Communications 'the ministry of my priesthood,' says longtime editor

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rick Musacchio,Tennessee Register

By Andy Telli

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) -– Throughout his life, Msgr. Owen Campion has
had a fascination with words.

That fascination led him into the Catholic media as a reporter, writer
and editor, a mentor to Catholic journalists, and as a liaison between the
Vatican and Catholic media around the world.

“It’s been the ministry of my priesthood,” said Msgr. Campion, a native of Nashville and a priest
of the Diocese of Nashville for 50 years.

That ministry wound to a close June 30, when his retirement as associate
publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, based in Huntington, Indiana, and as editor of
The Priest magazine, where he has worked since 1988, became official. He called
his work at Our Sunday Visitor, and the view of the Catholic Church in America
it has provided him, “very fascinating.”

Msgr. Campion’s path to journalism began as a youth. The Dominican
Sisters of St. Cecilia who were his elementary school teachers “taught me how
to use the English language. ‘ That’s where I learned to love words,” he told
the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper.

His interest continued at Father Ryan High School in Nashville where he
was editor of the school newspaper and yearbook, and in college as a seminarian.

He was ordained on May 21, 1966, and as a young priest serving in east
Tennessee first began working for the Tennessee Register.

At the time, the Nashville Diocese covered the entire state, and the
Register had a representative in each division — east, middle and west Tennessee
— to collect news and write stories. (The Memphis and Knoxville
dioceses were created in 1971 and 1988, respectively.)

The Catholic Church and American society were undergoing huge changes. The
Register’s editor, Joe Sweat, asked Msgr. Campion to write stories and analyses
about the changes happening in the church in the wake of the Second Vatican

Nashville’s bishop at the time, Bishop Joseph A. Durick, wanted his
diocesan newspaper to approach the news in the fashion of a secular newspaper,
Msgr. Campion said. “Bishop Durick saw
the mission (of the paper) ‘ not as his mouthpiece but he saw it as a mirror of
life in the diocese and life in the modern church,” he said. “He wanted to give
(readers) an idea ‘ of what was going on that was important.”

That included not only developments in the church, but also the civil rights
movement. Bishop Durick was among the most prominent Catholic leaders in the civil
rights movement nationally, and his vocal support for the movement was often
met with opposition from his own flock.

Sometimes the paper’s “whole op-ed page would be letters,” Msgr. Campion
recalled. “Some of the letters would be quite critical of him.”

Bishop Durick believed Catholics had a right to express themselves in
the diocesan newspaper, even if they were critical of him, the priest said.
“That was the general philosophy of the Catholic press nationally at that time.”

During the Vietnam War, he said, Bishop Durick “wanted editorials to be
very strong and to the point and illuminating and advocating for these
positions the American church was taking,” Msgr. Campion said. “He was never
out of step with the other bishops or the Holy See.”

Another of Bishop Durick’s interests was ecumenism, and Msgr. Campion,
who succeeded Sweat as the Register’s editor in 1971, covered that issue as

As a young editor, he found support from friends in the secular press as
well as the Catholic press. He became active in the Catholic Press Association,
which he served in several roles, including as president from 1984 to 1986. In
1988, he left the Register and Nashville for Our Sunday Visitor.

In 1989 Pope John Paul II appointed him as ecclesiastical adviser to the
International Catholic Union of the Press, or UCIP, which at at that time was the official,
worldwide organization of Catholic publishers and journalists.

One of his first missions was helping the Catholic Church in Eastern
Europe establish newspapers after the fall of communism.

“Communism had dealt a terrific blow to the church,” Msgr. Campion said.
Bishops in Eastern Europe wanted to revive Catholic communications but “they
didn’t know whom to turn to, what to do. So much time had elapsed ‘ since the church
had been able to speak in public.”

Working with the CPA and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Msgr. Campion organized teams of U.S. editors to
travel abroad to lead workshops on how to operate a diocesan newspaper.

“Somebody would talk about writing feature stories. Somebody else would
talk about boosting circulation. Somebody else would talk about advertising,” said
Msgr. Campion, who noted that during one year he was in Poland five times.

He traveled to Latin America and later Hong Kong on behalf of UCIP. From
Hong Kong, he branched out to other places in Asia.

His term with UCIP ended in 1998 after nine years. In 2000, Pope John
Paul designated him as a member of the Synod of Bishops for the Americas and he
addressed the synod on communication issues.

During the synod, he was invited twice to be part of a group of people
dining with the pope. “It was very thrilling of course, but also revealing
because you could see him in another context,” Msgr. Campion said. “I never
knew he was so witty, for one. And I never knew how utterly aware of the
world’s geography he was.”

The pope would always break the ice at the dinners by going around the
table asking each person who they were and where they were from, Msgr. Campion said.
The pope would ask detailed questions about each person demonstrating a deep
familiarity with their home countries, he said.

When told Msgr. Campion was from Tennessee, the pope asked “Nashville or

“I said ‘Nashville.’ He mimed playing the guitar and said, ‘You play the
guitar then.’ I said, ‘No Holy Father, I only listen.’

“By the time dessert was served everybody was laughing and talking and
he was in the middle of us,” Msgr. Campion said. “You kind of felt like you
were with your uncle.”

From 2006 to 2012, Msgr. Campion served on the Pontifical Council for
Social Communications, whose 50 members from around the world consulted with
the Vatican about mass communications.

Catholic media is facing challenges related to the declining influence
of the Catholic Church — and religion in general — in Western societies, and
the fracturing of media as social media platforms continue to multiply, making
it harder to reach a broad swath of the people, Msgr. Campion said.

Msgr. Campion’s own vocation
was inspired by the priests who were his teachers at Father Ryan. His heroes in
his teenage years “were not athletes and movie stars,” he said, but those
priests, who “always “were there for me.”

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is managing editor of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of

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