Celebrating 80 Years of Catholic Digest

Twenty-year-old Mary O’Neill had never questioned her Catholic faith — until a friend told her he was leaving the Church. By following the Golden Rule, he said, he could live just as well outside Catholicism as within it. His decision forced O’Neill to consider for the first time what her faith really meant to her and why it was special. Confession, she ultimately realized, was one answer. “The Catholic may not live the better life, but he always can,” she wrote, because “the Church holds out repeated, unending opportunity to make a fresh start.”


O’Neill’s story, “The Value of My Faith,” was the first article in Catholic Digest’s debut issue in November 1936. Ever since, Catholic Digest has been sharing with readers around the world the beauty of God’s mercy, the Church’s role in helping bring it to God’s people, and the many ways Catholics can show mercy to others.


By some accounts, Catholic Digest should never have gotten off the ground, let alone lasted 80 years. It was the brainchild of Father Louis A. Gales, then an assistant pastor at St. Agnes Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and head of the city’s Catechetical Guild. Gales sent postcards to the 2,000 names on the guild’s mailing list, telling them about his idea for a Catholic magazine and asking them to subscribe. Gales, who became managing editor, teamed up with two fellow graduates of the local St. Paul Seminary: Father Paul Bussard and Father Edward F. Jennings, who later became editor and business manager. While commending their efforts, publishing peers predicted the trio would fail without at least $50,000 initial capital. They went ahead anyway, with just one-fiftieth of that sum and a one-room office in the Chancery basement that shared space with the heating plant, demonstrating a pioneering spirit reflective of the Church itself.


Since then, the magazine has grown from an un-illustrated issue of just 13,000 copies to a full-color publication with a reach of 2 million readers. And though the world — and the Church — have changed dramatically since 1936, the magazine’s mission of offering faith, hope, and inspiration has remained the same. In fulfilling these goals, Catholic Digest has lived out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that are so central to the Catholic faith. “I read Catholic Digest for many years before I ever worked on it,” says Editor-in-Chief Danielle Bean. “It’s an honor to be a part of a publication that has such a rich history and such deep meaning for so many American Catholics.”


Bayard, Inc. purchased Catholic Digest in December 2001. The company and its owner — the  Augustinians of the Assumption — have continued the magazine’s proud tradition of informing Catholics and helping them grow in their faith.


The Corporal Works of Mercy 


Feed the Hungry


Ten-year-old Thomas was hungry, and there was no one to help him find food. Most of his family had died of illness or hunger within the last couple of years, and his one remaining brother had left their village of Wiapo, Ghana, to find his fortune. One day, Thomas spotted a boy walking by his house, eating mush out of a bowl. “Where did you get that?” he asked. The boy pointed to a dirt path leading out of the village. “School.”


The story of Thomas Awiapo, who benefited from a school meal program run by Catholic Relief Services and grew up to become the charity’s global solidarity coordinator in Ghana, appeared in “Love Your Neighbor” in June 2006. The recurring Catholic Digest feature showcases how Catholic and non-Catholic charities, organizations, and churches are supporting the poor, hungry, and suffering — and how readers can help. Though the enormous need can seem overwhelming — roughly one in nine people lack sufficient food, and one in 10 don’t have safe water — reading stories about people bringing hope and help reminds us how critical our own contributions are to transforming the world for the better.


Visit the sick


It was 1954, and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy “was feeling glum. It looked as if corrective surgery for a wartime injury would keep me idle in the hospital for several months,” he wrote in “What My Illness Taught Me” (July 1961). But a letter from a bedridden, 90-year-old woman who urged him to avoid self-pity and “keep busy” inspired him to write Profiles in Courage, a biographical work about eight U.S. senators that won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography.


Catholic Digest has long recognized that good health is not only a matter of the body, but of mind and spirit, and that faith and a positive attitude can help bring strength in illness. Its advice articles and personal stories aim to help readers cope with issues ranging from headaches to Alzheimer’s, and to boost well-being through better nutrition and exercise.


“I would not wish to exaggerate the compensations of being ill,” the president  wrote in Catholic Digest, but “if we recognize the potential opportunities those long days [of convalescence] make possible, we will realize that our disability — whatever its pains and discomforts — may in some ways have been a blessing in disguise.”


