In winning essays, the future is speaking

This story appears in the Essays feature series. View the full series.

by Caitlin Hendel

President / CEO

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On Oct. 28, 1964, National Catholic Reporter published its first issue, offering this promise from founding editor Robert G. Hoyt: "We are committed to the church, and secure enough in our commitment to keep wondering what the church is and will become."

It's hard to know whether Hoyt could have imagined the next 50 years of the Catholic church, the role NCR would play, and the meaning the paper would have for hundreds of thousands of readers over that time.

NCR was born at the halfway mark of the Second Vatican Council, and since then, the paper's staff and readers have witnessed remarkable change in the church we cover, as well as in the world and in society as a whole. And yet, in many ways, the issues are not much different than they were back then.

As you most likely know by now, National Catholic Reporter has been celebrating its 50th anniversary year, an observance that ended Oct. 24 with a conference at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. For the past year, we have looked back, starting with a special edition in which we devoted one page to each of the 50 years of publication. Many of our readers told us that when they looked through that edition, they felt as if they were reading their own personal histories, and many of them were.

Throughout the year, we continued to honor our past. For instance, each of the 26 issues for the last 12 months carried a nameplate that was used in earlier NCRs. In every issue, we also ran a wonderful feature, "NCR: Reader's Retrospective," written by Julie Gunter. In that column, we told the stories of just some of the readers who have been with National Catholic Reporter from the beginning.

But for the conference at Dominican University, we decided it was time to move away from the past. We titled the Chicago-area event, for which many of you have signed up, "New Faces, New Voices, New Ways of Being Church." And we included as part of our look forward an essay contest for high school juniors and seniors.

Last year, we sent out letters to Catholic high schools across the country and promoted the contest in NCR as well as on the website,, and through NCR's Facebook and Twitter accounts. We asked these young people to reflect on their experiences of change and growth in the church and to describe their hopes for the church in the years ahead.

We received more than 100 essays, making the choice of five winners -- first, second and third, as well as two honorable mentions -- a welcome challenge. I read every one of the entries, and was impressed by the enthusiasm the students showed in response to our question.

Related: Read high schoolers' contest-winning essays

Several themes popped up throughout the essays with enough force that I thought they were worth mentioning.

These students want to see a church that speaks to them, as young women, as young men and as teenagers trying to understand why belonging to a religious institution is important. Many of them started out by describing their experiences as small children -- weekly Mass, Christmas and Easter, praying at home. But then, as they began to grow up, for some at least the rote aspect of Catholicism was not enough to hold their attention.

Many essays called for a more interactive Mass. What does that mean, you ask? We already interact, don't we? We stand, we sit, we kneel, we shake the peace shake. But these essay writers want more. They want to really feel like they are participating, and some evoked Protestant services as an example of a more inclusive experience.

And they want food. We adults can chuckle at that, but I read that suggestion so often I began to wonder whether there was something to it. No, we're not delivering pizza during Mass -- before Communion? After? (And no, I'm not going to bring up that we are "fed" the word of God, because that clearly wasn't resonating with this group.) But certainly youth social hours after Mass could help address this suggestion.

In fact, they cried out for a more social church. (Again, many referenced the way Protestant denominations do it.) They wanted group activities, singing, prayer, basketball. They wanted to worship as a group. I found this interesting, as most came from Catholic high schools, where you would think this social dynamic reigns.

Two last points: Only a handful of young women brought up the idea that women are not given enough of a role in today's church, something I found surprising and disappointing. But the demand for inclusivity for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community was especially strong. I didn't add up all of the essays that mentioned this issue, but it was much more than half and maybe even two-thirds.

In the end, with the help of NCR editors Stephanie Yeagle and Pam Cohen, reporter Brian Roewe, and board members Maryjeanne Burke of Chicago and Kate Pichon of St. Louis, we chose five winners. We are running all five essays here and at our Essays feature series page.

Burke called the essay contests "one of the most exciting and interesting projects" of the 50th anniversary celebration for NCR.

"Students from throughout the United States entered essays that reflected what they were thinking and expressed hope that the church would offer more to engage teens," she said.

The winners are as follows:

  • Maia J. Kennedy, Huntsville High School, Huntsville, Ala., first place;
  • Mary Chudy, Magnificat High School, Rocky River, Ohio, second place;
  • André Sicard, Jordan High School, Sandy, Utah, third place;
  • Rogelio Becerra, De La Salle Institute, Chicago, honorable mention;
  • Omar Gomez, De La Salle Institute, Chicago, honorable mention.

"When I reviewed the theme of 'New Faces, New Voices, New Ways of Being Church,' I knew right away that this would be a subject I could write about," Kennedy told us in an email. "I am always happy to share my faith and talents with others."

Third-place winner Sicard, who was a senior when he wrote his essay, has just entered the seminary. He was a member of St. Therese of the Child Jesus Catholic Church in Midvale, Utah, where he was active in music ministries and served for four years as music minister for the Saturday evening English Mass.

Because he attended a public high school, we asked Sicard how he knew about NCR and about the contest, and he replied that it started with "an unlikely source."

"A couple of years ago, I began closely following a very conservative/traditionalist Catholic blog," he wrote in an email. "The author would often speak unfavorably about NCR and he talked about it so much I decided to check it out and see what all the fuss was about. Once I found columns by the late Fr. [Richard] McBrien and Eugene Kennedy I was instantly drawn into this different way of viewing the church. Ever since, I have continually read their columns and receive email notification when there are new articles or columns from NCR. I have since found NCR a breath of fresh air whether it be their coverage of the sex abuse scandal and the bishops' accountability or columns on how changes must come to how we understand doctrine.

"Truly NCR led me to view the church in the way Pope Francis wants to see it, a couple of years before the idea of a Pope Francis would have even been believable."

And that, my friends, is the future speaking. Bob Hoyt would be proud.

[Caitlin Hendel is NCR CEO/president.]

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