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Matt Malone, S.J.November 30, 2022
(Credit: America Media/Shawn Tripoli)

Top 10 lists are notorious in my little corner of the world. Whatever criteria the creator applies, the choices inevitably seem arbitrary, for there are usually more worthwhile contenders than there are slots. That makes it a pretty subjective thing, meaning that it’s the opposite of any supposedly objective form of journalism. Yet top 10 lists are also fun. People like them, if numbers of clicks on social media are any indication. And while they shouldn’t be the only way we evaluate something, a top 10 list is not per se a bad way to do so either.

So when the editorial team asked me to list my top 10 pieces of content from the last decade, as well as my favorite “Of Many Things” columns, I jumped at the chance. Again, customary disclaimer: There is so much more that could be included here—many features and videos and podcasts that could easily make the cut.

In order to avoid becoming paralyzed by so many choices (which, by the way, was St. Augustine’s idea of hell), I picked a single criterion for inclusion on the list of firsts: “Without looking at the archives, as I think back over the last decade, what are the first 10 examples that come to mind?” My memory is as flawed as anyone else’s, of course; but since, as I said, these kinds of lists are flawed to begin with, that criterion seems as good as any.

By the way, if there’s something that springs to your mind and is not included here, please feel free to list it in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

There is so much more that could be included here—many features and videos and podcasts that could easily make the cut.

Father Malone’s Top 10 Features From the Last Decade

Since America’s journey for the last decade has been from a single print platform to a multi-platform media company, “feature” is used here in a general sense. While most of these are written pieces, some are audio or video content.

10. The Conversion of Mary Lou Williams

Jazz, the Vatican and the complex and grace-filled journey of an African American Catholic and virtuoso: What’s not to love? Also, I knew the Jesuit mentioned in this piece. Peter O’Brien, S.J., was a kind and funny guy and he considered his friendship with Mary Lou Williams to be one of God’s great gifts to him.

9. A Vietnam Postscript

When I began as editor in chief in 2012, there was still one Jesuit serving here who had written for the magazine during the Vietnam War. The late Ray Schroth, S.J., largely edited the retrospective issue of the magazine in which this editorial appeared. It is a good example of the kind of writing I’d like to see more of in our editorial pages. It’s rare for a newspaper or magazine to say, “Hey, we got that wrong and we’re sorry.” But the Lord expects that opinion editors will do that just as much as (even more than, perhaps!) anybody else.

8. Hip, Young and Lay: Jesuitical (Mary Karr)

We have a lot of great podcasts now, but this is the one that really started them all. It was first produced in what was basically a closet at our old headquarters on 56th Street. The hosts only recently forgave me for prohibiting drinks on the show during Lent! I loved this episode with the writer Mary Karr because of her brutally honest and yet still funny account of her faith journey.

Nothing prepared me for what I experienced in Gaza. I was certainly not prepared to find hope there, and yet that turned out to be the story.

7. The Catholic Church and Silicon Valley

The average life expectancy of a company listed on the S&P 500 is 60 years. The church has been around for two millennia! We also enjoy the guarantee given by the Lord himself that the gates of hell will not prevail against us. That should give the church the freedom to be truly entrepreneurial and daring, never afraid of innovation (not in theology, of course!) or of earthly failure. Yet too often the church is anemic and paralyzed by self-doubt. I liked that this author called us to do better by remembering who we are and where we come from.

6. The Puppet Master of Gaza

I have reported from many states and countries in my 20 years at America as a correspondent or as editor in chief. Nothing prepared me for what I experienced in Gaza. I was certainly not prepared to find hope there, and yet that turned out to be the story.

5. America Goes to China

At 1.6 million YouTube views and climbing, America’s first big foray into international reporting by way of documentary filmmaking is still one of our best, especially for the nuance in the narrative. It’s also spectacularly beautiful to watch.

4. Confessions of a Capitalist Convert

While most of our readers took it in stride, publishing this cover story by Arthur Brooks, then-president of the American Enterprise Institute, proved controversial with others. Some folks thought we were “abandoning” the magazine’s commitment to social justice. What we were really doing was demonstrating the magazine’s commitment to having a diversity of Catholic voices in our pages. Missed in the dust-up was the fact that this piece was the first time that the author, a nationally renowned public intellectual, publicly testified to his faith. I’m glad he did it in America.

Pope Francis has given so many interviews since this first one that people forget how groundbreaking it was. No pope had ever spoken to the church in this way.

3. Women in the Life of the Church

I am proud to say that America is the first Jesuit journal in the world to publish an edition that was edited and written entirely by women. Executive Editor Kerry Weber did an exceptional job editing these essays. My favorite is an interview she conducted with Carmen Cervantes, then-executive director of the Instituto Fe y Vida, in which Ms. Cervantes talks about empowering Latina leaders.

2.Pope Francis: The Groundbreaking Interview

Pope Francis has given so many interviews since this first one that people forget how groundbreaking it was. No pope had ever spoken to the church in this way. I was lucky to be the editor in chief when it happened. And Father Spadaro’s interview has stood the test of time. Re-reading it now, I think it is still the best roadmap you can find for navigating the mission of this papacy. Nearly everything Francis has done since is mentioned here, explicitly or by implication.

