Growing up Commonweal

What it meant; what it means

We were two and four years old in 1952 when our family moved east from Chicago so that our father could take up his new post as managing editor of Commonweal. We can still remember the long overnight ride on the train taking us to our new home. For thirty-two of Commonweal’s eighty years, our father, James O’Gara, served on the staff of the magazine-first as managing editor and later as editor.

Growing up Catholic is common enough, but growing up Commonweal Catholic less so. For three decades-throughout the McCarthy era, the election of John Kennedy, the civil-rights years, the Vietnam War, and especially the Second Vatican Council-there was a way in which we were “daughters of the Commonweal,” our growing-up years tremendously influenced by our father’s role as Commonweal’s editor.

Of course, we were also just little girls growing up in the Long Island suburbs-we jumped rope, we swam in the ocean, we caught lightning bugs. But we were the children of our parents, James and Joan O’Gara. From our earliest years, in ways that became clearer as we matured, their ideas and values-many formed at the Chicago Catholic Worker and Chicago Inter-Student Catholic Action (CISCA)-shaped our home.

Our parents taught us a strong commitment to the church, and they taught us about the great responsibility and privilege of the laity. Our father saw his writing and editing as his lay responsibility as a “committed citizen of the church” to help it more clearly reflect its social teachings to the world. Our parents loved the Catholic Church-it formed the underpinning of their lives. Even in the days before the reforms of the liturgy, our home life was centered around the feasts and customs of the liturgical year-an advent wreath before they became common practice, our “walking” the Three Kings statues along the mantel to get them to the crèche by the Feast of the Epiphany, attendance at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, bedtime blessings from our father every night.

As we grew, we came to understand that our parents’ commitment was to a broader vision of Catholicism than the one presented by our Catholic school and parish. The liturgical movement, papal social teachings, and the role of the laity-none of these got much play in the East Coast Catholicism of our childhood. Our parents strove to maintain a healthy lay criticism of the official church, while at the same time encouraging us to respect our teachers and pastors. “What did you learn in religion today?” our father would often ask us at dinner. If we described some overemphasis on a minor point of the Baltimore Catechism or a teacher’s dramatic retelling of Marian visions at Fatima, our father was careful to discuss these with us and give us a broader gospel-based picture of the church’s teaching.

Our parents wanted us to be educated in a parish school, but at the same time experienced anxiety that our father’s public role as editor might cause us discomfort or discrimination. This was particularly true during the McCarthy era of the 1950s when anti-Communist hysteria-“better dead than red”-reached great heights, especially in Catholic circles. Since Commonweal and the Catholic Worker were the only two Catholic publications denouncing Senator Joseph McCarthy, our father and the other editors received direct and sometimes intimidating treatment. This was particularly true in our diocese of Brooklyn, where the diocesan newspaper published editorials and letters supporting McCarthy and deploring his critics. For a period, someone leafleted outside our church as we went into Mass, denouncing our father and the other editors as “card-carrying Communists,” pointing out that two of them (our father and John Cogley) even had children in the local parish schools. It was not until years afterward that we understood why our father questioned us so carefully every night about “what Sister had said” in school that day. But it was a joy of our parents’ later years that the reforms of Vatican II brought them involvement in that same parish as catechists and sponsors for adults entering the church.

Well-reasoned and well-expressed thought was of great importance in our home. We saw in our lifetime how ideas written in the pages of Commonweal and other publications-about liturgical renewal, the role of the laity, ecumenical dialogue-could cause real change in the church at Vatican II. So our house was a house of conversations. “What do you think about English in the liturgy?” we were asked. “How do you think civil-rights issues can be worked on in our town?” These were the kind of questions often discussed at the dinner table.

Many people came to join the conversations at our house. We remember wearing our best dresses and patent-leather shoes, serving appetizers to the crowd of visiting grownups in our living room. Who would have been there when we were children, talking about the reform of the papacy, church-state relations, or interracial justice? We recall seeing many connected with Commonweal: Edward Skillin and John Cogley, William Pfaff and Philip Scharper, Wilfrid Sheed and Richard Horchler, John Deedy and Michael Harrington, Raymond Schroth, SJ, and Paul Farrell. Our father also maintained cordial relations with others who shared common goals-editors of America, Christianity and Crisis, the Christian Century, and Commentary, and staff from the National Council of Churches and the American Jewish Committee. Always the talk was good, and always the same kind of questions: What should the church do? What should the United States do?

Since we had left all our relatives in Chicago, and since a Commonweal editor’s salary did not stretch to four return tickets very often, our parents’ old friends and colleagues became regulars at our house for many Sunday or Thanksgiving dinners. A few were like uncles and aunts to us, especially Teddy and John Cogley (our father’s oldest and dearest friend from the Chicago Catholic Worker who had preceded him to Commonweal); Maude and Paul Farrell (a longtime Commonweal Associate); and Tom Sullivan (a transplanted Chicago Catholic Worker who came east to run the New York house of hospitality). When they visited, the dinner conversation always moved to long discussion and debate in the living room-about the role of the laity, just-war theory, reform of the liturgy, interreligious dialogue. We kids ran in and out, with several Cogley or Farrell kids in tow. As we grew older we stayed to listen and to talk, too. Our parents taught us about the importance of living out one’s convictions. A simple lifestyle fit in well with their values; it showed concern for the poor, they explained, in a world lacking fairness to all. Christians are brothers and sisters to everyone, we were told, so a Catholic parish really should not hold its annual party at a local golf club that denied admission to Jews.

When we got older, our mother worked with after-school programs at a low-income housing project and trained Girl Scouts to work with Head Start children. In addition, our whole family became involved in the struggle against racist housing practices in our town. We attended meetings and protest rallies during our high school years, and our mother organized a tutoring project for poor children. Our father, through our town’s Human Rights Committee, joined a local Catholic priest and a Presbyterian minister, informally calling on every home in the area on summer evenings, encouraging neighbors to welcome the first African-American family to the area. On one occasion during this era, a firecracker or small bomb was thrown onto our front porch. Our parents always wondered if this was the price they paid for their civil-rights involvement.

When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, our father went to Rome several times to report for Commonweal. Later, he often recalled the memory of bishops from all over the world pouring down the steps of St. Peter’s: “a great vision of the church Catholic,” he would say. His enthusiasm for the reforms initiated by Vatican II and the church’s social teaching energized him to continue his writing long after his retirement, until just a year before his death last October (our mother died in 2000). “It’s my vocation,” he said to us.

It was our father’s pleasure and honor to share his gifts with Commonweal’s readership and the U.S. Catholic Church for thirty-two years. His own “Last Word” column, written for the seventy-fifth anniversary edition in November 1999, wished the magazine his best. We add our voices to the wishes he sent then, “that the magazine may have years and years to continue in its work.”

And we say again as he did then, “Happy anniversary, Commonweal!” And to today’s “daughters (and sons) of Commonweal,” we send our best. It’s a great heritage!

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About the Author

Monica O’Gara is one of two daughters of James O’Gara, who served as Commonweal’s managing editor (1952-67) and editor (1967-84).