As a new year of hope lies ahead, a 2016 year-in-review behind These Stone Walls reveals the stories readers liked best, the ones we hope you will read and share anew.
It is winter in the world of These Stone Walls. As I type this post it is -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 Celsius), in Concord, New Hampshire. My friend, Arturo Dumas, age 49 and the denizen of the bunk above me, just tried to take an early morning drink from his water bottle, but it was frozen solid after resting overnight on the little concrete ledge by our cell window.
Now before you shiver in horror over our frigid conditions in this crowded cell, we are actually delighted. There is but one small perk in the draconian move that I described in my recent Advent post, “Can Your Vision Pierce the Darkness?” Unlike other places where we have whiled away the years here, the window of this cell actually opens. Polar vortex or not, the flow of fresh air at any temperature is just wonderful. It’s a tribute to how easy it is to make us happy that all eight men in this cell agree: “We’ll bundle up! Leave the window open!”
As a very difficult year comes to a close behind These Stone Walls, I am in a quandary over how to measure 2016. My usual “Hits & Misses” model for wrapping up a year of posts just doesn’t seem to be a fit this year. This year has seen trials and suffering, and an anxious hope that God is present with us at the Cross. We have also seen much grace spring from the trials of life. You have been reading about it all year.
Some of the events of 2016 that seemed most painful to us have in hindsight lent themselves to the liberation of others. I rejoice in that, but it leaves me at year’s end no longer able to discern our Hits from our Misses.’ So I’ll leave it to you.
BEHOLD YOUR MOTHER!
We published 51 original posts on These Stone Walls in 2016. Three of them were guest posts by Ryan A MacDonald and Father George David Byers. We had to skip one week – November 9 – as TSW was changing over to a new hosting server and undergoing a needed security and features update. But then a small miracle occurred. On the same day that we didn’t post here, the great and venerable Marian Helper magazine published its Winter 2016 edition with an article written by me months earlier: “The Doors that Have Unlocked.”
I hope you’ll read it, share it, and sign up to receive Marian Helper. This article was a big deal for me. In seven years of writing for These Stone Walls, this was the first time editors for a mainstream popular Catholic magazine asked me to write. The Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, Massachusetts also host the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy. It’s a place that we have never seen with our eyes, but one that has captured our hearts for Christ.
That might seem an odd thing for a priest to write. My heart was already captured for Christ, right? Perhaps so, but if you have been reading TSW all along, then you know that it was also broken and battered in the process. The Marians salvaged my wounded priesthood and set my heart afire. Read the article, please. Send it to those who doubt. In this painful, awful, cold place, Mary has been diligently at work drawing souls to Christ. The evidence is clear in “The Doors that Have Unlocked.”
FATHER BENEDICT GROESCHEL’S CANDLE IN THE DARK
Which brings me to our most popular post of 2016. By now you are just all too acquainted with the stories of scandal about Catholic priests that the news media relentlessly places before you. The fact that 26 U.S. Catholic priests have taken their own lives is a scandal for some, and a sign of grave injustice for others. I decided that I must write openly about the night when all light went out of the world for me, the night my faith and hope collapsed under the weight of false witness.
I learned something about all of you from that post as well. Your hearts have a capacity for seeing grace that defies what the shallow media would have us all believe. To the surprise of many – especially me – my post about my darkest night drew readers in the tens of thousands over the course of a single week in August. It was shared hundreds of times on social media, reposted in many other venues, and drew over 50 comments that tell an inspired story of grace in their own right.
The greatest gift for me from that post was the number of people who commented and wrote letters describing – some for the very first time – their own darkest nights that led them to their own loss of faith and hope and trust – a loss that they say These Stone Walls has helped to restore. You may not know how very much that news gave meaning to suffering. The readers choice for best TSW post of 2016 was “How Father Benedict Groeschel Entered My Darkest Night.”
It has been a wonderful tribute to the reach of These Stone Walls that a number of Catholic publishers have sent me books in the hope that I would write a review of them in these pages. I don’t know how I got on some of the review lists, and I often wonder if the publishers know from where I write. Most of the time, however, I welcome the opportunity to write a book review.
One of the most ironic examples came this past year from the good people at St. Benedict Press. They sent me a review copy of the Manual for Eucharistic Adoration. At first, it seemed a little like asking a blind man to critique a work of art. Other than the sometimes rushed moments after receiving the Eucharist at Mass, I have had no opportunity for Eucharistic Adoration for over twenty-two years in prison.
So I wrote my review based not only on the grace of the True Presence, but also on the challenge of the present absence. It was posted in the first week of June, just days before my 34th anniversary of priesthood ordination. “Priesthood in the Real Presence and the Present Absence” drew thousands of readers and was shared nearly 700 times on social media. Some suggested that it gave them a deeper appreciation for the grace of Eucharistic Adoration, and that was a very good thing for a priest to read.
IN THE TIME OF CHRIST THE KING
Having never actually seen it, I may never understand all the dynamics that make These Stone Walls work. Sometimes a post will generate only a few comments, but then I am surprised to learn that it became a viral presence on social media. Being unable to see TSW, I cannot go back to a post to see how often it is shared, a measure revealed at the top of each post. Using that standard, one of your favorite posts of 2016 was also one of my own: “Giving Thanks in the Time of Christ the King.”