Visit the prisoners


Catholic Digest’s readers live all around the world — and in all kinds of circumstances. For those behind bars, the magazine serves as a connection to their faith. “Except for writing to my parish priest, Catholic Digest, to me, is the nearest I come to fellowship with other Catholics,” wrote inmate Jeffrey Neff in an April 2004 letter to the editor. Responding to an article that noted how Servant of God Dorothy Day had devoted her life to acts such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, Neff stressed the importance of another work of mercy. “Visiting prisoners is easily overlooked and probably low on the list of the works of mercy average Catholics have on their to-do lists,” he wrote. “Catholics would be well reminded that Christ ‘… did not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17). Whether hungry, homeless, naked, sick, imprisoned, or dead — Christ and his Church call upon all Catholics to be merciful to those who are most in need.”


Bury the dead


In presenting difficult topics like how to cope after the death of a loved one, Catholic Digest has always sought to provide not just practical advice or spiritual solace, but a sense of hope. In “The Christmas After Alice Died” (December 1976), Harold Melowski wrote how he and his wife, who had been unable to have children, hosted the young people on their street each Christmas morning for breakfast and gifts. When Alice died about six weeks before Christmas one year, Melowski was too depressed to keep up the tradition. Supportive neighbors decorated his house as a surprise and brought treats and gifts for the celebration. “My happiness was complete,” wrote Melowski. “It was more than just knowing that the children … wouldn’t be disappointed; it was the feeling that everyone cared.”


Readers, too, instill hope in the Catholic Digest community.


“When I told readers about my son’s struggle with cancer,” says Daniel Connors, editor-in-chief from 2005 to 2012, “so many of them wrote to me to tell me they were praying for him and for our family. They shared stories of their own struggles and those of loved ones. My son was lucky. He survived and recovered. But I know that had the worst happened, those readers would still have been there, surrounding my family with a community of strength and hope.”


The Spiritual Works of Mercy 


Counsel the doubtful


In the May 1956 issue, Jinni Jacob wrote to Catholic Digest for help. She didn’t belong to any church, but recently met “a nice young man who is Catholic.”  Not wanting religion to obstruct their relationship, she asked how she could learn about the Catholic faith.


For 60 years, “What Would You Like to Know About the Church” — now called “Ask Father” — has supplied information about Catholicism and advice on how to solve problems of morality and faith. It was joined in June 1996 by a personal advice column, now known as “Teachable Moments,” that has helped readers through bumpy times. Responding to summer 2015’s “Contemplating an Empty Nest,” Melissa Simmons wrote: “Although my four adult children … live at home while attending local higher education, it is definitely a new season of life. They each have their own lives, and we are very rarely all together anymore. … This article was just what I needed at this time!”


Instruct the ignorant


Catholic Digest’s readers value education (70 percent are college graduates and a third earned a graduate degree). But much has changed in the Church since 1936, and Catholic Digest helps readers make sense of its ongoing evolutions. Among the changes of the last century, none was more revolutionary than Vatican II, which turned the altars to face the people and restored the Mass to the vernacular. Articles of the period helped explain not only why such shifts were important for liturgical renewal, but why change in the Church is necessary at all.


“The Church of 1967 is not the same as the Church of 1917, because the world of 1967 is not the same as the world of 1917,” wrote Peter M. Shannon in “Changing Law in a Changing Church” (September 1967). “And the Church, in its law as well as its worship, must adapt itself. Otherwise the Church cannot possibly transform the world or even relate to the world.”


Recognizing that Catholics are part of, and affected by, the broader culture, Catholic Digest has also sought to help readers examine popular phenomena and current events from a Catholic perspective. Scores of early issues addressed the specter of communism; in 1948 the magazine even published a three-part anti-communism comic series. In 2000, 2004, and 2008, editors interviewed the presidential candidates about topics such as war, abortion, and the role of religion in the public square. In 2006, when The Da Vinci Code book and film spread massive confusion about Church history, Catholic Digest published a booklet separating the novel’s facts from its fiction. Today, the magazine continues to help demystify Church teachings on topics such as divorce and annulment, while its reviews help readers decide what movies and television programs are “Worth Watching.”