1. Everything I Can Do: Living With Down Syndrome

When I am asked what my favorite America article is, this winner of the 2013 Generation Faith Essay Contest for young people always comes to mind. Joey Kane of Seattle, Wash., is the first person living with Down Syndrome to be published in America. His honest account of his journey is an inspiration to me nine years after I first read it. That it was accompanied by such a moving tribute by his brother sealed the deal for us. Would that the whole world had their faith and love!

The criterion I used for this list? What really moved my heart. What are the columns that stick with me, not in my head, but in the more important part of me?

Father Malone’s Top 10 Columns From the Last Decade

Nearly every writer will tell you that the exercise of going back and re-reading your own work is existentially fraught. Reviewing the more than 300 columns I have published under the heading “Of Many Things” has not been an exception. There was a lot that made me cringe—mainly because I think I could have put it so much better than I did. I also discovered a few opinions I no longer hold. At the same time, I also came upon some things that were better written than I remembered.

Writing the “Of Many Things” column has taught me a lot. It’s been both a fun and occasionally agonizing experience. Above all, it has taught me that St. Thomas Aquinas was right: “What is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” There were many times when I filed a column that I really thought would sing and resonate with readers and would then fall flat. And then there were times when I was not happy with what I’d written, but the deadline was drawing nigh and so, riddled with shame and self-doubt, I pressed send. And then, often enough, that column would be one that really registered with readers. So…you never know.

The criterion I used for this list? What really moved my heart. What are the columns that stick with me, not in my head, but in the more important part of me?

Note: Many people said to me over the years that they really enjoyed reading “Of Many Things” and that it’s “the first thing I turn to when I receive my copy of America.” I am always deeply honored by the compliment, even if I note that it may also be the first thing a reader turns to simply because it always appears on Page 2.

Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., used to say that the role of a public intellectual is not to tell other people what to think, but to help people to think things through by making important distinctions and asking critical questions.

10. The Church and L.G.B.T. People

I wrote this column during the first week of the papacy of Pope Francis in 2013. I’m fond of it because it’s one of the few things that I’ve recommended that actually came to pass. There’s not a causal relationship there, of course, just much gratitude that Pope Francis also believes that “we need to listen in order to learn how the church can be more supportive of gay and lesbian people.” In 2017, James Martin, S.J., wrote his book Building a Bridge, which struck many of the same chords as that column and has now blossomed into Outreach, the ministry he heads under the auspices of America Media.

9. The Lessons of Verdun

I will not soon forget my visit to this battlefield. It deserved a better ending, but this column comes as close as I’ve gotten to stating why I think history is such an indispensable guide for the present and the future.

8. Why do we tear down some statues and not others?

Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., 10th editor in chief and a mentor and friend to me, used to say that the role of a public intellectual is not to tell other people what to think, but to help people to think things through by making important distinctions and asking critical questions. I tried to do that here. If I succeeded, it’s because I learned from the best.

7. The Bishops Were Right

Holy Toledo! This column angered a good number of people. In saying that the bishops were right to avoid confrontation and to talk about Catholic schools in their conversation with President Trump, I was attempting to say simply that the desperate plight of Catholic schools should override our partisan passions when it comes to political tactics. But with a number of people I seemed only to inflame those passions. Still, I stand by what I wrote. Many students in Catholic schools, whose families are struggling to provide material support, do not enjoy the luxury of having partisan passions, nor do they enjoy the luxury of time that is required to wait out a presidency.

Since I don’t have a parish of my own, I’ve often said that I think of America’s readers as my parishioners. And so I sometimes took a directly pastoral approach to writing the column.

6.The Mount Rushmore of Comedy

The “Of Many Things” column was always the last page of each issue made ready to send to the printer. So I often wrote it to complement whatever was in the rest of that issue. For example, if the contents of an issue were mostly heavy and serious, I’d try to write about something lighter. This was one attempt. I once wrote and asked for an interview with Jerry Seinfeld (a favorite of mine) about the questions I raise in this column, but I think the letter was lost by the postal service he often hilariously lampoons.

5. Singing in the Rain

Since I don’t have a parish of my own, I’ve often said that I think of America’s readers as my parishioners. And so I sometimes took a directly pastoral approach to writing the column. This one was an attempt to cheer readers up and give them some hope while we were all in Covid lockdown. 

4. What We Owe Our Veterans

I wrote this column in the wake of the disastrous American exit from Afghanistan. As with all the columns I’ve written about questions of war and peace, this one was heavily influenced by the fact that I have had members of my family serving in the armed forces during all my years with America. The national commentariat is not in touch with the personal side of these questions of war and peace as much as it should be. I think my frustration with that shows here, but it’s something I feel deeply about.

3. On American Beauty and Truth

The first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, once said, “I look forward to an America that will be respected throughout the world, not only for its power, but for its civilization as well.” I look forward to that America too, and this was on my mind when I visited the Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

2.A Lesson From Rhode Island

Another favorite quote of mine is from Winston Churchill: “The further into the past we look, the further we can see into the future.” I had that in mind when I wrote this column about how the founders feared that the new United States would become either 18th-century revolutionary Paris or 18th-century ungovernable Rhode Island and how, in the 21st century, the country is in danger of becoming both.

1. Only God Can Make a Tree

This account of the life and death of Joyce Kilmer, the poet, soldier and America magazine contributor, was one of the few I wrote through my tears. I was and remain a fan of his most famous creation. I pray that the editors and readers of America magazine never forget that Joyce Kilmer was the first, but not the last contributor to these pages who died for the country whose name this magazine is privileged to bear.

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