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It’s the next stage of a journey


With great regret,” I began a recent letter to NCR’s publisher, Tom Fox, “I will be leaving NCR at the end of the year.”

Like many things we say in a day, that statement was a partial truth.

It is also with considerable joy that I begin a new phase of my career. On Jan. 2, I will become director of communications and public relations for the Religious of the Sacred Heart.

It’s the next stage of a journey that began a couple of decades ago, when I realized that marriage and motherhood alone were not going to provide enough challenge. I envied writers and had been told I had some talent, so I decided to try my hand at freelancing. According to a bit of wisdom I picked up some years later, when we covet a talent or trait in another person, it may reflect something struggling to be born within ourselves.

Around the same time, I also began reading spiritual writers, particularly Thomas Merton. I’m pretty sure it was Merton who wrote that what he most wanted, besides to become a saint, was a voice in the community that had meaning for him. That was, of course, the church.

In those heady days when Vatican II was being worked out in dioceses, parishes and lay movements, I realized that was what I wanted, too.

It took years to bring it all together, to integrate motherhood with marriage and career, writing with religion. Along the way, I got hired as a religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, earned a doctorate in historical theology at St. Louis University, and worked as news editor at Religion News Service in New York, where I met Tom Roberts, who later hired me to work at NCR in Kansas City, Mo.

When confidence flagged, as it often did, there were a few places beyond my immediate family where I could find encouragement and support. Given my community of choice -- and the fact that I was not only a woman in a world controlled by men, but also a convert -- it was no accident that the support I often valued most came from two friends who were nuns.

One was Incarnate Word Sr. Patricia Kelley, an activist who offered enthusiastic friendship and encouragement through many phases of her own journey.

The other was Sacred Heart Sr. Mary Louise Martinez, a philosophy professor and former college president whose quiet affirmation, combined with wise and spunky perspectives on life, influenced me more than she knew.

The Sacred Heart nuns, I learned from her, model their spirituality after the Jesuits, placing a high value on education and on living out the gospel in the midst of a messy world.

Neither of these women are any longer a part of my daily world. Sr. Pat was murdered in her St. Louis office in 1989. Sr. Martinez -- Lulu to her nuns -- now lives at her order’s retirement center, Oakwood, in Atherton, Calif.

What they gave me, though, remains.

From both these women, I drew the courage to honestly report on and write about the church, and about religion broadly -- for, as it turned out, it was in this way, by reflecting the actions, voices and vision of others, and later, as an editor, by helping others to do so -- that I would become that “voice” I’d hoped to be.

I realized early on that Thomas Merton’s way -- reflecting on the world from a distance -- would not be mine.

Journalism put me very much in the swirl of U.S. religion in its multiple and fascinating forms. Over two decades, I have seen theology wrenched out in vigorous debates at national meetings of various denominations and I have written about the dramas. I have spoken with leaders driving conservative trends in a variety of denominations and those who bore the brunt of change. Acting on tips, I have brought into public view some of the dirty little secrets religious leaders hoped to hide, forcing them to accountability.

I have been privileged to work with talented and committed people, and, at NCR especially, to lend my talents to a journalistic enterprise like no other. As my longtime friend and colleague Tom Roberts put it, “We’ve kicked a lot of religion stories out the door.”

It has been an exhilarating ride.

For the past year-and-a-half, though, the parts that I worked so hard to integrate have grown increasingly fragmented. My husband, Fritz, now works in St. Louis. Commuter marriages may work for some, but we find too much is lost.

I miss many other things about St. Louis, too -- children and grandchildren, a large extended family, longtime friends and colleagues. It is a vibrant Catholic city. It is the city where I found my voice.

St. Louis’ vibrancy as a Catholic city derives in no small part from the large number of religious orders with regional or national offices there. It was in St. Louis that the Society of the Sacred Heart five years ago consolidated its three provincial offices. When the provincial team advertised in early September for a director of communications, I jumped at the chance to reconnect disparate parts of my life.

My friendship with Sr. Martinez, my doctoral work at a Jesuit institution, and my many positive experiences over the years with other Sacred Heart nuns, former Sacred Heart nuns, and women educated in schools operated by the order -- including the poet Louise Imogen Guiney, subject of my doctoral dissertation -- add up to a strong affinity for the Religious of the Sacred Heart.

Like many women in the church today, including women in religious orders, the sisters of the Sacred Heart are struggling to redefine and articulate their place in the church and the world, to find words and audiences for their stories, to find ways to attract others to their way of living out the gospel in the world.

They are struggling to find a voice.

So my regret at leaving NCR, and the world of journalism, is mingled with a sense of anticipation at new adventures and, yes, with a fair amount of trepidation.

I know from my own journey that it’s no easy task to find one’s voice.

But I look forward to helping with the challenge. I see it as a chance to give back.

Pamela Schaeffer is NCR’s managing editor.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001