The inaugural issue of the Western Catholic Reporter, published Sept. 9, 1965, ushered in a new era of Catholic journalism in the Edmonton Archdiocese.

The inaugural issue of the Western Catholic Reporter, published Sept. 9, 1965, ushered in a new era of Catholic journalism in the Edmonton Archdiocese.

September 28, 2015
DOUGLAS ROCHE
SPECIAL TO THE WCR

In November 1964, Archbishop Anthony Jordan phoned to ask if I would be interested in visiting Edmonton to examine how the archdiocese could better communicate the startling developments of the Second Vatican Council.

I was then living in New Jersey, where I was associate editor of The Sign, a Catholic monthly with a large circulation in the U.S. His call caught me in a reflective moment, for I was thinking of returning to my native Canada.

I spent a weekend in Edmonton and gave the archbishop a report recommending a new Catholic paper that could fully reflect the teaching of Vatican II and be respected for its professionalism. The archbishop apparently agreed with my assessment that the council's dynamic concept of the Church as the people of God had created a great teaching moment to awaken the Catholic community. Three months later, he called again and offered me the job of editor.

Thus began an exciting and daring time of my life. I was 35 with a wife and five children, setting out from the New York metropolitan area for what seemed like a frontier post in western Canada.

The summer of 1965 was a jumble of car trips, house-hunting, hiring staff, production planning, and immersing myself in the life of the archdiocese of Edmonton. On Sept. 9, the first edition of the Western Catholic Reporter rolled off the presses.

Pope John XXIII had declared in his great encyclical, Pacem in Terris, a couple of years earlier, that the right to information is among the "universal, inviolable, unalterable" rights of the human person. Moreover, every person has "the right to freedom in searching for truth and in expressing and communicating [their] opinion."

I made this the hallmark of the paper. In my first editorial, I wrote: "For many years to come, we will be a Church in transition. And an age of transition, historians tell us, is always an age of confusion. But out of the confusion and questioning that characterize the monumental undertaking of the Second Vatican Council will emerge a religious vibrancy that will be, with God's grace, capable of reshaping the face of the earth."

Archbishop Anthony Jordan

Archbishop Anthony Jordan

While many in the archdiocese greeted the paper as a breath of fresh air (like the council itself), others were by no means enchanted. The comfortable institutional ways of the past seemed to be challenged. The outreach to non-Catholics appeared bewildering. The pews weren't as comfortable as before.

I did not seek controversy. The reality was that much of the material flowing across my desk was by nature controversial: the changes in the liturgy, the role of pastoral councils, the desire of women to play a more active and decisive role in the Church.

Although the paper carried many news items each week that were benign, if not outright "feel good," the controversies in the Church multiplied and cried out for coverage.

While I tried to "accentuate the positive" (in the words of the wonderful song Bing Crosby used to sing), I could not "eliminate the negative."

One way I tried to build a positive spirit was co-sponsoring, along with the Catholic Information Centre, a 13-week series of lectures, Vatican II and You, in Edmonton and Calgary.

Close to 3,000 people attended the sessions, which featured experts, movies, panel discussions and audience participation. Closed-circuit television was necessary to accommodate the crowds.

Douglas Roche in 1965

Douglas Roche in 1965

In its first two years, the WCR won the Catholic Press Association's Journalism Award for general excellence in its circulation category. The judges praised the paper's ability to "grab" readers with dramatic presentations of copy and art.

All this was exhilarating, but I was brought back to cold reality every time I looked at the circulation figures. We needed more readers. I was learning the hard way that a Catholic paper concentrating on adult education in the spirit of Vatican II could not pay for itself. It had to be financed just as schools and charities are financed.

One day, Ed McManus, the straight-talking chairman of the board of advisors, declared: "We have to make up our minds whether we want a paper or don't want a paper. The WCR is all about adult education, and any business worth its salt has a program of continued education."

He swayed the meeting to support a parish plan coverage, a system under which registered parishioners would receive the paper unless they requested their name be removed from the circulation list. The paper's finances improved.

The real reason the WCR survived was because of the tenaciousness of Archbishop Jordan. The paper was more than he bargained for, to be sure, but so was Vatican II. He was a man of vision: during that same period, he founded Newman Theological College, which prepares lay people, religious and ordained ministers for service and leadership in the Church in western Canada.

He took seriously the words he had written in the first edition, when he stated that the paper would not be independent in reflecting the defined teaching of the Catholic Church in the area of faith and morals, but would be independent in providing reports and a forum for discussion of the issues of the day from a Catholic viewpoint.

The staff of the WCR is pictured with Archbishop Anthony Jordan and Douglas Roche (both seated) in this photo taken in 1972.

The staff of the WCR is pictured with Archbishop Anthony Jordan and Douglas Roche (both seated) in this photo taken in 1972.

"I do not believe that those in authority in the Catholic Church should control the flow of information," he said.

When Jordan entrusted me with editorial responsibility, he enabled me to mature. I will be forever grateful to him.

After seven years in the editor's chair, I felt challenged by the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World to get into the political arena.

I was also affected by the prediction of Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger of Montreal, who told me during an interview that he expected it would take a hundred years for the impact of Vatican II to be felt throughout the Church. I didn't have 100 years.

Archbishop Jordan gave me a leave of absence to run for Parliament – with the assurance that I would get my job back if I lost. What more could I ask for?

A NEW PHASE

The paper went on to a new phase, and the turmoil in the Church, while not disappearing, became less acrimonious. The priests, sisters and people have since become accustomed to new patterns of thinking and perhaps are more patient today. The WCR has become, notably under Glen Argan's editorship, a guiding light for Catholics.

Perhaps the shining example of this enlightened community was the remarkable five-year evangelization program, Nothing More Beautiful, launched by Archbishop Richard Smith. There is nothing more beautiful than our friendship with Christ – and, of course, the responsibilities we have to those around us in a globalized world.

POPE FRANCIS

That seems to me to be the essence of Pope Francis' teaching and perhaps the reason why he has ignited the interest of people around the world. The Church is the community of Christ and it knows no bounds. That was the principle I brought to the founding of the WCR.

Through its half-century, the WCR has remained faithful to its mission to communicate the beauty and responsibilities of the Church. The paper's mission stems from Christ's continuing presence in a volatile, suffering but ultimately beautiful world.

This teaching instrument is needed today as much as 50 years ago, for the mission of the Church to communicate in an open and attractive way lives on.