THE TRUTH IS LIKE A LION
One of my favorite quotes used in a post this year was from Saint Augustine: “The truth is like a lion. No one has to defend it. Just set it free and it will defend itself.”
Early in 2016, I wrote and posted “The Lying, scheming Altar Boy on the Cover of Newsweek.” Then, toward the end of the year in Advent, I wrote a sequel, “The Path of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone.” Taken together, these two posts drew thousands of readers, dozens of comments, and were shared on social media some 2,500 times making them the most widely shared TSW posts of 2016.
Sometimes the truth is just inconvenient. Sometimes it just comes at an inconvenient time. I think that was the case with the second of those two posts. No one – including me – wanted to enter Advent with a sordid story of how the media conspired to halt a legitimate examination of a journalist’s ethics and standards for truth. That examination, if legitimate, should have opened questions about the case of an innocent Catholic priest who died in prison.
This is why the internet has to cope with the phenomenon of “fake news.” Fake news proliferates only because mainstream news media has ceased to do its job in the pursuit of truth wherever it leads. In my account of “The Path of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone,” I wrote of how The Washington Post and other once respected media covered one writer’s abandonment of journalistic ethics, but then halted that inquiry when it took them to the story of Father Charles Engelhardt.
But Saint Augustine was right. The truth of that story was set free. First on the cover of Newsweek by courageous journalist, Ralph Cipriano, and then by me here on These Stone Walls. Now the truth really does defend itself.
I have to write some challenging things about the media. I just have to. The very idea of “fake news” is a threat to our democracy, but the news media has itself played a big role in bringing it about by carefully selecting the truths it sets before you while masking what its purveyors would prefer that you do not see.
The news media is itself to blame for leaving us vulnerable to fake news. It’s a point I made in my posts above about Sabrina Rubin Erdely and the prison death of Father Charles Engelhardt. It’s a point made even better in a recent article in USA Today by Steve Deace, a nationally syndicated radio host. The free world, for the sake of both news and democracy, needs to heed what he has written here:
“Each January, tens of thousands of pro-lifers descend upon our nation’s capital to mark the Roe V. Wade Anniversary… This mass demonstration rarely gets more than perfunctory coverage by major U.S. newspapers, cable news networks and broadcast news… However last weekend, just a few blocks away from the site of the march, the meeting of a couple of hundred racists trying to brand themselves as the ‘alt-right’ received days of coverage.” (Steve Deace, “Who Left Us Vulnerable to Fake News?” USA Today, Nov. 25, 2016).
What Steve Deace penned for USA Today is very much worth our rapt attention. I have written in the past that the very existence of These Stone Walls leaves me with a deeply felt sense of obligation for truth. Readers might not agree with a conclusion I draw, but I very carefully vet every fact for its veracity before writing it. Our North Carolina friend, Father George David Byers, can vouch for that. He is one of the souls who take my too-frequent phone calls to help with fact checking.
A friend once created an account for me and These Stone Walls on the professional social network, Linkedln. All of our 2016 posts have been shared there. Over 1,500 people around the world have asked to connect with me on Linkedln, and many of them make “endorsements,” one of the unexpected features of Linkedln. I had no role in setting up this page and have never even seen it, but I have been very surprised to learn that a large number of Linkedln professionals have endorsed me in almost equal measure for both journalism and blogging. There is a great difference between the two, and I feel a humbling responsibility for truth that the designation, “journalism” implies. Steve Deace explains why:
“But a gullible populace doesn’t appear overnight. It has to be cultivated and cultured by years of journalistic malpractice and malfeasance. There have to be years of mystifying decisions such, as the ones to treat a few hundred racists as blockbuster news while relegating tens of thousands of pro-life protesters to the ‘briefs column’… Very few trust the reporting of objective facts if they’re reported by a source that has proved itself to be anything but objective.”
OUR FINAL WORD OF 2016
AMEN to that! Some of the most liberating media events of 2016 behind these prison walls were not posted on These Stone Walls at all. I must end the year commending four people for some truly courageous media truths in the Year of Mercy.
The first is our friend, Father George David Byers whose status as a Missionary of Mercy was recently extended beyond the Year of Mercy by Pope Francis. As this past Jubilee year of grace commenced, he removed his gloves for a dose of naked truth in the public square entitled, “Prelude to the Year of Mercy: Confronting the Truth.”
The second is JoAnn Wypijewski, a writer at the Nation magazine who bravely dissented from the dictates of the media left to cover the truth of a story badly mistreated in the news media. She tackled both Hollywood and the media’s distortions in the case against me with some impressive investigative journalism in. “Oscar Hangover Special: Why ‘Spotlight’ Is a Terrible’ Film.”
The third is Catholic writer and broadcaster Teresa Tomeo whose nationally syndicated Catholic Radio show hosted the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue last summer for a candid interview about truth and justice in the ongoing story behind These Stone Walls.
And finally, journalist Ryan A. MacDonald for his creation of a carefully researched and very useful tool in my defense. His in-depth writing and voice for truth culminated in a 2016 article that serves as an anthology of his work. It is likely the most important link that you could share with others: “The Father Gordon J. MacRae Story: Injustice in New Hampshire.”
Thus ends a year of mercy, of occasional misery, and of much-interwoven mystery behind These Stone Walls. There are amazing things to come in this new year of hope. Thank you for being here with us at this turning of the tide. Above all else, may the Lord bless you and keep you.