Editor of America, native  of diocese, to return for St. Mary’s Fund benefit

By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

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WESTPORT, Mass. — When he was appointed the editor-in-chief of America two years ago — the youngest person to earn that distinction in the history of the Catholic news weekly — Father Matt Malone, S.J., was surprised, to say the least.

Although already professed to the Society of Jesus, he had yet to be ordained and fully expected he’d complete his formation work at the publication and be assigned elsewhere.

“Jesuits have a long tenure of formation period, and in the middle of that we undertake a regency and work full-time in one of our apostolates, so I was here at America working on U.S. politics and foreign affairs and then I went off to London to complete my theological work,” Father Malone recently told The Anchor.

Just 40 years old at the time, Father Malone admitted he was “relatively young as these things go.”

“The way they explained it to me was that they wanted to skip a generation in leadership of the magazine — and it made sense,” he said. “They wanted to do it primarily for two reasons: one, they felt that there probably needed to be a fresh editorial approach that would be more appealing to a younger demographic moving forward into a new century of publishing; and secondly, I think they wanted someone who could sort of bridge two generations — the generation that had come of age with the Internet and a generation of older Catholic writers who knew how to craft a narrative.

“The idea was to try to bring those two things together and to realize them as America in the 21st century, and so it fell to me.”

Little did Father Malone know that within six months of taking over the editorship of America, Pope Benedict XVI would make the historic announcement that he was stepping down as pontiff and a fellow Jesuit would subsequently be named his successor.

“When I came on board, we were in a pretty stable period in the life of the Church, and I thought I was going to lead America through the final years of Pope Benedict’s papacy and that would give me time to think about where America was going and what it would look like in five years,” Father Malone said. “Then Pope Benedict, with that great, courageous and humble act, set the world on fire. Ever since we’ve been going from one major event and news story to another.”

Standing in St. Peter’s Square on the night they announced the election of Pope Francis, Father Malone confessed he thought he misheard the name of Cardinal Jorgé Mario Bergoglio as the new Holy Father.

“I have hearing loss in my left ear and I sometimes don’t hear everything very well, and when they said his name, I remember saying: ‘I must have misheard that, because that’s the Jesuit!’” he said, laughing. “So I was as surprised as everyone else when he was elected. And then, of course, in his first Angelus when he pointed directly to Cardinal (Walter) Kasper’s book on mercy, I knew this was a different approach to the papacy. I also was very familiar with that book and its contents and its various theses, so I knew this was a different tone than what we had seen before.”

For many people, their first introduction to Pope Francis would be through the pages of America magazine in a wide-ranging and groundbreaking interview entitled “A Big Heart Open to God — A Conversation with Pope Francis,” written by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., that was first published in September 2013.

“When we published the interview with Pope Francis a year ago, it dominated the news cycle for a number of days and it led every evening newscast and was on the front page of every major newspaper in the country and I had a hard time imagining another person on this planet who could actually command that kind of attention,” Father Malone said. “I think even President Barack Obama on the day after his first election wasn’t commanding that kind of attention just by virtue of what he had said, and I thought that was remarkable. I really think Pope Francis right now is the most credible person on the planet and credibility goes very far with journalists.”

It’s not surprising that some of these same lifelong interests — politics, public perception and the Catholic faith — are what led Father Malone on a path to heading one of largest and most influential Catholic publications in the U.S.

Born and raised on Cape Cod where he attended Our Lady of Victory Parish in Centerville (where he was baptized by retired Bishop George W. Coleman) and Christ the King Parish in Mashpee while growing up, Father Malone worked in politics until he ultimately entered the Society of Jesus in 2002 at age 30.

Before entering the seminary, he served as founding deputy director of MassInc, an independent political think-tank in Boston, and was co-publisher of CommonWealth, an award-winning review of politics, ideas and civic life.

Earlier in his career he was also chief speechwriter for U.S. Representative Martin T. Meehan.

“Politics was really a passion of mine from very early on along with writing,” Father Malone said. “Throughout my 20s I had written a couple of pieces here and there — I was published in The Cape Cod Times and so forth — but primarily my interest was in politics and public policy. It was really when I entered the Jesuits and I was sent to America that I began to write full-time and in a specific way.”

Oddly enough, when Father Malone professed to the Society of Jesus, he thought he’d be doing something “a little more academic or more pastoral” than what he’d been doing in the secular world.

“I was reluctant initially to come to America because I felt that the kind of work we do here — journalism and writing and politics — was the kind of work I had been doing,” he said. “Fortunately, I had a very wise novice master and formation director who said to me: ‘You’re being asked to do this work as a Jesuit and as a priest, so it’s fundamentally different than anything you’ve done previously.’”

Although he graduated from public schools — including Falmouth High School and the University of Massachusetts Amherst — until he entered the seminary, Father Malone nevertheless understands and appreciates the value of a Catholic education.

To that end, he will be returning to his hometown diocese as the keynote speaker at this year’s St. Mary’s Education Fund Fall Dinner to be held October 22 at White’s of Westport beginning with a 5:30 p.m. reception.

“My niece and nephew who live with my brother in Mansfield go to Catholic school and I think that they’re getting a much better education than I ever had,” Father Malone said. “I went to fine public schools but I just think a Catholic education is more well-rounded.”

In fact, Father Malone maintains that a Catholic education today is even more important than it was some 50 years ago when Catholic schools were more prevalent.

“There isn’t an obvious Catholic culture, so-to-speak, as there was 40 or 50 years ago, so I think it’s a lot harder to hold onto and make sense of your faith as a young person because of that,” he said. “So by going to a school where there is a Catholic culture becomes all the more important now. In addition to the basic quality of education, it provides a space in which the student encounters everyday life within a culture that is informed by Catholic/Christian values and imagination — and I think that is crucial.”

Father Malone plans to address this issue at the St. Mary’s Education Fund Dinner, whose proceeds will provide need-based scholarships to students attending Catholic elementary and middle schools throughout the Fall River Diocese.

“I think I’m going to talk a bit about why Catholic education is so vitally important at this moment in the life of the Church and this country from where I sit,” he said. “As the editor-in-chief of America engaged in public conversation about faith and Catholic culture, I’m going to try to spell out some of the reasons why I think, at that level, a Catholic education is so fundamentally important.”

As for his ever-evolving role at America and the mission of the Catholic media, in general, Father Malone thinks it’s important to maintain a Catholic identity.

“We have to remember who we are,” he said. “I think sometimes, particularly at the national level, people look at the Catholic media and it doesn’t look different enough from our secular media in the sense of there being very clear ideological or political orientations. If people look to the Catholic media and they see one newspaper as Fox News and another as CNN and they see another as MSNBC, then we’ve really failed. We have failed to distinguish ourselves as distinctly Catholic, which transcends those secular divisions — or should, anyway.”

“First and foremost, we are not journalists who happen to be Catholic, we are Catholics who happen to be journalists,” he added. “And I think that’s a fundamentally different orientation.”

The annual St. Mary’s Education Fund Fall Dinner is one of two principle yearly fund-raisers to support the St. Mary’s Education Fund, which has since its inception in the early 1990s provided financial help to more than 8,000 students at Catholic elementary and middle schools in the diocese.

Those interested in supporting the event or obtaining more information on the St. Mary’s Education Fund should contact Jim Campbell at the Diocesan Development Office at 508-675-1311.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts