I first met the Prairie Messenger in 1933 as a boy in Grade 5, newly arrived in Lake Lenore, SK. The two of us bonded immediately. We bonded, in fact, for life.
The editor back then was Rev. Wilfred Hergott, OSB. I met him in person in 1937 serving a mass he celebrated in Assumption Church, Marysburg. I noticed during the mass that his shoes were patched. A trivial detail, perhaps, but I was immediately aware that this man had adopted in all sincerity a simplicity of lifestyle. I met him again as a boarder at St. Peter's College where he was a compassionate and wise confessor to the students.
In succeeding years it was he who answered phone calls to the abbey and college, always courteous and serene, though this chore must have interrupted his editorial duties.
Now why, as an avid PM reader and an admirer of the editor as a person, did I not recognize his dedication to justice as a constituent element of the good news of Jesus? And why did I not become gradually aware that his stands on social/economic/political issues, though solidly in sync with Old Testament prophets and the Gospels, were countercultural not only to western society in general but even in some aspects of the institutional church?
I shake my head even at this late date at my blindness.
My first moment of awakening was a blast against the paper coming from The Wanderer in the early '50s. Then I heard a good priest commiserating with my mother thus: "Yes, I don't know how to explain it. Father Wilfred and I have always been good friends. He's a good man, but ... "Such was our fear of, and obsession with, communism, that Father Wilfred, following closely in the footsteps of Jesus, was deemed to be subversive, a dangerous radical, perhaps a "fellow traveller."
But, isolated and, no doubt, very alone, he pursued with great courage and tenacity his vision of solidarity with the world's excluded ones, until finally forced out of the editorship by a hierarchical decision.
Why mention all of this in Brazilian Dialogue? Because Father Wilfred's goals were precisely the goals this column has espoused since its beginning 15 years ago.
And is the church more receptive now than back then? I wonder. Some sectors yes, but in general?
Few parishioners attend CCODP meetings and almost never does a pastor attend. Columbia magazine, organ of the Knights of Columbus, enters on a monthly basis more than a million Catholic homes in North America and Knights claim to be "the pope's men." Columbia's September issue purported to give an overview of Pope John Paul's teaching covering his 25-year pontificate. Out of 20,000 words, only three sentences were devoted to the pope's rich and diverse social teaching.
And yet John Paul II has spoken out often and forcefully on foreign debt, on immigration and refugees, on capital punishment, on free trade as unfair, on environmental stewardship. He has brought into our awareness phrases like "preferential option for the poor," "social sin," "the scandal of poverty." He has spoken against the marginalization of peoples and for human rights.
It is in this North American climate of 20,000 words in favour of motherhood issues (certainly no genuine Catholic will argue against what Columbia supports), but the almost total blackout on social teaching, that the PM, and Father Wilfred's pioneering position, has to be placed and evaluated.
Catholic New Times, too, is a strong social justice paper, although it blurs the distinction between magazine and newspaper. That leaves the Prairie Messenger as the Jeremiah of our time, the Amos, the Marcan Gospel.
Though Father Wilfred has long since gone to heaven (he's my Canadian candidate for sainthood), I thank him in my heart every time I write a column for Brazilian Dialogue.
In 1935 he serialized a novel in the PM about the Depression. I (a purple-prose romantic) was disappointed with the protagonist trying to sell his weekly quota of bars of soap. "What has this to do with Christianity?" I thought. But reading John Steinbeck and Jorge Amado, his Great Depression counterpart in Brazil, the scales fell from my eyes. Viva, Prairie Messenger! Viva, Mensageiro dos Esteppes!