A few weeks ago, I received news in an email from Father Joseph Fessio that Catholic World Report would become a purely Internet publication after its December 2011 issue, thus ceasing to appear in print after more than 20 years of continuous publication.
The news struck me in a personal way, since as its first editor I had helped launch the magazine in the fall of 1991.
I wrote an email to Father Fessio and told him I felt “just a slight twinge of sadness” that CWR is going “out of print,” and he invited me to recall those days when—despite many difficulties, problems and cross-currents—we conceived the magazine and brought it to birth.
The story is actually a tale of three magazines, all of them monthly, and all of them closely related to one another: 30 Days, Catholic World Report, and Inside the Vatican, the magazine I now edit.
But the story also touches on the vision of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, for a “re-evangelization” of the West and a renewed proclamation of the Gospel in our time, an age that seems increasingly antagonistic to the Christian faith.
The story begins in 1984. I was a graduate student, and I went to Rome planning to spend only that one summer working in the Vatican Library, reading manuscripts related to the early history of the Franciscan Order.
At the end of the summer, I realized I would need more time to improve my Latin, learn Italian, and read all the manuscripts I needed to read. So a summer turned into a year.
I wrote articles and taught English to survive, then was awarded the “Rome Prize” to spend a year at the American Academy in Rome (1985-86). So one year turned into two.
But already in September of 1984, three months after my arrival, I had had an extraordinary meeting which was to affect my whole life. The Brazilian Franciscan theologian, Father Leonardo Boff, had been summoned to Rome for a meeting with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
I watched the reports on Italian television, and I recognized the name “Ratzinger,” because I had been reading his book entitled The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure—a book I had found fascinating and very useful for my own research.
Just a few days after that, one morning just before 9 am, walking across St. Peter’s Square toward the Vatican Library, I saw the same man I had seen on television. I stopped.
“Are you Cardinal Ratzinger?” I asked, as politely as possible.
“Yes, I am,” he said.
“Well, hello,” I said. “I’m a student here in Rome, working on my dissertation, and I’ve been reading your book, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, and appreciating it very much.”
“Ah!” he said, laughing. “Well, you are the only one in Rome who has read that book of mine.”
And we spoke for another few moments. He wished me good luck in my research and encouraged me to send my thesis to him when I was finished, and we parted.
At about the same time, I purchased and read the book-length interview Ratzinger gave to Italian writer Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report (pub- lished in English by Ignatius Press). That book startled me. It contained such a mixture of truth-telling about the problems in the Church since the Council, hope for an eventual return to a more balanced perspective on our faith, and a profound and serene trust that we would find the right path, aided by the insights and sacrifices of all who have gone before us in the Church, that I felt moved to become more involved in the struggle to keep the Church and her message strong and present in our own time. From that moment on, I grew less interested in the debates and conflicts of the 1200s I had been studying.
In the fall of 1985, the “Extraordinary Synod” occurred, and my life changed. A little newspaper called the International Courier had sprung up in Rome under the direction of Christopher Winner, an American. I had gone to him to ask if I could write articles. “On what?” he had asked me. “The Vatican,” I said. “You’ve got it,” he agreed. And so I became a Vatican reporter.
During that synod, I met people like the late Peter Hebblethwaite of The Tablet, Wilton Wynn of Time, Victor Simpson of Associated Press, Eugene Dionne of the New York Times, and so many of the great Italian vaticanisti— Luigi Accatoli, Domenico del Rio, Alceste Santini, Benny Lai, Max Bergere, Father Joseph Vandrisse, Father Robert Graham [an American Jesuit, but so “Romanized” that he seemed Italian!], and many more.
I wrote every day, twice a day. And I was “noticed.”
Just before Christmas I received a phone call from America. Fran Maier, at that time the editor of the National Catholic Register, wanted to know if I would write two articles a month for him. I hesitated, since I was still working on my dissertation. I knew writing about the Vatican would delay my doctorate. But I accepted, and in so doing, sealed my fate. I did not realize it then, but in fact, I would become a “Vaticanist” myself, and not an academic as I had originally intended.