Admonish the sinner


Readers opening their March 1937 issues were doubtless struck by this article’s title: “How to Go to Hell.” It wasn’t a printer’s error. “The Catholic’s duty toward the Negro is not a debatable matter,” wrote author Father Paul Hanly Furfey. “Whoever does not love his neighbor, Negro or white, commits mortal sin.”


Catholic Digest has frequently spoken in a prophetic voice about controversial issues of the day. Most notably, in the decades leading up to and including the Civil Rights Era, the magazine urged Catholics to combat racism and prejudice. In “Bigotry is Un-American” (December 1944), author Archbishop Francis J. Spellman decried the “race riots, assaults on groups and individuals because of racial and religious differences, desecration of synagogues and churches, [and] attacks on our foreign-born” that had increased since the start of World War II. Pointing out that bigotry is against the foundational principles of both America and Catholicism, Spellman wrote, “No true American will nurture, promote, or incite anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, anti-Catholic, anti-any group of fellow law-abiding American citizens.” And in the 1950s, in the last of a 12-part series called “The White-Negro Problem” that explored the results of a Catholic Digest-commissioned survey of Americans, the editors wrote, “The race problem will not be solved until there is a universal acceptance … of the fact that … all men are equals as spiritual persons.”


Comfort the sorrowful


Publishing articles that offer comfort for the suffering has always been part of Catholic Digest’s work. But that role took on special meaning in 2002, when The Boston Globe broke news that shocked and angered Catholics around the world: Massachusetts priests had been sexually abusing children for years, and Church officials had covered up their crimes. In its July 2002 issue, Catholic Digest featured “Time for Truth,” a package of articles to help Catholics understand what had led to the abuse and cover-ups, debunk misconceptions (such as the idea that pedophilia is more common among clergy than laypeople), cope with their anger and hurt, and find hope for the future. “Healing will happen,” wrote then-editor-in-chief Richard J. Reece in his column “From Truth to Hope.” “Children will be safe in our parishes. And our Church will be stronger and more open because of its trials. The best start is the truth.”


Forgive injuries and bear wrongs patiently


Catholic Digest has given readers some powerful examples of forgiveness, through stories of spouses rebuilding a marriage after infidelity or years of alcoholism, or even of individuals who’ve shown mercy to those responsible for the death of a loved one. But it’s also reminded Catholics that we’re called to forgive in countless smaller ways. In “Love that neighbor? You must be joking!” (October 2005), then-editor-in-chief Daniel Connors wrote about his family’s longtime frustration with their neighbors’ foul language, deafening rap music, and damage of their property. For years, he wrote, “All I had ever wanted was for [them] to move.” But when one of the neighbors’ troublesome sons died unexpectedly, Connors and his wife put aside their feelings to visit the family — an experience that helped Connors see them as more than just “rude, crude vandals” and inspired his neighbors to be more friendly. We follow Jesus, Connors wrote, “when we reach out to neighbors and work with them, practicing patience and forgiveness and compassion, and trying to see them as God sees them, even in the most difficult cases.”


Pray for the living and the dead


It was morning. The children were in bed, and Mom sat on the couch with a prayer book. Then a voice called out: “Mama. Where are you?” Quiet time was over.


Give me your ears, Lord, she prayed. Help me to hear in this small voice not an interruption, not something that pulls me away from you — but the very purpose for which you put me here on Earth. 


Editor-In-Chief Danielle Bean shared her story and prayer in “A Mother’s Liturgy of the Hours” (January/February 2016). Today, as it has for decades, Catholic Digest helps readers discover the power of prayer and the ways in which it is a means of seeking God’s mercy. “[Prayer] illuminates the distance between who you are and who God calls you to be,” wrote Jim Naughton in “Prayer Is Hell” (March 2001), about his struggles with the practice. We pray for mercy for ourselves, for our families, and, in the words of contributor Peter Walsh in “How Long Should We Pray for the Dead?” (November 1985), for those who have gone on before us — for “as long as we have the love to remember [them].”


The staff of Catholic Digest prays for its readers and hopes you’ll keep Catholic Digest in your prayers, too, to help the magazine continue its mission of mercy for another 80 years and beyond.

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