James Martin, SJ

Tom Reese was almost always on the phone. As editor in chief of America, his job mainly entailed reviewing manuscripts, editing articles and proofreading galleys. In the midst of these duties, he also spent time, like any good editor, puzzling over ways to boost circulation and improve the magazine. (Readers will notice, for example, this week’s redesigned Table of Contents, a project Tom had overseen for the last few months.) But much of the time, Tom could be found in his office, his sneakered feet propped on the desk, talking to a harried reporter on deadline and patiently explaining, say, the difference between a cardinal and bishop, or defining the meaning of the word “dicastery.”

 

He will be sorely missed, then, not simply by the editors, staff and readers of America magazine, but by legions of journalists, quite literally across the world. A few days after the announcement of Tom’s resignation, Archbishop William Levada was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A religion reporter from a small-town paper called me and said, “Who will explain these things to me now?”

With a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley and a number of well- received books on bishops, archbishops and the Vatican behind him, Tom was perfectly positioned to explain the often baffling intricacies of the church to the media world (not to mention his fellow editors). David Van Biema, chief religion writer for Time magazine, told me recently, “However complex the topic, the odds were that Tom could put it into language that I, as a general-interest journalist, could understand and make good use of for my readers.”

At the same time, his dedication to the church made Tom Reese a particularly reliable and trustworthy source. Journalists and reporters seemed to understand that they were listening to a man who had spent his entire adult life in service to the Catholic Church. “Tom was unusually direct, clear, frank and at the same time clearly loyal to his faith and to the Vatican,” said Bill Blakemore, a veteran Vatican correspondent for ABC News. “There seemed to be no contradiction in him between that and his being true to his vows, and that only added to his credibility.”

But there is more to being a good source than simply knowing facts (what does “coadjutor” mean?) and figures (how many priests were ordained last year?). There is also the willingness to take time from an already busy job to explain both simple and arcane concepts to reporters who are sometimes new to the religion beat. A few years ago, I asked Tom why he thought reporters called upon him so frequently. Weren’t there other experts as knowledgeable as he was? He laughed and said, “But I return their calls!”

Ironically, some of Tom’s critics underestimated the unique service he provided for the church in its work with the media. “One of the biggest complaints we hear from diocesan and archdiocesan officials is that reporters get the most basic facts wrong,” Rachel Zoll, national religion writer for The Associated Press, told me. “Tom saved us countless times from making those kinds of mistakes. I called him often to explain the most basic terms as often as I called him for analysis.”

And there was no question too basic. One of Tom’s favorite stories was about the cub religion reporter who asked about the first pope. After our editor had offered a brief history of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, the reporter asked “And what was Peter’s last name?”

Over time, like any good priest, Tom grew in his understanding of the needs of those among whom he ministered, as well as the world of his unusual ministry. “I found his commentary crisp and always to the point,” said Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, former editor of Commonweal and now co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. “And having been on television myself, you realize that they want crisp commentary, and that you also do not want to give the media occasion to cut your remarks too much. Tom was very adept at this.”

John Courtney Murray, the eminent Jesuit theologian (and former associate editor of the magazine) once remarked that the mission of the contemporary Jesuit was to explain the world to the church, and the church to the world. As editor of America, Tom Reese found himself uniquely suited to both tasks. Explaining the church and the world to each other has of course been part of the mission of our magazine since 1909. And, as our editorial explains this week, it will remain one of our goals.

Still, we will miss Tom a great deal, not only for his generous and caring presence at the magazine, but also for the unique talents he brought to our work with the media. David Gibson, a journalist and author of The Coming Catholic Church, put it well: “There simply aren’t that many Tom Reeses in the Catholic world.”

James Martin, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Billy Steel | 9/11/2009 - 11:20am
     What does David Gibson mean when he writes "The Coming Catholic Church"? Are we to suppose that the Roman Church is a new player in the geopolitical and religious world? Or are we to surmise that the 'coming' church is to take control and play a more dominant role in the world's league of nations.  For over 1200 years from 538 to 1798 the church determined the destiny of nations and had a profound impact (both politically and religiously) in their development. It wasn't until after 1798 that the church's influence waned and for over 200 years has been relegated to but a 'distant memory'.  When David Gibson states the afforementioned "The COMING Catholic Church", does he mean that the church will most definitely take the reigns of ecclesiastical/sociopolitical POWER over the world's United Nations and rule (not as in a past era) but the WHOLE World and be proclaimed the new Caesar and be given divinity status? 
Billy Steel | 9/11/2009 - 11:17am
     What does David Gibson mean when he writes "The Coming Catholic Church"? Are we to suppose that the Roman Church is a new player in the geopolitical and religious world? Or are we to surmise that the 'coming' church is to take control and play a more dominant role in the world's league of nations.  For over 1200 years from 538 to 1798 the church determined the destiny of nations and had a profound impact (both politically and religiously) in their development. It wasn't until after 1798 that the church's influence waned and for over 200 years has been relegated to but a 'distant memory'.  When David Gibson states the afforementioned "The COMING Catholic Church", does he mean that the church will most definitely take the reigns of ecclesiastical/sociopolitical POWER over the world's United Nations and rule (not as in a past era in Europe alone) the WHOLE World from a seat in Jerusalem as the new Caesar and proclaimed divinity?
Paul L. Bricker | 6/10/2005 - 12:02pm
Thank you for Fr. Martin's "Of Many Things" and the Editorial "Speaking the Truth in Love" in the June 20, 2005 issue. Both of them resonate strongly in my understanding of what it means to be Catholic. As a former Jesuit [1962-65], America has helped to deepen my faith and understanding of the Church, both as an institution and as the People of God in the years since I was in the Society.

I have had the privilege of introducing my wife to America and it has helped her understand more fully why I am like I am. We can only hope and trust in the Spirit to guide the Church/People of God in these difficult times.

Thanks again for re-affirming your ministry of the word.

Paul L. Bricker | 6/10/2005 - 12:02pm
Thank you for Fr. Martin's "Of Many Things" and the Editorial "Speaking the Truth in Love" in the June 20, 2005 issue. Both of them resonate strongly in my understanding of what it means to be Catholic. As a former Jesuit [1962-65], America has helped to deepen my faith and understanding of the Church, both as an institution and as the People of God in the years since I was in the Society.

I have had the privilege of introducing my wife to America and it has helped her understand more fully why I am like I am. We can only hope and trust in the Spirit to guide the Church/People of God in these difficult times.

Thanks again for re-affirming your ministry of the word.

Recently in Of Many Things