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 CNS Story:

AMERICA-100TH Apr-23-2009 (1,060 words) With photos. xxxn

America magazine reflects on century of triumphs, debates and faith

By Chaz Muth
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- For the past year the editors of America have searched for the right balance of celebration and reflection to mark the 100th anniversary of the Jesuits' weekly magazine of opinion.

Only a handful of magazines have been around longer than America, and its impact on American Catholicism and society has been substantial.

As Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen -- editor in chief of the magazine -- discussed the landmark anniversary during an April 21 interview with Catholic News Service in his New York office, the 64-year-old scholar couldn't contain his pride when reflecting on America's past century or when contemplating its future.

The magazine championed civil rights and battled racism decades before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the pre-eminent U.S. leader of the cause, and took issue with U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy's 1950s anti-communism campaign.

Its approach to some Catholic issues over the years has infuriated a few U.S. bishops who have made their objections known to the Vatican.

"I'm really proud of the history of the magazine," said Jesuit Father James Martin, who is currently the culture editor but has served in several capacities in the 10 years he has lived and worked in America's nine-story New York office building.

As Father Martin gave a CNS reporter a tour of the magazine's home since July 1964, he proudly pointed out framed covers of some issues, which numbered 4,851 by the April 17 anniversary date.

The walls also are adorned with letters of appreciation to the editors from U.S. presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and, most recently, Barack Obama, who sent a letter April 1.

The first four floors are for the magazine, and levels five through nine have living quarters and offices for the Jesuits who help produce the publication.

The editorial bullpen resembles an old-time newsroom, with rows of desks and leather-bound issues of the magazine lining the ample built-in book cases.

The elegantly decorated John LaFarge Lounge -- named after the Jesuit priest who was on the staff from 1929 until his death in 1963 -- is the formal conference room. The more modestly furnished Associates Room -- decorated with scores of framed photos of past associate editors and contributors -- is used for the magazine's day-to-day business.

"I've been here for a tenth of the magazine's existence," Father Martin said. "It's a little humbling when you look at it that way."

Before the first issue of America was published April 17, 1909, there was no publication in the U.S. about the country's Catholics and culture, like The Tablet in London, he said.

The Jesuits viewed having a magazine as part of their mission, said Father Martin, 48, the author of nine published books and two others in the works.

"A Jesuit is supposed to explain the church to the world, and the world to the church," he said. "That's pretty much what the magazine does."

Over the past century, the magazine has been housed in four different locations in New York. It has been in its current home the longest -- nearly 45 years.

Most of the key players in the magazine's early days were Jesuits. Now several are laypeople, including literary editor Patricia A. Kossmann. She joined America shortly before its 90th anniversary and was the first woman to serve on the magazine's editorial board.

In recent years America has reached beyond its pages to engage in public debate on current issues.

Father Martin has been the magazine's spokesman on National Public Radio, CNN and even on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report."

As a journal of opinion, the magazine has continued to weigh in on divisive issues within the U.S. Catholic culture. For example, it supports the University of Notre Dame in its decision to invite Obama to deliver its commencement address May 17 and to present him with an honorary degree.

A number of U.S. bishops and other critics of Obama said the president's support of legal abortion and embryonic stem-cell research makes him an inappropriate choice to be commencement speaker at a Catholic university. Some opponents have held protests and launched petition drives against Notre Dame's decision.

"The whole effort is to ban others from our institutions and from our conversations," Father Christiansen said. "The church is at risk of becoming a sect by fringe groups. I've long been an opponent of blackballing people because they don't agree with us on every issue."

He said that even when international leaders differ with the church on critical Catholic teaching the Vatican still engages them in conversation.

Vatican officials "understand it's important to have relationships with leaders of nations and policy, even when they don't agree with them," Father Christiansen said. "Some U.S. bishops and others have been susceptible to the pressures from the right wing, which has confused partisan politics with theology."

As print media have converged with new technology, the editors of America and Jan Attridge -- who became the magazine's first publisher when that position was established in July 2008 -- are embracing the future with enthusiasm.

The magazine continues to have a loyal following of its print version, but it is expanding its audience through the Internet and slowly changing how it engages those readers, Attridge said.

"The technology is more interactive and as a journal of opinion, we are looking to include commentary from our audience within our articles," she said. "That is a challenge. How we are going to do that, in a respectful way, is still to be determined.

"But, we're open to the new model of media and we're not fearful of it," Attridge said. "We've got to balance how we are going to meet the needs of our audience, without judging which model is better."

Despite new ways of communicating, the mission is the same -- to convey how American Catholicism continues to make its mark on the Catholic Church as a whole, as well as society, Father Christiansen said.

"The American church has made a great contribution to the understanding of religious liberty," he said. "I would hope the Catholic press in the U.S. -- and more broadly -- could counsel the church to value more highly the importance of open and free communication, and express the vitality of the church's witness in the contemporary world."


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