Fran was adamant on one point: that there was a group of young Italian journalists who were breaking new ground in covering Vatican affairs. They were not the musty old vaticanisti I had just begun to get to know; they were the brash, bold, energetic young men and women of the Italian Communion and Liberation movement who were putting out the weekly Il Sabato and the monthly 30 Giorni nella Chiesa e nel Mondo (30 Days in the Church and World). I went to see them. I was impressed. They knew all the players—the curial cardinals, the Italian politicians, the European opinion-makers. A new world opened up for me. It was a world many Americans never saw—it was “inside (Vatican) baseball,” Italian-style.
In October of 1987, Father Fessio made a fateful decision. He flew to Rome to meet with these Italians, to hammer out an agreement to publish their monthly, 30 Giorni, in English, as 30 Days. Antonia Willemsen, from the German Catholic charity Kirche in Not (Aid to the Church in Need), also came to Rome for the meeting, in support of the Brazilian edition (in Portuguese). I was at that meeting—the Italians invited me. They thought I might be the right person to be the editor and translator of the English edition, and proposed me as such to Father Fessio. He agreed.
In the winter of 1987-88, I retreated for three months to finish writing my long-delayed dissertation. I finished the work on March 1, 1988, and began to work preparing the first issue of 30 Days the very next day. (I took a copy of the dissertation to Cardinal Ratzinger, and he leafed through it with interest, and said he would read it.) My thesis was accepted, and I received my Ph.D. from Yale that spring—but I could not go to the commencement ceremony because by then we were closing the third issue of 30 Days.
Those were some of the most difficult days of my life. Father Fessio wanted to be sure the magazine was in good English. And I, even though I had been in Italy for almost four years, still had considerable difficulty with Italian. (Those of you who have tried to learn Italian will understand.) Every word in that magazine was typed by me—the headlines, the subtitles, the photo captions, even the texts of the ads. I did not sleep for three nights as we closed that first issue. I translated about 200 type-written pages a month for the next two-and-a-half years.
In America, Father Fessio was concerned that the content of the magazine not be “too Italian.” But the Italian editors wanted the English edition to follow the Italian as faithfully as possible. This led to disputes. I remember one case clearly, an article about the Italian politician Ciriaco De Mita, national secretary of Italy’s Christian Democratic Party. The Italians said they wished to put pressure on De Mita “in America” by publishing an article in the English edition, but Father Fessio thought the entire piece irrelevant for Americans. I do not even remember now whether the piece went in or not, but I do re- member the Italians saying, “Put it in,” and Father Fessio saying, “Leave it out, put something else in its place.”
That was a difficult spot for me to be in.
It is important to note that, in the 1980s, we did not yet have the Internet. We hardly had computers. The first issues of 30 Days were impaginated with long strips of text that were cut into columns and placed on the page by a pleasant Italian fellow named Fortunato, who, unfortunately, was eventually to suffer from a curved back from leaning over the light table hour after hour, pasting columns first for the Italian edition, then the Spanish, then the French, then the English, then the Portuguese… he was heroic.
They would shoot the pasted pages onto film, and wrap 80 pages of thick black film in a heavy package, which they would hand to me at about 10 in the evening, and I would rush out to my car and drive out to Fiumicino Airport, knowing that the TWA overnight shipping office would close at 11 pm. Once or twice in those years, the magazine was finished at 10:15 or 10:20, and I would arrive at Fiumicino at 11:05 and be unable to ship the package, which would mean a delay of at least a day, and sometimes more, in the printing of the magazine. When that happened, Father Fessio was unhappy.
It was nothing like today, when you can click a button and send a magazine from one end of the world to the other instantaneously, in one large computer file.
This also meant that all the corrections to those issues of 30 Days had to be done by fax. And the problem with this was that the fax line would drop after about 45 seconds. So I would go to the office, fax the translation of an article to California, and take 30 minutes for each article, dialing and redialing, sometimes until three or four in the morning. And then the corrected pages would come back via fax, and I would insert the corrections into my text and hand it in for impagination. During those four years, from 1987 through 1990, I spoke to Father Fessio on the phone almost every day, and sometimes several times a day. In any case, I had intended to be a writer and scholar, but now I had become a craftsman with a very precise craft, like making shoes or making cheese: I had learned to “make magazines,” from choosing the photos, to writing the headlines, to translating articles, to cutting problematic text.
But all the work seemed worth it. We had a voice, a weight, in the cultural-theological war that was so intense at that time in the United States and in the world. Remember, that was before the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed.
