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Deadlines and dignity

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mike nelson

Maria was 22, from Mexico, the mother of a 3-year-old boy, and afflicted with a potentially fatal brain disease that left one side of her body paralyzed — and unable to hold her son.

Her condition was curable. But the required operation was expensive. Her family, including relatives who attended St. Lawrence of Brindisi Church in Watts, tried to raise money, but their efforts had stalled.

I received a call from Linda Northup, from American Martyrs Church in Manhattan Beach, St. Lawrence’s sister parish, asking if we could put Maria’s story in The Tidings, hoping that donors would respond. After interviewing Maria and her family, I wrote the article, noting that around $13,000 was needed for Maria’s treatment.

The story — neither lengthy nor stylish — appeared in the following issue. A week later, Linda called. “Mike,” she said happily, “we’ve got the money.”

Some 200 people who read the article had pledged donations of various amounts. And then a man called to ask how much was still needed. When Linda told him, the man replied, “I’ll write out a check.” His daughter, he explained, had died of a brain tumor; he didn’t want another young woman, or her parents, to endure such pain.

Maria had her surgery, successfully, and at last was able to hold her son.

Not every article is going to make everyone happy, no matter how positive or uplifting the article may be. So I am grateful that the article about Maria, which appeared in The Tidings’ July 7, 1995 issue, was received so favorably. It remains my favorite among the 2,000 or so I wrote in my 23-plus years with The Tidings.

But it wasn’t simply writing about people and institutions who, in one way or another, do what they can to build the kingdom of God, that I enjoyed. Mainly, it was the process of making stories and issues come to life, through meeting and working with so many good and caring people, all of them helping me understand, in some way, what serving God was all about.

Our amazing writers. Our production staff, and the entire Tidings/Vida Nueva department. The people of the Archdiocesan Catholic Center. Our Editorial Councils and Boards of Directors. The priests, religious and laypeople who read us and supported us in good times and not-so-good times.

They gave me confidence, reassurance and hope that we were, in fact, doing something meaningful, no matter how many actually read or cared about what we did.

I consider all of them friends first, colleagues second. Now maybe that’s backwards thinking in the business world, but to me, building God’s kingdom — and that is our main ministry — cannot be done without a basic respect for the dignity of God’s creation. That means you treat one another as human beings with whom you share a journey, not as machines to be programmed to meet your goals.

It was in that spirit that we worked to produce our weekly issue, nearly 1,200 of them during my years at The Tidings. Some issues, admittedly, were better than others. Some won awards. Some were criticized unmercifully, and not just because they contained a Father McBrien column.

Personally, I honestly believe there was something in each issue that every reader could find useful, but that’s for readers to decide.

Our work could be challenging, exhausting and energizing, all at the same time. I participated in covering Archbishop Roger Mahony’s elevation to cardinal, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez’ appointment to Los Angeles, the appointment of seven local auxiliary bishops, the ordination of dozens of priests and scores of deacons (60 of them in one day in 2007), and the building of a new cathedral, as well as the death of one pope, the resignation of another, and the elections of  their successors (Pope Benedict XVI, which happened on Tuesday — deadline day, and Pope Francis, which happened on a Wednesday; God can be so funny sometimes).

There were tragedies and disasters —the 1992 L.A. Riots, the 2001 terrorist attacks and too many devastating earthquakes and brush fires. Yet in every one of these stories of horror and heartbreak, there were also stories of goodness and humanity rising to meet the challenges.

And there were the issues — issues not easily if ever resolved. Immigration. Poverty. Clergy sexual abuse. Human rights. Always, abortion and euthanasia, issues that too often tear people apart rather than bring them together. Like everything else, we covered these issues, we trust, through the lens of the Gospel.

Because my family and I serve in parish liturgical ministry, I will always hold a special place in my heart for liturgical celebrations — such as those at the annual Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, which provided me many opportunities to grow in faith, and to connect with wonderful people all over the U.S.

Covering these celebrations also provided me some notoriety. For years, I routinely photographed RE Congress liturgies in the Convention Center Arena by scurrying up and down stairs and crawling on the arena floor, taking notes whenever I could, trying my best to be unobtrusive.

Then one summer, on a retreat, I met a woman who, upon hearing I wrote for The Tidings, replied, “Now I get it. I always wondered, ‘Who is that crazy guy crawling on the floor taking pictures?’”

And a liturgy colleague of my wife, upon meeting me at a conference, said, “Oh, I know you. You’re the one with the hair and the camera.”

Well, everyone is remembered for something, I suppose, and if that’s how folks recall me, I won’t complain. Better that than for missed typos.

Most of all, The Tidings allowed me to observe, report and spread the good news on all that is good about our Catholic people, those who work so hard and long, and sometimes without due appreciation, to build the kingdom of God.

I think of the many Cardinal’s Award honorees and the less-heralded parish ministers I wrote about. None of them felt their service was all that remarkable; they were simply doing what God called them to do, using whatever God blessed them with to do it.

They inspired me to do the same — to use whatever writing and editing skills God blessed me with to bring to light the work that so many were doing, and what needed to be done, to build God’s kingdom. And to do it with decency, and with respect for the life and dignity of all God’s creation.

More than anything, that’s what mattered to me: that The Tidings be a place where all were treated with decency and respect — on its pages, in its offices, in its relationships with all it sought to serve.

That meant listening to those who didn’t care for what we published and accepting that every person has a right to an opinion, even if they choose to express it in ways that, I assume, they did not learn in Catholic school or from a Sunday homily.

Sadly, there came a point when — possibly, as a reflection of our society’s increased propensity for rancor and rudeness — the letters became far too vitriolic and hostile, in tone as well as opinion, for us to publish. Criticism, I will always believe, has a valid place in a religious newspaper; castigation and condemnation do not.

But I did enjoy the letters, for the most part — two in particular, regarding our most polar-opposite columnists. One reader wrote, in the best tradition of keep-it-tight journalism, “Please cancel my subscription. I’ve had all of McBrien I can take.”

The other, replying to George Weigel’s criticism of several contemporary liturgical hymns, lamented how she’d hoped to have some of those songs sung at her funeral. “I guess I’d better hurry up and die,” she wrote, “before Weigel gets them all banned.”

I wish I had room to properly thank by name every individual who gave me support and encouragement during my Tidings career. (To do so would take up another issue.) But I must thank my family — my wife Janis and son Jeff, who put up with my long commutes (by car or train) and my on-the-job challenges and stresses. They supported, challenged, encouraged and lifted me up with their love and prayers.

It was Janis who said something which I wrote down and kept near my computer to read each day, words I tried to live by: “I want to know and love the Christ that is in you.” How well did I do? Someday, God will let me know.

I do know that my experience at The Tidings was the most challenging, sometimes the most frustrating, and on occasion the most heart-breaking I have ever had.

It was also — thanks to people like Maria, Linda and the anonymous donor —the most rewarding, wondrous and joyful kind of service I could have ever hoped for, a blessing and a privilege I will always treasure. Thank you for sharing it with me.

Mike Nelson served on The Tidings’ editorial staff from 1991 to 2014, the last 13 and a half years as editor.

 

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