Soon to turn 88, Fr. Fred Power, S.J., is still hard at work editing the Canadian Messenger of the Sacred Heart. Photo by Michael Swan

Messenger of the Sacred Heart won’t give up, and neither will its editor

By  Dennis McCloskey, Catholic Register Special
  • February 15, 2012

TORONTO - In 1966 Fr. Frederick Power, S.J., was assigned to be the editor of Canada’s longest running Catholic magazine. He was 42 years old and had no idea that he’d still be at the helm 46 years later. But earlier this month, the 500th edition of Canadian Messenger of the Sacred Heart was published under Power’s stewardship.

Power will turn 88 in May but says he has no plans to step down from the magazine that has been continuously published since 1891. Asked if he has worked out a succession plan for his retirement, the venerable editor smiled and said: “I’m working on it.” In 1997, when he passed the 31-year tenure of a previous editor, he thought: “I might as well keep going.”

And “keep going” he does, despite a setback last June when he suffered an aortic aneurysm. Two stents were placed in his aorta and, following a brief recovery period, he returned to work part-time and soon resumed his hands-on role working regular hours, five days a week, to oversee the 32-page magazine that is published 11 times a year for a readership of nearly 40,000.

The 121-year-old magazine does not accept advertisements and is not subsidized by anyone, including the Jesuit order. Since 1968, it has served as the official Messenger of the Sacred Heart for Canada and the United States.

“We exist by keeping costs low and through subscriptions and donations,” he said.

Having seen many Catholic publications come and go, he was asked why he believes the Messenger has endured.

“We haven’t given up,” he replied with a chuckle.

But a fuller explanation might be found in a letter Power received in 1990 in honour of the magazine’s 100th year from former bishop of St. Catharines, Thomas Fulton.

“The secret to the magazine’s longevity is found in a tried and true formula,” wrote Fulton. “The Messenger speaks to people in a language they can understand about matters which are relevant to their lives against a background of faith and devotion. In today’s terms, it is a remarkable instrument of evangelization and social communication.”

There have been many memorable editions, said Power, notably the magazine’s 100th anniversary issue, and the 500th milestone edition this month, which Power titled “My 500th Gift.”

He is hesitant to name a particular issue that stands out but proudly states, “there has never been anything published in the Messenger that disturbed the faith of its readers.” He said this has not been easy, especially during the years after the Second Vatican Council when “various controversies raged in the Church.” He recalls that during the “upheaval” in response to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, the Messenger gave wavering support to the document and was, in his opinion, “a lone voice.”

Much has changed in publishing since then. The prolific use of the Internet poses the greatest threat to print journalism yet Power applauds the new technology (he set up a web site, and encourages the religious community and its communicators to embrace it. He believes “the same message that is given by voice to an audience within audible range could influence thousands — even millions — if published on the Internet.”

Power is proud of the writers who submit high quality articles to the magazine, and one of the greatest rewards of his stewardship is “the flowering” of some writers who were initially hesitant to submit a manuscript. He relies on a stable of regular freelancers from all walks of life from both sides of the border. He points out that four of his writers have been published in the Chicken Soup book series.

“With several authors, I immediately recognized their writing talent, accepted their manuscripts, and encouraged further submissions,” Power said.

He was born in Moncton, N.B. While in Grade 10 and working one summer to help extinguish a bush fire, he prayed to know his vocation, seeking the intercession of Kateri Tekakwitha, who is soon to become North America’s first aboriginal saint. A few years later, in 1942, Power was accepted into the Jesuits.

During his studies he began to write articles about the Jesuits for the Martyrs’ Shrine magazine. He also worked briefly in the electronic media while serving in Montreal, writing radio dramas for the St. Genesian Guild of amateur actors, and he helped produce 40 TV programs for the now defunct Sacred Heart Program.

His formal introduction to the Messenger came in 1959 when Fr. C.C. Ryan, S.J., became the magazine’s editor. Power moved to Toronto to be one of his assistants and contribute articles. He was appointed in 1966 as Ryan’s replacement.

The day before I was to interview him for this article, the Sunday readings included a verse from 1 Corinthians 9:16. I smiled when I read: “Paul found so compelling that ‘an obligation has been imposed on me and woe to me if I do not preach it.’ ” The next day in Power’s office on Toronto’s Greenwood Avenue, I asked if he felt an obligation had been placed on him and woe to him if he did not continue to publish. He laughed and replied: “No, but I sometimes joke to people that I have been handed a life sentence.”

(McCloskey is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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