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For 50 years, Origins brought insights on the church to keen readers

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CLEVELAND — The Second Vatican Council introduced sweeping changes in the life of the Catholic Church and earnest Catholics were wondering what those changes meant for the church they loved.

They wanted to know what others thought and how the post-conciliary church would be shaped.

The editors at then named National Catholic News Service took note of the strong desire to understand what the changes would mean for the life of the church. They decided that a good way to respond would be to launch a periodical that would publish some of the key texts, speeches and analyses from throughout the church examining the journey forward.

What emerged was Origins, a weekly publication that published original texts from many of the most well-known and influential Catholic voices. The first issue was dated May 24, 1971.

A message in the first issue said it was to be "a documentary service which aims to be useful."

A young journalist, David Gibson, was named editor and was joined by another young journalist, Mary Esslinger, who was named the associate editor. While others were involved, Gibson and Esslinger, who retired in December, shaped Origins throughout much of its history.

"The amount of information out there was stupendous and there was obviously an interest in the things coming out of the council during the post-conciliatory period. People wanted to know, 'What does it mean?'" Gibson recalled.

"We wanted to show things in context," he said.

For 50 years, that vision guided the small Origins staff, even after Gibson retired from Catholic News Service in 2007. He was succeeded by Edmond Brosnan who upheld the publication's highly respected reputation for the next 14 years.

Origins' run ended with the last issue of its 50th volume, April 22. Modern-day communication technologies led to a decreased dependence on Origins for access to texts, documents, speeches, statements and letters, Brosnan said.

"Basically, the readers told us, in a sense," that Origins' time had passed, he said.

During its half-century run, Origins sought voices that would explain thinking within the church on a variety of topics beyond Vatican II. It provided extensive coverage of the teaching of five popes and the outcomes of the Synod of Bishops. It also published speeches and pastoral letters from bishops that helped explain church teaching.

In addition, it covered issues such as war and peace, clergy sexual abuse, abortion, the church's teaching on contraception, the priesthood, the role of women and theologians, civil rights, racism, immigration and more.

Gibson said the goal always was to provide views that offered substance to the conversations the church was having.

The name Origins evolved from the idea that church documents are often the origin of news in the church. It's one thing to read a news report or opinion piece summarizing or analyzing a document or speech, but it's another to read a full text to understand an author's point of view, Gibson said.

"One way that Origins might have made a small contribution to Catholic journalism is that it made clear the document is as much the beginning of a conversation as it is the end of one," he explained.

From the start, staff editors chose documents for publication that presented contrasting, rather than polarizing, viewpoints. "It was to show the conversation on this point was ongoing," Gibson said.

Brosnan continued the practice, working with Esslinger to find the most pertinent expressions of Catholic thinking on various topics as they emerged.

"We wanted to show both interior discussions, but also how the church engages with the culture, with society. We wanted to show what different people in the church are saying about a given topic, to document what is going on and put it on the record in one place," he said.

"One of the things that Origins always did, we never shied away from controversial topics and conversations," Brosnan added. "We feel Origins readers are educated adults, that they can handle a controversial discussion. If somebody is attacking another person in an ad hominem attack, it's not the kind of thing we would publish. If there was an actual theological debate ... we wanted to include it."

The early days found Origins staffers scrambling at times to remain timely while adhering to tight deadlines. Readers at the time were eager to see what others were thinking and the staff wanted to be the first to bring those texts to a devoted audience.

"In the beginning days we sat by the mailbox, praying that the text we wanted for that issue would make it on time," Gibson said.

Eventually, email become the primary format for transmitting texts. Not only did that save time in the delivery of documents, it saved hours of labor because a document would not have to be typed during the production process.

Brosnan said the almost instantaneous availability of texts in recent years meant he and Esslinger became curators of material "finding what is the most important that people would need to know rather than wading through 300 statements on a given topic that would come out."

Origins also became known for its marginal notes — references to other documents and sources that readers could turn to for additional information, Gibson said.

Over the years, Origins became "must reading" for church leaders around the world. Among those who regularly read the publication were countless theologians, Vatican officials, university professors and lay leaders.

While it will no longer be published, every issue of Origins is available in digital format for CNS publishing clients, and CNS is evaluating options for making the archive more widely available.

Katherine Nuss, information and archive services manager at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, coordinated the effort to digitize the publication. Texts are searchable by topic.

Over the years, readers found Origins a valuable resource because of the diverse voices that were included.

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, professor of ethics and global development at Georgetown University, said he often directed students to Origins as a source to document issues being explored in class.

"Origins was important in getting out the word on official church actions and related discussions and controversies. With all respect for communications offices, which do the initial work of publicizing official statements and texts, none could replace Origins," he said.

At times, Father Christiansen's presentations on the evolution on the church's teaching on war and peace and Catholic-Jewish relations at conferences or Vatican-sponsored symposia would be chosen for publication. He said he always was grateful to the editors for their selections.

Theresa Notare, assistant director of natural family planning in the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the USCCB, said in an email that Origins "has been a 'staple' in my life from the first moment I walked into our seminary's library in the Archdiocese of Newark in the 1980s and was told to always go to Origins for quick access to whatever the pope, Vatican dicasteries, or bishops produced."

The final issue of Origins exemplified the aims established in its development 50 years ago, with texts showing how the church is planning a new chapter in its ongoing discussion about the role of the priesthood — both ordained and baptismal — as well as its engagement in current crises at the U.S./Mexico border and in Northern Ireland.

The editors also left readers with a final message: "We learned a lot during these 50 years and we hope you did too. It was fun."

Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021