Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Noblest Title in All the World

Give a look back at past issues of The Catholic Witness and what you will take away is a profound perspective on the journey that has been the publishing history of this Diocesan newspaper, which first appeared in print in January of 1966.
It was a broadsheet paper, huge in scale, measuring nearly two feet vertically. With tiny type, eight columns wide, and nearly 100 lines per column, an extraordinary word count of 6,000 words could litter just one page of The Witness. At 16 pages an issue, it was nearly 100,000 words per edition that started arriving that frigid winter into the homes of some 175,000 Catholic souls spread across 15 counties and 7,660 square miles of central Pennsylvania.
Not only did words begin coming into homes, images did as well, telling ones that told stories of the local Church, along with wire service images that funneled in from all over the world.

Charlie Blahusch’s iconic photo of a Shamokin coal miner holding a lamp appeared in the inaugural issue of The Witness in January 1966.

That first issue of The Witness shows an American soldier hauntingly carrying a statue of the Blessed Mother and baby Jesus to safety in war-torn Vietnam, where our involvement was escalating. It is a remarkably searing image that graces page 15. A few pages earlier, we are introduced to the photography of Charles Blahusch – a gentle man who was a photojournalist from the paper’s genesis until he retired in 1997. There on pages six and seven we see his genius at work with a photo essay of where he grew up – Shamokin.
His photo on page six of a coal miner covered in black dust holding a lamp with a quiet smile and twinkle in his eye is one of the paper’s truly iconic images. The lamp that coal miner was holding up stands as an apt metaphor for the work begun in that first edition of The Witness. “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is filled of light…” St. Luke (11:34-36) tells us. “See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness.”
Last year, I received an e-mail from a family member of this long-passed coal miner, who wanted to know if I still had that negative taken by Charlie. The family wanted to make sure that he was never forgotten, and wanted the image so that younger family members could remember their heritage, their family tree, the old way of life that made today possible. I have worked some 9,200 days for the Catholic Church and that day is one of the most memorable and meaningful. To be able to sew 55 years together for a family, a respected photographer and his lasting image was humbling and that day gave me a perspective I will never lose. Tens of thousands of Charlie’s negatives are tucked away in files cabinets in my office. Each piece of Kodak cellulite film sealed with bromide is a treasured piece of history. Light burned unto film that remains alive in a dark world today.
Charlie was a true photojournalist, meaning it was his aim to tell a story with every image. When I took over for him in July 1997, following in his footsteps was a humbling jump into a pool that I knew not how deep the water was. One of the first things I did upon my hire was to pull off the old, dusty bound books that house the back issues and began to study Charlie’s work. And one of the first pages I studied was that coal miner image, and it struck me so profoundly those summer hot summer days 23 years ago.
Adjacent page seven in that first edition moved me also, as I gazed upon a photo essay of Mount Carmel and Shamokin. There’s an image of the bustling downtown of Shamokin. A Woolworth’s sign is quite prominent, as well as a J.C. Penny’s neon-lettered moniker. The caption below reads, “It is hard to notice any economic distress.” There is a picture of a packed garment factory where scores of women are buried in cloth and sewing machines busy at work – many of them Catholics who supported the more than a half dozen parishes crowning the hills of both towns located only several miles apart along the coal-strewn ridges.

Nga Ho of Holy Family Parish in Harrisburg greets Bishop Ronald Gainer at his Installation Mass in March 2014. Bishop Gainer is the 11th Bishop of Harrisburg and the 11th publisher of The Catholic Witness.

Yet arguably, the most telling page ever printed of The Witness is that founding issue’s front page. Dead in the middle is Bishop George Leech’s official portrait photo – taken gracefully by Charlie – and his letter introducing The Witness to the people of the Diocese. The letter begins with Christ’s last words on earth as recorded in Acts (1:8): “You shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to every end of the earth.” Soon after sharing those words, Bishop Leech reminded all, Jesus ascended into heaven “lifted up before their eyes and a cloud took him out of sight.”
Bishop Leech goes on to explain what the word witness means – “martyr” in Greek – and the bishop wrote that this word is the “noblest title in all the world.” And part of being a witness means “pouring out your lifeblood for Christ” just as Peter did for Christ. We are all to do that, Bishop Leech said in this official letter – as he had been Bishop of Harrisburg since 1935 – 31 years before venturing into publishing a weekly newspaper that would help him “discharge his apostolic duty of teaching, guiding and feeding the flock of Christ.”
Many dedicated witnesses have worked in the newsroom of The Witness over the nearly 55 years of putting ink to paper, and every one of them deserves a thank you for the spirit they brought to it. There has been joy, laughter, sorrow, fits of anger; the creative process can be messy where giving and taking is called upon almost every day. Always more easy to take than give, it seems. Over the years, multiple employees for The Witness have given 20 years plus to seeing words and images put to print.
The first executive editor was Msgr. Leo Beierschmitt, who teamed with Bishop Leech and Charlie to launch the paper. One quiet summer day two decades ago, I was alone in The Witness office in the early morning, and in came a long-retired Msgr. Berierschmitt who was in the mood to talk. It was not long after that he passed away, but the wisdom he shared about starting the paper and what he believed it meant to be a “journalist” fascinated me. “Always just tell a story, just tell stories, Chris; that is what a newspaper is. What life is – stories,” he told me, rubbing his goatee beard like a modern day Moses. I never saw him again, but it is one conversation I will never forget.
The first day I walked into Charlie’s old office to begin being a witness, there on the mounted cork board was a tattered Pennsylvania map with a red push tack jammed right through the middle of the folded map. It struck me odd that torridly hot July 17, 1997. Why a map? Why not something less cold? It was as if I did not know the way, or my way around, the journey lying ahead. It offended me, but I am easily angered and offended.

A new sculpture of President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg College is ice-laden in a February winter storm. The pose of the artwork is taken form Mathew Brady’s 1862 portrait of a pensive Lincoln before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1963. Mr. Brady took the portraits of 18 presidents, beginning with John Quincy Adams. In his political career, Lincoln had 130 photos taken of him in various poses.

So I quickly took the map down, and grumbled to myself about not needing a map to find my way. Rather prideful and arrogant on my part, since Charlie was only trying to help me. He was sending me a message, lighting the way. One of my favorite photographers is Mathew Brady, who gained fame during the Civil War making some of the first photojournalistic images of battlefields. He died blind, broke and alone, but when asked near the end of his life why he pursued photography as a calling, he summed it up beautifully, “A Spirit in my feet said, ‘Go,’ so I went.” That was the spirit Charlie’s map was meant to share.
Numbers are a joyful way I celebrate life. Numbers hardly ever lie; they are honest, revealing, humbling and give perspective. I roughly estimate that I have traveled some 900,000 miles across this Diocese, seeing just about every one of its 7,660 square miles covering events, doing projects in more than 100 parishes, 45 schools and other entities affiliated with the Church in Pennsylvania and beyond. I have worked for four bishops, five if you count my ten years at Holy Spirit Hospital. Each has had a loving and deeply enriching part of making me appreciate working for this Diocese. Each bishop is the paper’s publisher, ever since Bishop Leech graced the paper’s first front page in 1966.
Scores of priests have been a blessing to me. They welcome me so warmly when I show up at their churches to be a pest with a camera. We truly have many wonderful priests in this Diocese – that is a truth I have experienced so often it cannot be false. And the same goes for our religious who go out of their way to lovingly welcome and serve Christ every minute of every day.
My gratefulness extends to the lay people of this Diocese. Almost every time I am out in the Diocese, I am thanked, welcomed and encouraged. I cannot put a number on that reality, but there are thousands to say thank you to.
Mine eyes have witnessed beautiful light over the years. I love the old churches of our Diocese. If you have never visited the old 1799 (same year George Washington died) built St. Peter’s Church in Elizabethtown, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Conewago or St. Ignatius Church in Buchanan Valley, please go. The small country church of Our Lady of Refuge in Doylesburg is a gem in a tucked away part of the Diocese in western Franklin County. Our cities have magnificent churches – the two St. Mary’s in Lancaster and in York, as well as St. Joseph’s in Lancaster and Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament in Harrisburg are magnificent. Above all, my favorite sacred place to shoot in the Diocese is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The mix of divine natural light and artificial light is different every minute, every day of the year, and has never been the same to study all the times I enter.

Members of the St. Francis Xavier Choir from Baltimore raise their praise at the annual African-American Faith and Culture Mass at Saint Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg, in January 2017.

Light is God’s message to us from the very beginning. “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3-4) are the first words God spoke in creation. And he saw that it was “good.” I have met many photographers who do not seek light, study light, capture it, preserve it, share it, and they are the worse off for that lack of seeing deeply. Being a witness in my view is appreciating light – believing in it – sharing it every day with others as best you can.
The Catholic Witness is embarking into more digital platforms and less printed pages these days. But Bishop Leech’s words and those of Holy Scripture have the same ring to us still today. “God speed The Catholic Witness on its errand of truth and love,” Bishop Leech concludes his introductory letter.
We all can take peaceful perspective from Bishop Leech’s words written more than five and a half decades ago, and might we nobly continue on that errand of truth and love as a witness.
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness

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