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Vatican II in living color, filled with promises


Catholic parents! Come Sept. 18, switch the telly on and order the pizza in: Pope John XXIII is back -- thanks to Barney.

Thirty-five years ago -- when Barney’s creator was a tot -- John XXIII was a television star. And the workings of 2,400 Catholic bishops was a saga that warranted daily headlines and nightly reports.

Filled with today-and-tomorrow promises, all this history comes to public television Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. EST (check your local listings, as they say) as “Reflections on Vatican II.”

So pastors and directors of religious education, push the word. Catholic teachers, assign television-watching as homework this night -- and insist on a written report. Vatican II, the sequel, is going to remind America, especially its Catholics, what a beautiful church it intended to build. And what a fine universal church is a-borning.

Glimpses of that church are everywhere in this two-hour special.

And if the on-screen celebration of “Catholic” captivates, encourages, reassures, catechizes, evangelizes and explodes at times with sheer joy -- wait till you see the Masses in Africa -- the story behind the documentary is a tale unto itself.

In one sense, it’s also a story of a personal mini-conversion -- about a guy who started out to make the documentary because he didn’t want conservative Catholics to steal Vatican II. And then found they hadn’t.

The tale starts in a small print shop on Ashland Street in Chicago, next door to Loyola University Press. It was 1962, the year the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) began.

Richard C. Leach, of Loyola Academy and Loyola University, one day to be a father of nine, was running the Argus Press his dad founded in 1922.

That summer the Leaches took their five children on a trip west. “From San Francisco to Chicago is a very long drive with five children in the car,” said Leach, “and my mind went to audio recordings. I became obsessed with the idea of audio recordings playing in automobiles.”

He discussed it at his next weekly lunch with Jesuit Fr. John Amberg, Loyola Press’ publisher, and went to Illinois Tech where audio tape was developed and learned about the mechanics of it.

Amberg had another idea. In those days religious, especially nuns, had table readings at one or two meals a day. Why not, he asked Leach, offer them tapes on topics they’d enjoy?

Leach wrote off to 3,500 convents and received an 80 percent response. The respondents said, in huge numbers, that they were deeply interested in Vatican II, then underway in Rome, and wanted to be kept current. Those tapes they’d buy.

Leach wrote to the U.S. Vatican experts, periti, asking if he could put a microphone in front of them when they came back to America to give talks.

No response. Nothing.

Leach recalls that early in October 1963, Amberg called and told him about “a nun in our basement with a whole group of audio tape recorders copying tapes like crazy.”

It was Sr. Frances Borgia, religious education director for the Chicago archdiocese, copying tapes from liturgical conferences because, said Leach, “on the first Sunday of Advent 1963, the altar was going to be turned around, the Mass was going to be in English and none of the hierarchy had bothered to explain the changes.”

A School Sister of St. Francis, Borgia had liturgists like Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann -- six talks on three tapes -- to distribute to the 400-some parishes in the Catholic diocese of Chicago.

He and Borgia struck a deal and soon he was marketing “Study the Liturgy,” $5.95 a package through a new little company, Argus Communications. When he wrote back to the periti with copies of his brochure, his mail was answered.

Soon there were Vatican II tapes. Then came biblical studies and psychological studies tapes.

The tapes led to books by priests such as Barnabas Ahern and Bernard Cook, Bernard Häring and Gregory Baum. He even persuaded his Loyola Academy classmate, Jesuit Fr. John Powell, to write a book called Why Am I Afraid to Love?

“It was the Vietnam era and the peace movement. Those were carefree days with regard to graphics. We decorated our books, broke all the rules,” Leach said. They started a poster company that in the decades since has sold more than 1 billion posters.

One Leach child had a slight dyslexia problem. Leach investigated, discovered the Association for the Other Child, and started taping their material because no educational publisher would handle it. He’d started another company, Developmental Learning Materials. When the Great Society directed millions of dollars into special education, Developmental Learning Materials grew exponentially, said Leach, and outgrew the premises in Leach’s four scattered Chicago locations.

Leach consolidated the growing firm in its present Allen, Texas, location.

