Photo courtesy Michael Swan

‘I have only done the work of a servant’

  • June 29, 2023

The Catholic formula for rounding off a prayer, to avoid speeding directly to an abrupt amen, is to add in a “Glory Be…” As a prayer in its own right, the Glory Be manages to include the entire Trinity and the “world without end.” An amen after all that feels justified.

But in the Latin original, that “world without end” part is even more thought provoking. “Et in saecula saeculorum” could be translated, “And in generation of generations” or “And in age of ages.” Saecularis is a Latin word that indicates something that comes out of a particular era or period of history. Something that is saecularis is of its time.

Saecularis is the root of the English word secular. Saecularis is also the business of journalism. All journalists, Catholic and otherwise, are trying to catch the fish that swim in the tide of history. Or perhaps we are the fish, trying to catch the tide. What we do is, or should be, of the moment. Good journalism lights up our understanding of the age or the generation in which we live and move and have our being. It connects us to the now, and to each other in the present.

For 25 years I have been privileged to wade into the secular tide on behalf of Catholic Register readers. My gratitude for these years is immense. I will be 65 on July 3 and it is time for me to move on, to make room for others and to search out the wisdom of acting my age.

By my count, over these 25 years I have reported from 21 different countries. I have shaken the hand of one Pope, interviewed a dozen or so cardinals, questioned archbishops and bishops, learned from brilliant theologians and peered into the inner life of Catholic institutions — from hospitals to elementary schools to universities to unions.

But the whole story can never be found just inside the visible, formal, official manifestations of the Church. The Body of Christ is incarnate everywhere in our world. It is saecularis (of its time) in every age, in every generation. Therefore, it has been my job to ask questions of ministers of state, professors of law, economists, artists, doctors, cops and robbers, tinkers and tailors.

Catholic journalism cannot qualify as Catholic and hardly rates as journalism if it turns its back on the world Christ died for, or if it neglects “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time — especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way.” This latter eloquent dictum from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution of the Church, Gaudium et Spes, ought to be tattooed on the soul of every Catholic journalist.

In the fall of 1987, in the newsroom of The Kenora Daily Miner and News, the first daily newspaper I worked for, the managing editor told me, “We are here to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” It took me a day or two to realize the editor had not originated this compact and beautiful insight. In 1893 a Chicago Evening Post journalist attributed it to an Irish barkeep named “Mr. Dooley.”

The truth of Mr. Dooley’s aphorism, combined with the Church’s unshakable commitment to our secular world in Gaudium et Spes, has been my guiding light through 25 years of Catholic journalism. When I speak of the privilege of reporting for Catholic Register readers, I’m not speaking of shaking hands with Pope Francis, chatting confidentially with Cardinal Michael Czerny, being interviewed for The National by Adrienne Arsenault, meeting in Jerusalem with Patriarch Fouad Twal, photographing Pope St. John Paul II. I am not ungrateful for these rare moments, my brushes with fame, but my privilege has been to be close to people dying of AIDS in Nairobi’s immense Kibera slum and in rural Malawi. I am grateful to have been in conversation with Inuvialuit hunters and fishers in Tuktoyaktuk trying to understand how a warming climate is slipping the rug from under their livelihoods. I thank God I have prayed with Dene elders in Tulita whose children have abandoned their community, and sometimes abandoned hope, looking for jobs in the south. Meeting with Iraqi refugees holed up in the poorer quarters of Damascus or Venezualan refugees living on the streets of Boa Vista, Brazil, was humbling. My gratitude is owed to dying homeless men who joked with me at the Journey Home Hospice in downtown Toronto. Thanks be to God, I was able to serve coffee to the poor at The Good Shepherd. I have been privileged to photograph teenage mothers courageously building their families with the help of the Rose of Durham.

More than just a preferential option for the poor, Catholic journalism seeks to uncover the hidden reality of lives lived at the margins of our consciousness. Catholic journalism is a waste of time if it merely affirms what you already know, confirms opinions you already have and tells you nothing about people whose lives are different from your own. Catholic news should unsettle Catholics a little, just enough to make us think or pray.

I never thought I would be here, doing this job for this long. I thought I would have moved on, back into daily newspapers. But the news business changed and the papers I once worked for no longer exist. At The Catholic Register I was asked to commit acts of journalism that would tax the strength of my mind, heart and soul. How could I abandon that? I was saved from the terror of a trivial life spent on trivial work and asked instead to confront our catholic, universal struggle to understand ourselves as sinners saved by the grace of God.

The Catholic Register’s gift to me has been its weekly demand that I be faithful. The accumulation of deadlines has required me to labour and not to seek reward, to toil and not to seek for rest. The idea that this work is its own reward confronted me when I realized that through many years I had struggled to tell the story of what Archbishop Don Bolen has called the central wound of this country’s history — the story of Indian residential schools and all they represent.

This year The Catholic Register was honoured by the Catholic Media Association of North America for its coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to Canada, his pilgrimage of penance. But the two weeks I spent last summer flying to Rome, losing my luggage, joining the Vatican press corps on the papal plane was only a moment in time — a crucial station along a journey we haven’t yet completed.The story we had to tell while flying with the Pope has a 400-year backstory. To witness this history has required me to be present, listening, seeking the path to reconciliation.

Indigenous leaders and elders have shown me kindness every time they answered my questions over these years. They have revealed to me how Christ rises in our lives like the dawn from on high, and shows us the paths of peace. 

It is tempting to think of a news story as just a sequence of events distilled into prose — “just the facts, Ma’am.” In fact, stories do not live in black and white on the page (or screen), but in our imaginations. The purpose of those words is to draw a picture. The purpose of that picture is to draw us into a different, greater, expanded reality.

It’s not just about words. In my 25 years I have used a series of Nikon cameras that rewarded me with delight, challenge and a burden of debt. With my F90X and hand-rolled canisters of Ilford black and white film, which I developed in the bathroom of my basement apartment, I shot the Cityscape of Desire project — a year of photographs of Torontonians of all faiths at prayer. With my first digital camera, a D70, I travelled through Kenya and Malawi. With my D300 I documented the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s encounter with Indigenous people in Inuvik, NWT. With my D600 I met the people of the Amazon. With my D780 I followed Pope Francis through a pilgrimage into the wounded heart of this country.

I’m not a great photographer. But it has been worth the struggle to make Catholic Register readers into witnesses. “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses,” Pope Paul VI said in 1975. Properly speaking, witnesses are martyrs. It’s not a great marketing slogan, but the truth is that this newspaper calls its readers to martyrdom.

When I pick up my camera, I owe it to readers to capture the light, fend off officious nabobs who try to forbid cameras, lug my backpack and its 20 kg of lenses, camera bodies and computer up the stairs, across the river, into the crowd and into the middle of where whatever is happening is happening.

Without my camera, when I sit at my keyboard, I owe it to Catholic Register readers to have spoken directly to the people at the heart of a story, whether friend or foe, right or wrong, famous or obscure. I owe readers a true picture and the actual words spoken by those caught up in events that shape our lives, “in saecula saeculorum.”

If I have paid this debt, I have earned no thanks. I have only done the work of a servant. But it is as much as I could ever have wanted.

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