|Msgr. Owen Campion, a priest of the Diocese of Nashville for 50 years, talks with Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, then Archbishop of Baltimore, before a 2009 Mass at St. Mary’s Seminary and University at Roland Park in Baltimore, where Msgr. Campion was recognized as a distinguished alumni. He is a member of the class of 1966. Tennessee Register file photo by Rick Musacchio|
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 is winding to a close; on June 30 his retirement as associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and editor of Priest Magazine, where he has worked since 1988, became official. He called his work at Our Sunday Visitor, and the view of the Church in America it has provided him, “very fascinating.”
Msgr. Campion’s path to journalism began as a youth. “I would give credit to Overbrook School for that,” he said. 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.”
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 diocese covered the entire state and the Register had a representative in each of the three grand divisions of the state – East, Middle and West – to collect news and write stories.
At the same time, the Church and American society were undergoing huge changes. “The Tennessee Register reported all that,” Msgr. Campion said. “It was very much on the edge of everything that was happening.”
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 Vatican II.
Nashville’s bishop at the time, Joseph 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.”
|In this file photo, Msgr. Campion is pictured with Cardinal John P. Foley, then an archbishop, at the Catholic Press Association convention in Chicago in 1986. The two met as editors of Catholic newspapers and became close friends.|
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.
“They were very tense times. I remember people would get very agitated,” Msgr. Campion said. “On some occasions, the whole op-ed page would be letters. 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, Msgr. Campion said. “That was the general philosophy of the Catholic press nationally at that time.”
“Then there was the whole thing of the Vietnam War,” said Msgr. Campion.
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 well. Not everyone appreciated the coverage.
“I got a phone call,” Msgr. Campion said. “This person calling said they knew where I lived and they knew where I parked my car. … Just beware … one of these nights you’re not going to make it from the car to the door. …
“Then they found my mother’s telephone number. They called her and told them they were going to get me and that terrified her,” he said. “Those were rough days.
“Obviously, they never got me,” he said with a chuckle.
Mentors and friends
As a young editor, he found support from friends in the secular press as well as the Catholic press.
“I had two great advocates, great supporters” in John Seigenthaler, editor of The Tennessean in Nashville, and John Popham, editor of the Chattanooga Times. “They were always available,” Msgr. Campion said. “I was young in the job. … They had a lot of just very good advice.”
|Msgr. Owen Campion won the St. Francis de Sales award from the Catholic Press Association in 1989 “for excellence in his long career in religious journalism and in service to the CPA.”|
He became active in the Catholic Press Association and through that befriended other editors of diocesan papers, including priests. Father John Foley of Philadelphia eventually served as president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council of Social Communications and was elevated to cardinal. “We became the best of friends,” Msgr. Campion said, “and we were until his death.”
Another priest-editor who remains a close friend is Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, former director of communications for the Archdiocese of New York, who later became Archbishop of Baltimore, and is currently the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
“We were young priests in the midst of all of this change,” Msgr. Campion said of himself and his friends.
Msgr. Campion has served the Catholic Press Association in several roles, including as president from 1984 to 1986. In 1988, he left the Register and Nashville to take his position with Our Sunday Visitor in Huntingdon, Indiana. “I didn’t know how long it would last.”
In 1989 his travels around the world accelerated after Pope John Paul II appointed him as ecclesiastical adviser to the International Catholic Union of the Press (UCIP), the official, worldwide organization of Catholic publishers and journalists.
One of his first missions was helping the 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 Catholic Press Association and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Msgr. Campion organized teams of editors from throughout the United States 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,” Msgr. Campion said.
“One year, I was in Poland five times in a year,” he said.
He also began traveling to Latin America on behalf of UCIP. “I was in Brazil as often as I was in Tennessee,” Msgr. Campion said.
And when control of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to China, Msgr. Campion started traveling to Asia on behalf of UCIP. Hong Kong had long been a center of Catholicism in Asia and there was concern about what would happen to the Catholic communication interests there after the communists took over. From his visits to Hong Kong, he started branching out to other places in Asia.
“It was very rewarding to me in a lot of ways. I made a lot of close friends from all over the world,” Msgr. Campion said of his work with UCIP. “At one time I could go just about any place in the world and find people to have dinner with.”
“Our Sunday Visitor was totally supportive” of his work with UCIP and his travels, he said.
Personal encounters with the pope
His term with UCIP ended in 1998 after nine years. In 2000, Pope John Paul II 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 Memphis?”
“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.”
Challenges and changes
From 2006 to 2012, Msgr. Campion served on the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, an organization of 50 people from around the world who consult with the Vatican on matters of mass communications.
Catholic media is facing challenges related to the declining influence of the 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.
“There are a lot of challenges,” he said. “I really don’t think there’s a silver bullet.”
Earlier this year, Msgr. Campion marked the 50th anniversary of his ordination. Because a group of his close friends in Nashville organized a celebration of his 75th birthday last year, he decided against another big celebration for his anniversary. However, St. Mary’s Seminary and University at Roland Park in Baltimore, where he studied as a seminarian, honored him on the occasion, and his friend, Cardinal O’Brien, was able to attend.
“I loved the seminary that I went to,” Msgr. Campion said. “I thought it was fun to be with the students.”
Msgr. Campion’s own vocation was inspired by the priests who were his teachers at Father Ryan, he said. During his four years at Father Ryan, all but one of his teachers was a priest. “I’m sure Bishop (William) Adrian sent the best and the brightest to Ryan and the other schools,” Msgr. Campion said. “As a result, my heroes in my teenage years were not athletes and movie stars, they were the priests at Father Ryan. …
“I always felt they were there for me … even when we were priests,” Msgr. Campion said.
His principal at Father Ryan, Francis Shea, was later appointed Bishop of Evansville in Indiana. The bishop would send him hand written notes about his articles in the Register, Msgr. Campion recalled. When the monsignor’s mother died, he called the bishop to let him know. Bishop Shea interrupted a meeting with one of Indiana’s senators to take the call and later came to the funeral, Msgr. Campion said. “I’ll never forget that.”