(This Messenger Editorial is written by Timothy Walch, a 28-year member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and a member of the board of directors of The Catholic Messenger.)
“Littera Scripta, Manet” — that’s the motto of the National Archives of the United States. Translated from Latin, it means “the written word endures.” Mindful of the separation of church and state, American Catholics can learn a lot from this motto.
What do I mean? We need to do more to preserve the written legacy of American Catholicism. The church in this country is a vibrant institution that provides educational, liturgical, medical, pastoral and social services for the betterment of all. And we are a robust community, the largest and most prosperous religious denomination in the United States.
Unfortunately, we have been indifferent to the written records of that achievement. In seeking our spiritual salvation, we tend to overlook our temporal responsibility for documenting the lives of and faith of our ancestors. We owe it to them and to future generations to save our history.
So what can be done? We can support the work of the Catholic Research Resources Alliance (CRRA), an online effort established by 23 Catholic universities, seminaries, libraries and dioceses to digitize and share the precious records of our past. “The CRRA mission is firmly grounded in the nexus of faith and reason,” heralds its website, “that the past, present and future of Catholic intellectual tradition and scholarship be used to inform the challenges of the 21st century.” More information on how you can support the CRRA is available at www.catholicresearch.net.
Among the most important CRRA initiatives is an effort to digitize and share Catholic newspapers. I, for one, applaud this particular effort because no single source of information captures the pulse of American Catholicism as well as our diocesan newspapers. These precious if fragile publications help us understand why the church was so important to our ancestors and they document the contributions that Catholics made in shaping American values.
That certainly is the case with our Catholic Messenger. Founded in 1883, the pages of the Messenger are filled with a rich mix of stories on a broad range of issues that affected multiple generations of Iowa Catholics. Just as important, the editorial contributions of Messenger editors contributed substantially to debates over issues of common concern on a national level. We all can take pride in the historical legacy of the Messenger.
And thanks to a gift from Father George McDaniel, the Messenger staff was able to hire a firm to digitize all of the back issues of the paper and make them available without charge through the Messenger’s website. A retired professor of history at St. Ambrose University, Fr. McDaniel knows well the value of the paper which he dubbed the “journal of the life of the people of the Diocese of Davenport.” Thanks to his generosity, the history of Iowa Catholicism is always at our fingertips.
What we have accomplished in our diocese is being replicated in the other three Iowa dioceses. Back issues of The Witness, the weekly publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, are now available online. And both the dioceses of Des Moines and Sioux City are at work digitizing their papers.
And even more is being done beyond our four dioceses. The CRRA has identified over 800 Catholic publications — past and present — to be preserved, digitized, and eventually shared online. “A digital newspaper archives will make it possible to understand, on a very wide scale, Catholicism as practiced by ordinary people” notes Michael Skaggs of the University of Notre Dame.
These efforts underscore the importance of diocesan newspapers in the preservation of our past. It reminds us that the Messenger and other papers provide the first draft of the history of our church. That’s the central message in this preservation effort. To paraphrase the motto of the National Archives, the history of the Catholic Church in the United States endures because of our diocesan newspapers. Our American Catholic heritage — read all about it — online.