Monday, April 20, 2009

America's Anniversary

Last weekend America Magazine celebrated its 100th anniversary. The first issue was dated April 17, 1909, and I am told -- though it's probably impossible to verify -- in the years in between there has never been an interruption of service. Today the magazine is perhaps the 4th oldest periodical in the country. It's also the largest Catholic weekly in the United States -- in fact, it's pretty much the only Catholic weekly that remains.

Photos of our 50th anniversary show a packed house of religious and donors at a black tie dinner in Manhattan. There were so many people, they didn't all fit in the photo. In the congregation at St. Ignatius Church on Saturday I'd say we had about 300, most of whom stayed for a wonderful drinks and hors d'veours reception afterwards in the church hall.

And as I sat looking out on that congregation during the liturgy, a funny question bubbled to mind -- what exactly are we presiding over? Certainly a mass of thanksgiving: the magazine has been through tough times on many occasions; in the first year the editor-in-chief blew through a hundred thousand dollars (over a million dollars in today's terms), and when he exited at the end of that year there was about $50 in the bank. Most of the editors-in-chief over the magazine's history have likewise been removed, sometimes because it's time for them to go and they don't want to, other times because they can't balance the books or they really, really don't play well with others. And sometimes all of the above.

But still the magazine has continued, and even thrived. Editors have been consulted by presidents. They've written in all the major newspapers and magazines, and on many television networks, too. And in certain eras the magazine has had enormous influence over Catholic culture, even leading the course of discussion. As Catholics we don't believe that happens on its own, or simply by luck. It says something about the graciousness of God.

At the same time, I wondered if we weren't presiding over an ending of some kind, too. Not that America is closing up shop anytime soon. In fact, even as other publications are really hemorrhaging subscriptions, our own remain pretty steady.
But will there be an America Magazine in another 100 years? Or even in 10 years? It's hard to say. The world is changing rapidly, and as we adapt, the purposes of old things fade. The very notion of a print publication may soon be like dial phones or the post-up boards we used to use to make the pages before the dawn of Quark, a distant memory.

Our celebration was anything but funereal; but if we were marking among other things an ending of some kind, it seemed like the best kind of ending, a Christian kind, one with some further, as-of-now unimaginable act yet to come.

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