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 CNS Story:

COMMON GROUND Jun-30-2008 (780 words) With photos. xxxn

NBC's Williams ties Russert's Catholicism to journalistic integrity

By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- NBC "Nightly News" anchor and managing editor Brian Williams told a gathering at The Catholic University of America in Washington the late Tim Russert's Catholic values propelled him as a political journalist in his mission to seek out the truth.

Williams -- a Catholic college dropout who had attended the university and two other colleges -- was a replacement speaker for Russert at the 2008 annual Philip J. Murnion Lecture, hosted by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative June 27.

Russert, the NBC News Washington bureau chief and "Meet the Press" moderator, died unexpectedly June 13 at the age of 58.

"Tim wore his Catholicism proudly," said Williams, 49, who eventually was awarded an honorary doctorate from Catholic University. "His Catholicism was an overwhelming influence on him to seek out the truth."

Though Russert's Catholic values drove him to push guests on Meet the Press to reveal political truths, those same principles motivated him to hold them accountable for their actions, but in a civil manner, Williams said.

"Tim was respectful dialogue personified," he said. "He had truly a beautiful life. At his funeral I told his wife that the nation's reaction was as if a former president had died. No one expected that. This is how he touched people. We didn't celebrate him enough in life."

Russert had been scheduled as the featured speaker at the lecture and was preparing to discuss the political process for common ground in the Catholic Church.

After news of Russert's death was known around the world, organizers of the event -- which featured Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., receiving the 2008 Cardinal Bernardin Award for his commitment to finding common ground within the Catholic faith -- feared it would be canceled or postponed.

Instead, they slightly refocused the lecture to demonstrate how Russert relied on his Catholic faith to guide him in his professional and personal life, as a journalist, political observer, husband, father and son, said Msgr. Kevin Irwin, Catholic University's dean of theology and religious studies, in remarks before Williams spoke.

"Let Tim's life be the icon of politics and common ground," said Father J. Cletus Kiley, president of the Faith & Politics Institute, a Capitol Hill organization founded by clergy and members of Congress.

"From the beginning of our church, we've had that search for truth. He is given to us as an icon ... to help us make sense of our life, and sense of our politics," the priest told the audience following Williams' address.

Russert's faith was tested during the priest sexual abuse crisis and he had harsh words for Catholic leaders who failed to have a public discussion about the topic, Williams said.

"It shook Tim up," Father Kiley said. "But he stayed. He found common ground."

The Catholic Common Ground Initiative was established by the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago in 1996 to promote dialogue among church leaders on issues that often divide Catholics in the U.S.

The lecture -- named after the late Msgr. Murnion, founding director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, where the initiative has been housed since its inception -- is a part of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative's annual conference.

Russert was so grounded in his Catholicism he made sure that even when traveling to the far ends of the world on assignment he could find a Catholic church in which to worship, Williams said, "unlike some of the rest of us Catholics who are not so good."

When he was introduced to Pope Benedict XVI at Catholic University during the pontiff's U.S. visit in April, the "Meet the Press" moderator was rendered "speechless," Msgr. Irwin said.

"He understood what it meant to be called to be Catholic," Williams said. "He knew that diversity in the public square was hard work that had to be practiced every day."

In accepting his award, Bishop Kicanas said the honor was humbling to him, because Cardinal Bernardin was an inspirational mentor to him. When he was ordained to the priesthood in 1967, the bishop was ordained for the Chicago Archdiocese.

He compared that mentorship with the one Russert had with his own father, as described in the journalist's book, "Big Russ & Me."

"His dad helped him and inspired him to be the father he ended up being," Bishop Kicanas said. "Cardinal Bernardin was a mentor to me. By bringing us together to find common ground, it represents the gifts the cardinal gave to us. I only hope I can imitate his passion to encourage people to enter into dialogue."


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