Dear Commonweal readers: I am retiring after twenty-eight years on the job, and the editor has invited me to use this page to bid a farewell. Over the years, this “Editor’s Notebook” space has offered me and other editors an opportunity to write about more personal matters and, on occasion, even to take exception to an editorial stance of the magazine. It has been this openness to dialogue that I value most at Commonweal. The need for honest, ongoing exchanges in the public forum is more important today—both in the church and in society—than at any time since I began working at the magazine.
I was born the year Commonweal published volume XXXIX, and I am retiring as we embark on volume CXXXIX. While I did not grow up reading Commonweal (my family subscribed to Jubilee and Ramparts), I was introduced to it in high school by my Franciscan teachers. I soon came to value Commonweal (this was before and during the Vatican Council) with utmost respect. But I would never even have considered applying for work here had not Dorothy Day encouraged me (I had served as managing editor of The Catholic Worker in the early 1970s).
In the late 1970s I did apply for a position, but there was no room at the inn. Instead, like Jacob delayed in Laban’s fields, I worked for seven years with terminal cancer patients at St. Rose’s Home in Manhattan. It was sobering, good work, thrown into redeeming perspective by the fact that my wife Kathleen and I had two small children at home who balanced the equation and made of our lives a single, vibrant continuum. In 1983, I started volunteering and writing for Commonweal, then joined the staff the following year. The work has provided a roof over our heads, food for thought, a lot of on-the-job training, and the reward of being part of a notable, needed venture dedicated to that elemental Catholic notion of faith seeking understanding.
My journalistic lodestar has been simple: The truth will set you free (John 8:32). I have tried to employ and apply this principle both in personal dealings and in studying and writing about a host of issues, whether they dealt with matters of church or state. In working with my colleagues, I have attempted to speak with candor and, I hope, respect. They have certainly responded to me in that fashion. I have learned something new and valuable every day, and I have literally opened the office door each morning with a sense of anticipation and gratitude. The discipline of commuting nearly four hours a day all these years has provided me with time to read, reflect, pray, and get to daily Mass. I could not have kept on without this richness and the love of my extraordinary family.
Dorothy Day wrote in Commonweal that editors should make history—she certainly did, and some Commonweal editors have. Not I. Like Charley Neal of the 1959 Dodgers, I have been a middle-infielder who helped turn some nifty double plays and save a few games with a timely hit as part of a championship team.
When I first came to Commonweal, I was fortunate to work with Edward Skillin and Jim O’Gara, legends in the magazine’s history, who gave decades of unstinting dedication and taught by example. I also had the privilege of joining a remarkable staff (I recently compiled a list of those I’ve worked with, and it fills nearly four pages). I will name only a few, all of them now deceased; they continue to inspire me. Anne Robertson was a master at pasting up the issue, did a hundred other things, and had an eye for finding free illustrations at the public library. David Toolan brought a booming laugh and a sense of the universal nature of both holiness and justice. Robert G. Hoyt was the most gifted editor one could hope to work with and learn from—his prose sang, and his journalistic integrity was impeccable. Emil Antonucci was both an artist and a teacher who had the grandest of hearts. And Daria Donnelly was a beautiful young mother and writer, whom cancer claimed far too soon but who was a rainbow in our lives.
Had I to pick but one word to describe each of the three editors I have had the privilege of working for—all living, thank God—I would choose the following (knowing a single word could never convey their talents and persons). Peter Steinfels: Brilliance. Peggy Steinfels: Vitality. Paul Baumann: Wit (in both its primary senses). I have learned from all three, on both good days and bad. While at times I have surely taxed their patience, I have invariably been on the receiving end of their generosity.
Peggy Steinfels remarked in a Commonweal exchange on the future of the magazine (November 6, 2009) that she was impressed and encouraged by the youth and talent of the present editorial staff. In that I fully concur, and leave knowing that the magazine is in able hands, that it and its website and internet outreach will be carried forward by a group personally dedicated to the common good and to the Christian life. For that, and for all the staff, past and present, I have worked with; for our writers and columnists; for the Associates and the board; and especially for you our readers, Deo gratias.
And what will I miss most? The people, the collegial spirit, the importance of the work, and the laughter. Ah, the laughter!