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Sam Sawyer, S.J.December 14, 2023
Photo courtesy of iStock.

One year ago, I wrote my first official “Of Many Things” column as editor in chief, reflecting on America’s interview with Pope Francis, which we had conducted with him in the Santa Marta residence only a few weeks earlier.

This year, my attention is drawn farther back. This January issue marks a transition in our board leadership. Susan Braddock and Peter Howe, who have respectively served as chair and vice chair of the board for America Media since 2017 and as board members since 2014, are handing their leadership responsibilities over to Michael Zink and Grace Cotter Regan.

It is hard to express how much of an impact their board service and leadership has had on America Media as an organization, but remembering where we were in 2017 can provide an illustration. Starting in January 2017, in the space of just over a month, America Media: launched our fully redesigned print magazine (this was the moment when “Our Take,” “Your Take,” “Short Take,” and “Last Take” were born); relaunched our website under a completely new and finally mobile-friendly design; and moved out of our old headquarters, which meant both that the offices relocated to temporary space while our current office was being finished and that the Jesuit community moved into its new home.

Susan and Peter were both champions, as board members, of the ambitious strategy—what my predecessor, Matt Malone, S.J., described as America’s “Moonshot” program—by which America Media would grow and invest, finding new audiences, subscribers and support to carry this ministry into the future. Their vision in embracing that strategy is why they took on leadership positions on the board beginning in 2017, and it is that strategy that they have helped shepherd and guide over the past seven years.

Often enough, hope is realized more fully in adapting to unforeseen circumstances and opportunities than in achieving exactly what was originally planned.

To continue the illustration, here are a few things America did not yet have in January 2017: podcasts (“Jesuitical” would premiere in March); a daily email newsletter reaching over a hundred thousand people and a website reaching over a million people a month; a digital subscription, which only three years after its 2021 launch has already grown to half the number of our print subscribers and is still growing; and daily Scripture reflections, which I hear about often from subscribers as part of what they love about America and depend on us for.

Some of those things were already planned and hoped for in those days when we were moving the office and rebuilding the website. We knew we wanted to invest in audio opportunities, and I probably annoyed my colleagues—I had joined the staff in 2015 and led the website redesign—to no end by reminding them that “web-scale numbers have at least seven digits.” But the digital subscription was not in our plans back in 2017, and I had to be talked into greenlighting daily Scripture reflections even more recently. And of course, none of us could have expected that we would be working, and thriving, in a permanent hybrid office arrangement.

Hope and vision require planning, but they are never reducible to strategy and execution alone. Often enough, hope is realized more fully in adapting to unforeseen circumstances and opportunities than in achieving exactly what was originally planned. Or to put it in scriptural terms, “hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees?” (Rom 8:24).

The mission, after all, was never solely ours, but always God’s, with a scope and a vision that exceeds and transforms our own.

Of course, St. Paul in Romans 8 is not giving counsel about organizational planning. His scope is far greater, challenging us to remember that the promise of our redemption is not for us alone, but in fact is a promise for all of creation, “groaning in labor pains even until now” (Rom 8:22). Hope that sees only from its own perspective does not hope boldly enough, because it cannot fully imagine how radically God is at work to renew creation.

In my first year as editor in chief, I have been asked many times what my plans are for the magazine, and I have tried to answer as best I can. And as the church is committing itself to the synodal path Pope Francis has marked out, I have also been asked fairly often about what Pope Francis plans for the church. As I tried to say in last month’s “Of Many Things” column, I think that question misses the mark, because the synodal process is more focused on what is necessary for us to cooperate together in the mission God has given the church than on implementing any particular plan.

But another way to put that might be to say that a mere “plan” could never be hopeful enough to respond to the gift God gives us in the mission of the church. The mission, after all, was never solely ours, but always God’s, with a scope and a vision that exceeds and transforms our own.

At the beginning of a new year, and a new moment in America Media’s mission, it is good to be reminded that we have been entrusted with a hope bigger than our own plans. Please join me in praying in gratitude for Susan and Peter’s fidelity to that hope over their years of leadership on our board, and for Michael and Grace as they take up that charge.
 

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