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Interim Report: The Prairie Messenger Phoenix Project

Volume 31, Issue 10,11 & 12, December 20, 2017
     I was hoping to get away in July or August, but did not hit the road for the Prairie provinces until September 12, returning October 6. The purpose of the trip was to speak directly with people along the way to Winnipeg and return, about the collapse of the two prairie Catholic newspapers, the Western Catholic Reporter and more recently The Prairie Messenger.
     Prior to leaving I did speak by phone with the current editor of the PM, Abbot Peter Novecosky of Muenster, Saskatchewan. He assured me that it was not a personnel problem that was at the root of the decision announced last spring that after more than a hundred years the Prairie Messenger would be closing in a year’s time. The original report on the announcement stated that the $200,000 annual shortfall was the reason.
     When I got to Saskatchewan, Abbot Peter was not available as he was scheduled to meet with the Saskatchewan Bishops and attend the national bishops conference meeting, partly to speak about the decision to wrap up the newspaper. In addition a new bishop was being installed in Saskatoon, so the staff at the diocese were tied up with that occasion so were also not available to discuss the issue.
     Each of the diocese of Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg have diocesan communication coordinators who are paid by their local bishops but part of their responsibility has been to provide copy on stories in their regions.
     Instead of speaking with officials I decided to sit down with local subscribers to both the PM and Island Catholic News, many of who I knew from my years in that region. Between 1981-82 I served as editor of the PM, its first lay editor and I have kept up connections in the region since. It was through that experience I developed my life interest in progressive Catholic journalism leading to the founding of  the ICN.
     To a person, everyone I spoke with was suffering from the emotion of shock at the decision. As a result, it was difficult to get very far beyond that stage of things, to the point of being able to plan anything beyond the cutoff date next April. People are still in a state of disbelief that this is actually happening because the PM is much more than a great little newspaper. It represents a style of church on the Prairies, an institution that represents a stage and state of spiritual consciousness. It is a forum for discussion of issues as well as a trusted source of valid information about what it means to be a Catholic in the contemporary world.
     If Catholicism, as Richard McBrien argues in his Post Vatican II encyclopedia, is based on the three principles of grace – communion, mediation and sacramentality, The PM has proven to be a key element in every case. It builds community, mediates through the word and it is a massive sign of what it communicates and beyond.
     On the other hand, the closing of the Western Catholic Reporter more than a year ago fell along more rational and understandable lines given the current politics of the Catholic Church. The bishop did not want the sort of discussion a newspaper involves in his diocese. He worked consistently to gain control of the structure of the paper, dismissing the community based board and then closed it on the pretext of financial costs.
     There people were much more definite and candid in their description. The need for a replacement paper could not be more clear, on an independent regional if not national basis. In spite of the persistence of Pope Francis in his progressive direction, there is this right wing entrenchment which seems prepared to wait him out.
     In St. Boniface, speaking to subscribers it was suggested that the new Archbishop of Regina, Donald Bolen, (see story "New Canadian Archbishop:  Church in Dialogue Doesn't Mean 'Yelling Louder'" in the 'Other News' tab) and the Archbishop Emeritus of Winnipeg, James Weisgerber might be worth consulting to get an alternative read on how to proceed.
     This spring I anticipate another visit to the region to follow up more in my research. I was not able to get to Montreal and Ottawa and the Maritimes this fall as hoped but again that is more postponed than cancelled. I will continue to report on things and developments in thinking as they occur. 
     In the meantime please feel free to give feedback on how to proceed in this project. I will be sending a begging letter out directly to readers and subscribers in December with space allotted for your welcome and necessary feedback.