For me, however, the strain became too great. I left 30 Giorni at the end of the summer of 1990, after two-and-a-half years and 27 issues. I was hired as an assistant professor of medieval history in an American university on a one-year contract.
In the months that followed, tensions between the Italians in Rome and Ignatius Press in San Francisco grew, and in the spring of 1991, at the time of the first Gulf War, the relationship broke down.
And so we come, by this long and winding road, to the birth of Catholic World Report. In the spring of 1991, I received a call from Father Fessio. “Bob,” he said, “I have a proposal for you. I have closed down 30 Days. I would like you to go back to Rome and start a magazine to replace it. You may not be the only one who could do it, but I think you would be the best person, since you did 30 Days.”
I hesitated. I felt I might love the chance to do a magazine just as good as 30 Days ever was, but without the problems. But I was uncertain whether we could ever really do it, whether it would really be as good a publication.
At 30 Giorni, we had had 15 journalists to follow and cover every aspect of Vatican affairs. In this new job, it seemed, I would be alone. But in the end the chance to edit a new magazine seemed too attractive to pass up. I accepted.
We did not know at first what we would even name the publication: “The Report” was one idea; “The Catholic World” was another; “The World Catholic Report” was another (playing a bit off of The National Catholic Reporter). Finally we settled on The Catholic World Report, with a slight ambiguity about whether we were focused on “the Catholic world” or on “the world as seen by Catholics.” But we knew we wanted the word “Report” emphasized, because we knew we wanted the charism of the publication to be evangelical, a “report,” not just hearsay or speculation or chit-chat, but a clear, reliable “report” on what was happening in Rome and around the world—a report that would concern the Catholic Church, but also the entire world the Church is “in but not of.”
I made a trip to California, and over several days, we worked out the rubrics of the magazine. We looked at various type fonts and chose the ones we wanted to use. The new magazine was coming to life.
I then began making calls—to Phil Lawler, to Father Richard Neuhaus, to David Schindler, to Deal Hudson, to Stratford Caldecott, and to many others. I was seeking insight into what people thought was needed. What message would The Catholic World Report proclaim? I knew I did not want it to be superficial or knee-jerk; I wanted it to be profound, provocative, and fearless, looking at the world from a thoroughly Catholic perspective.
One great concern I had was that we would be “too American.” I did not want the magazine to reflect just the American perspective on issues in the Church and the world. (I did not at all want it to be “The American Catholic World Report.”) And I was worried that, by myself, I would be unable to build the type of international “team” which had existed at 30 Giorni.
Then Father Fessio explained that we would not be alone, but together with some French and Spanish editors in a group which would be called “I.Media,” short for “International Media.” The French would be financed by Vincent Montagne’s publishing group, Media-Participations, the largest Catholic publisher in France, and the Spanish by the Legionaries of Christ. I agreed that we would be better off by having an international team, but I still felt that we would be lacking the Italian component. After all, no one knows Rome like the Italians; it is their home.
I decided to try again to edit a magazine in Rome.
I arrived in Rome in the first days of September 1991, found an apartment, and then went down to the office on via Sforza Pallavicini, not far from the end of Borgo Pio. There I met Jean-Marie Guenois from Paris, and a very young Jesús Colina, from Burgos, Spain, later the founder of the Zenit news agency. The first day we were in the office together was September 11, 1991. The next day, Blandine Becheras, from Lyons, France, a member of the Emmanuel Community centered in Paris, joined us as the office secretary. So we were four.
The first issue came out five weeks later with “Quo Vadis, Europa?” on the cover (“Europe, Where Are You Going?”). We were all very proud that what had just been an idea was now beginning to be a reality.
However, there were a few clouds on the horizon.
First, though we were four, only I spoke and wrote in English, so the production of the magazine fell almost entirely on my shoulders. Second, Cardinal Ratzinger. When I met with him and explained the new situation, he seemed distressed. “I am sorry there had to be this division” (between 30 Giorni and Catholic World Report), he said. Third, the subscribers. In the spring, 30 Days had boasted more than 30,000 subscribers. Now we were going to send them a different magazine. Would they like it? Would they unsubscribe? Our promotions manager, Roger McCaffrey, who later went on to found The Latin Mass magazine, thought that maybe we were not keeping as many subscribers as we might.