Then in the 1980s, things turned around. “Vatican II fervor kind of died off, Catholic publishers and Catholic book stores virtually vanished. And I was trying anything I could to pump life into it.” He sold Developmental Learning Materials, grouped his Catholic publishing into a new firm, Tabor, “and by now had a nice printing operation in Dallas going.”

He also had a small TV studio for what Leach calls “industrial videos,” talking heads of the Catholic talent whose books and audio tapes Leach had produced.

About 1988, Leach’s daughter-in-law, Sheryl Stamps Leach, had the idea for a character named Barney. Leach had to be careful because money was tight -- Texas was in a disastrous oil slump and his bankers canceled all loans west of the Mississippi.

Barney’s “firm,” the Lyons Group, named for Leach’s mother, was started out of Leach’s back pocket. The videos were marketed through kiddie stores.

In Connecticut, a 3-year-old kept pestering her parents for a Barney tape. When they yielded, the girl kept playing it and playing until one evening her father watched it.

The dad, Larry Rifkin, was program director at the Connecticut PBS station, CP-TV. He began airing “Barney and Friends.” Because of Barney -- and Rifkin -- PBS is now airing “Reflections on Vatican II.”

By the early 1990s, said Leach, he was financially liquid for the first time in his life. At home in video, he felt confident attempting on film what he’d tried to do three decades earlier on audio: capture the spirit and meaning of Vatican II.

The company was now RCL Enterprises. The printing business alone grossed $50 million annually, and Leach began the Vatican II project “like a crusade -- to defend Vatican II against conservative movements that seemed to be more interested in reversing the work of Vatican II. I felt that my crusade was to stop that reversal and renew interest in Vatican II.” He wanted “the good guys to stop the bad guys.” He brought in Sherri Revor, a Chicagoan, a Catholic and an experienced MTV producer in Chicago and Hollywood. But something happened to Leach early on.

“Listening to the hours and hours of interviews of the important participants and reflecting on them, I found I didn’t sense any feeling of anger or abandonment -- even from those sources where you know you would get it,” said Leach. “The sources where I expected to find hostility did not have that hostility.

“I listened for hour after hour for invective and betrayal and when I didn’t find it, I had to reorient myself and say, ‘Forget the good guys-bad guys. Go to the work and focus on the work,’ ” he said. “And that’s what we did. Those tapes did give me a turn -- not to look for bad guys -- and I was very happy about it.”

As the project neared completion, Leach hoped he might sell 2,000 sets of the five-video package, which‘ retails at $100, a small return on the $2.5 million investment that in three years had sent camera teams to eight countries to conduct 168 interviews. To date only 1,000 sets have been sold. Leach’s summary of the project?

“What struck me was two huge factors. No. 1, how unlikely a person John XXIII was. In every way. He got something from the Holy Spirit, but he hadn’t had a clue where it was going. No. 2 -- I hate this saying -- you know, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. We had anything but a broken church. Our church was invincible in the early ’60s. So why on earth mess it up? Again, those two things told me that this definitely was the intervention, I would say, of the Holy Spirit.”

Leach, through Resources for Christian Living, is now into Vatican II books, with authors such as theologian Bill Huebsch’s Vatican II in Plain English. There’s an encyclopedic CD-Rom; symposiums (100 nationwide already); talks with clips from the videos; Vatican II study guides, 22,000 packets mailed free to parishes; and a Vatican II Web page.

Leach has other Catholic interests, other directions, too. He is helping to revamp religious education programs for children who attend public schools (‘They have a 50 percent annual teacher turnover’). And a musical, “Poverello,” about Francis and Clare, opens in Assisi in December 1999.

“Poverello” is likely to head to Broadway or become a traveling U.S. show. “We travel a Barney show, so we have two years of experience,” Leach said.

Same Barney -- whatever one’s views of the purple creature -- who is bringing John XXIII back to millions of Americans.

The presentation is well-balanced. The Tridentine Rite lovers get their turn along with Frs. Richard McBrien and Andrew Greeley and Sr. Mary Luke Tobin and Patty Crowley.

Tape it. This is the best Catholic educational tool to come along since Vatican II itself.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998