The year was 2013, and the Register staff was gathered in Birmingham to take part in the annual Lenten retreat held by our parent company, the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN). Our team always looks forward to such occasions as a time for prayerful reflection, strategic planning and rich conversations with far-flung colleagues based in virtual offices across the United States and beyond.
But on Feb. 13, 2013, those plans were upended with shocking news from Rome: Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would resign at the end of the month, and a new conclave would be convened to elect his successor.
Reporters and editors quickly began discussions about our coverage of this unprecedented moment. Amid the explosion of activity was both a burning curiosity to understand what lay behind the Pope’s decision and a desire to help our readers make sense of the unfolding events that rocked the Church.
Such moments pose enormous challenges for the Register’s lean editorial team. But as we celebrate our 90th anniversary, we see that these watershed events provide opportunities to grow and to affirm our mission as a news organization anchored in the heart of the Church.
Whether we’re preparing for a new Vicar of Christ, grappling with societal trends that threaten religious freedom, or incorporating the latest digital-media tools to capture breaking news, we seek to build up the faith and knowledge of our readers. Our mission is to help our fellow Catholics share the truth of Christ and his Church with their families and communities and shed the light of faith on complex issues that arise in U.S. culture, politics and world affairs.
Change, in fact, is the bread and butter of journalism. And while it took a little time for our newsroom to make sense of Benedict’s resignation, it’s worth recalling that the Register has covered the election of seven popes and the pontificates of eight, from Pius XI (1922-39) to Francis (2013-).
Each pope has sparked a particular mix of coverage at the Register, but given the date and length of their modern papacies, it’s fair to say that the Register’s present team has been formed by the hermeneutic of continuity taught by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Both proposed the truth of Christ in a clear, open and enthusiastic way and sought to correct theological dissent and broad confusion about the faith in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Both also offered a vibrant presence on the world stage, from Africa to Latin America.
John Paul’s visits to communist-occupied Poland debunked the totalitarian lie at the heart of an ossified Soviet Empire and taught the world that only Christ could liberate the human spirit. Benedict, the shy scholar who drew even larger crowds of pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square, urged Western Europeans to reclaim their Christian roots before they lost all sense of purpose and hope.
The surprising election of Pope Francis, the Church’s first Latin American pope, has stirred fresh interest in the Church from unexpected quarters. He has deepened our sense of gratitude for the joy and power of the Gospel and for the Father’s gift of mercy to his people. And as waves of refugees from Africa and Asia poured into Greece and Italy, it was Francis who led an examination of conscience that prompted European nations to offer shelter to desperate families.
Francis’ penchant for engaging in off-the-cuff pressers and for issuing encyclicals that raise questions without clear answers has also sparked intense interest from readers and posed new challenges for a newsroom committed to clarifying the truths of the faith.
With filial love and respect, we have reported about the fierce debate generated by Amoris Laetitia and find inspiration in the words of Archbishop Claudio Celli, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications: “The Church needs a media that is not afraid to expose mistakes and failures, but whose motive is to challenge the community of believers to continue on the path of conversion, so that the Church will be more fully what it is called by Christ to be.”
Here in the United States, an increasingly secular society, marked by a dismissive view of religious freedom, has also tested the mettle in the newsroom — just as it was during the time of the Register’s founding editor.
In the 1920s, Msgr. Matthew Smith, the Register’s first editor, reported on the bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan, and they retaliated by hiring private investigators to find evidence to be used for slandering him and derailing his newspaper.
Nine decades later, we witness a renewal of anti-Catholic bigotry, fueled by an ascendant campaign of sexual rights. In 2012, after the approval of the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate, the Register was placed in the unusual position of reporting on legal challenges to the mandate while EWTN filed its own lawsuit against the federal rule.
During this five-year legal battle that is finally drawing to a close, the Register sought to counter partisan talking points that framed the lawsuits as a “war on women.”
Throughout this period, EWTN has provided invaluable guidance and resources that have helped us set a high bar for our news products and evaluate the best platform for publishing in-depth stories and interviews, along with breaking news.
Indeed, the constant pressure of keeping up in a fast-paced, digital-media environment is perhaps the only challenge that our tough-minded founding editor did not deal with. Msgr. Smith published a weekly newspaper. Today, we are still publishing a paper, but we also have a website, blogs and a radio show, and we’re active on social media.
As we adapt to the intense pace of digital media, avoid fake news and defuse contentious online debates, we have stayed true to our founding principles. We are grateful our readers have responded: The paper’s subscriptions have increased 100% since we joined the EWTN family, and our recent monthly online page views have hit 2 million.
What’s next? Asked what he hoped the Register will accomplish by the 100th anniversary, Michael Warsaw, CEO and chairman of the board of EWTN Global Catholic Network, set a daunting goal that we have every intention of meeting.
“My hope is we will witness a direct link between the reporting of the Register and a deeper, more profound connection between people and the Church,” said Warsaw, who is also the Register’s publisher. “And I hope that we will be able to see how the work we do with the Register has been able to have an impact on the culture.
“As Mother Angelica often said in the early years of EWTN, ‘If we are able to save just one soul, then all the efforts and all the struggles will be worth it.’”