardine Frawley, who lives in my memory as one of the finest women I’ve ever known. She was graceful, patient, intelligent, Catholic to the core and committed to making the paper useful to the mission of the Church.
I don’t think Gerry ever knew exactly what she wanted for the paper, which was lucky for me. But she was zealous about making it faithful and making it better. And — this was the key to everything good that followed — she allowed a whole generation of emerging Catholic writers and thinkers to help her do it.
As I sat down to write this article, I started scribbling a list of the people whom we befriended, published and worked with or alongside at the Register during those years who’ve gone on to serve the Church or wider culture with distinction. It got too long to print.
There’s Bill McGurn, George Weigel, Kristina Arriaga, Joan Frawley Desmond and Alejandro Bermudez. There’s Leonie and the late Stratford Caldecott, Greg Erlandson, Greg Burke, David L. Schindler, Robert Royal, Joan Lewis and the late (great) Andrée Emery — a colleague of Anna Freud, confidante of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, and one of those invisible Catholic feminine giants whose mentoring and service shape dozens of lives without ever getting due credit. And there’s Robert Moynihan, Joseph Fessio, Phil Lawler, James Hitchcock, Peter Kreeft, Joop Koopman, Ned Desmond, and so many others.
Jean Duchesne, a founder (with Rémi Brague and Jean-Luc Marion) of Communio’s French edition and senior aide to the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger for 25 years, has remained a friend for more than three decades. The Register, working with Jean, arranged the publication of Cardinal Lustiger’s first books in the United States.
Jonathan Luxmoore, the Register’s man in Poland, covered the collapse of the Soviet bloc on-site. Gabe Meyer wrote for us powerfully from Jerusalem and later Yugoslavia.
We ran annual, monthlong internships at the Register for promising young Catholic journalists; first from Italy, then from Peru, France and Poland. And we sent Register staff abroad to intern in France at Le Point, La Croix and Bayard Presse; to build working friendships with renewal movements like Communion and Liberation in Italy, the Emmanuel Community in France, and publications like Tygodnik Powszechny in Poland; and to cover the work of the Church in Ghana, Senegal and Guinea Bissau, as well as in Ukraine, Peru, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
For me personally, there were meetings and interviews, moments of real privilege, with Joseph Ratzinger, Henri De Lubac, Yves Congar, Jerzy Turowicz and Cardinal Lustiger, and extraordinary conversations with the late novelist and essayist Shiva Naipaul and even the UNITA guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, who was later killed fighting in Angola.
The Register and its mission made all these things possible. From day one we sought to create a publication that would build up the Church rather than tearing her down; that would form as well as inform Catholics; and that would offer a faithful Catholic lens on the world and everything in it.
We wanted a newsweekly that would be honest, inquisitive, global in its perspective and intellectually credible, both in its reporting and its commentary. We failed a lot; we were never as good as we wanted to be. But to Gerry’s everlasting credit, we were never punished for trying.
We borrowed from anyone and anything that offered a worthwhile example. Abe Rosenthal’s demanding excellence as executive editor of The New York Times in the 1980s inspired all of us on the Register editorial team. We never had a fraction of his resources, but we did a lot with a little. And we had more fun than we deserved in doing it.
But the greatest influence on the mind, heart and soul of the Register from the day he was elected pope until the day I left the paper’s offices for the last time was Karol Wojtyla and his writing. John Paul II had a breadth of vision, a passion for truth, a depth and clarity of intellect, an organic unity to his faith, reasoning and actions, and an overflowing energy and hope — all shaped by years of struggle against a system of lies and repression. These qualities were powerful throughout his pontificate. Their seeming absence today from so much of Church life and leadership only reinforces the need for the Register to keep them alive in its vital work.
Throughout my years at the Register and then at the Archdiocese of Denver, I had four small quotations framed on my wall. The first was from the great Catholic novelist François Mauriac:
“Anyone who has truly known God can never be cured of him.”
The second and third were from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Léon Bloy, respectively, both profound Christian thinkers. But the last quotation often raised a visitor’s eyebrows. It was from Mao Zedong:
“Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are decisive.”
The best gifts of my life, next to my faith, the love of my wife and the blessing of my family, have been the people who’ve privileged me with their friendship. This was, is and should be the heart of the National Catholic Register at its best: a team of men and women working as friends for the greater glory of God; and consciously, daily, joyfully, demanding excellence from themselves and each other in the field of journalism.
It is people, not things, that are decisive. It’s worth remembering. That and so much more I learned at the Register.
Francis X. Maier joined the Register in 1978 and served as editor in chief from 1979 to 1993.
For the past 20 years, he has served as senior aide and special assistant to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.
Read more 90th anniversary coverage: here, here, here & here.
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