By Christmas of 1991, we had successfully launched the magazine, and we had managed to retain about 20,000 subscribers. I felt rather pleased. Father Fessio, however, had problems I knew little about. He had originally made an agreement to be a one-third owner of I.Media, but in a meeting not long after we opened the office, the French investor, Vincent Montagne, told Father Fessio and the Legionaries that he would take back the 33 percent offer, and own 100 percent of I.Media himself. It was a fait accompli.
Father Fessio moved my contract over to I.Media, and I suddenly found myself working for the French. During 1992, there were several small editorial conflicts, one involving an advertisement for the traditional Mass, another concerning an interview with a cardinal about the beatification of St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. And as 1993 began, the number of subscriptions had declined a bit more, toward 18,000 and then 17,000.
On March 24, 1993, after one-and-a- half years and 15 issues of the magazine, I was replaced as editor by Phil Lawler, who then continued in that post for many very successful years.
In the days that followed, I decided to try to take all the experience I had acquired during five years of “making magazines” and create a third publication. I did not know what to call it. I thought of “Vatican Insider” and “The Rome Report” (but I did not want to use the word “Report” again). So finally I settled on Inside the Vatican.
I called my friend Grzegorz Galazka, a Polish photographer, and the graphic designer of 30 Giorni, Giuseppe Sabatelli, and asked them to help me with the new magazine. And so, with the help of these two friends, I launched Inside the Vatican with a “Zero issue” in April of 1993. The launch cost: $4,760. (David Schindler helped by letting me send copies to all the subscribers to Communio.)
I took copies of the “Zero issue” to Father Stanislaw Dsiwisz, the Pope’s secretary, to Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Pope’s spokesman, and to Cardinal Ratzinger.
The first two were pleasant and encouraged me. Cardinal Ratzinger was encouraging, but also perplexed. “It seems there is a multiplication of magazines here,” he said. “First, 30 Days of the Italians, then, the 30 Days of Father Fessio (Catholic World Report), and now, the 30 Days of Robert Moynihan. Could you not all work together?”
Many years passed. Father Fessio and I did not see each other or speak to each other. But, just after the year 2000, we met, by chance, at the main entrance of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, on the occasion of the National March for Life.
“Bob,” he said, then paused, as if reflecting. “You know, there is something I’ve been meaning to tell you. You are bringing out a great magazine.” He paused again. “Is there some way we could work together?”
I thanked him for those words. “As for collaboration, how about taking out an ad in my magazine?” I said. He nodded.
And from that time on, Ignatius Press has been taking out not just one ad, but two, in each issue of Inside the Vatican, and that has been a great support to our balance sheet.
Since 1988, I have been making magazines. Twenty-seven issues of 30 Days, 15 issues of Catholic World Report, and now 183 issues of Inside the Vatican over the past 18 years—225 magazines in 23 years.
And despite all of these years, the challenges just keep increasing. Father Fessio, in his letter to CWR readers, wrote: “For several years now, Ignatius Press has been subsidizing these two magazines [Catholic World Report and Homiletic & Pastoral Review], and the loss has been in the $200,000-range each year. We have continued to subsidize them because we believed—and still believe—they have provided an important service to the Church. However, it doesn’t take any prophetic gifts to see what is happening to print magazines. The rapid growth of electronic sources of news and opinion has led to the demise of many magazines, and this is clearly a trend that is going to continue.”
When I read that Catholic World Report was going out of print, I wondered if some of the magazine’s readers, because they might still like a paper magazine, might like to subscribe to Inside the Vatican. So I wrote to Father Fessio to ask if he would let his readers know that Inside the Vatican still exists, and is going to try to keep publishing. And he said, “Why don’t you tell the whole story, and we’ll put it in the last printed edition of the magazine, in December?”
So that is what I have done. I have told the story.
And I think Pope Benedict would be pleased that some of us are now working together again ad majoram Dei gloriam (“for the greater glory of God”), after so many divisions in the past.
Thus, as someone who devoted a part of my life, with great passion, to the launch of Catholic World Report, I wish well to all those associated with the online initiative, and invite all those who would like to have a paper copy of a magazine that also covers Church and world affairs to consider subscribing to Inside the Vatican magazine, which is, in a sense, the child of Catholic World Report.
If we have accomplished any good thing, it is little in comparison to what we wished and hoped to accomplish.