A remarkable life

ROBERT E. BURNS WOULDN'T APPROVE OF THIS APPROACH TO JOURNALISM. He wasn't one for shining a light on one of the editors. During his regime—executive editor of U.S. Catholic from 1963 to 1984—he strictly followed the policy of not identifying authors by more than name (he felt articles should be judged by the strength of the ideas they contained, not the writer's credentials or celebrity). For most of the 37 years he wrote this column his authorship was sparely acknowledged by the initials R.E.B. He rarely allowed a personal comment about the editorial staff to encroach on the readers' magazine.

Two exceptions come to mind: the deaths of his mentor, Father Joachim DePrada, C.M.F.; and of U.S. Catholic's first art director, Glenn Heinlein. His esteem for them prompted Mr. Burns to bend his unwritten rule and give readers a glimpse of these men.

It's time to bend the rule once more.

We called him Mr. Burns. Everyone on staff at the St. Jude League/Claretian Publications did. He never demanded that formality, as far as I know, but few of us could imagine calling him anything less formal. It was a shock to phone his home in Montello, Wisconsin, where he retired, and hear his wife, Brenda, call out, "Bobby, it's the office!"

Not that he was a stiff and formal man. He was joyous, devilish in his humor, unfailingly gracious, and personal in his concern for all those with whom he worked. Still, his was not the era of the "casual workplace."

Nor was he casual with words. He loved words and respected their power. He had little patience for journalists who were loose or cavalier with their word choice. Newly arriving editors were quickly warned, and a "forbidden word list" circulates even now among the staff. In the 1970s one poor soul had the misfortune of using the word "ongoing" in a bit of editorial copy. Soon, one of Mr. Burns' patented handwritten memos came blazing back from his office two floors below, declaring, "If I see one more 'ongoing,' I will be 'upcoming' and someone will be 'outgoing.'" We didn't have to guess about his standards. They continue to hold sway.

Those high standards earned this magazine and our other Claretian publications crediblity. He once urged a gathering of Catholic press editors, "I plead with the strongest urgency for an increasing measure of professional competence in our work. The Catholic press has suffered too long at the hands of well-meaning but untrained and unskilled practitioners. . . . Let's stop imposing on the charity of our readers."

He had a fierce respect for the readers. He realized that a new generation of Catholics was emerging—educated, independent, and thoughtful. In 1963, when Mr. Burns and his staff transformed The Voice of St. Jude into U.S. Catholic, he announced "an editorial policy emphasizing interpretative reporting rather than essays telling you how and what to think. . . . There are a number of excellent Catholic magazines that do offer these services and painfully few that concentrate on making the world we live in more intelligible, in the perspective of our Catholic faith and culture, allowing their readers to judge and evaluate for themselves."

He knew his readers and respected their intelligence, judgment, and abiding faith. His enduring popularity surely stemmed from his capacity to articulate with clarity and passion what readers may have only sensed in their hearts.

He was a fearless editor. His column, The Examined Life, was aptly named. The whole world and its happenings came under his review. In 1967 he wrote a scathing editorial arguing that the war in Vietnam was immoral, making his the first Catholic magazine to do so. He wrote in favor of gun control, of accepting gay and lesbian Catholics as our brothers and sisters, and of the scandal of homelessness. Father Andrew Greeley once wrote, "In the proper sense of both words, Bob Burns is a traditional and a conservative. For his life and work represent a consistent and successful effort to conserve a tradition. The tradition itself is liberal in the sense that he has always been on the side of those who stand for both social concern and intelligent change in the church."

Above all, Mr. Burns was civil. There were people who could make his blood boil—arrogant politicians, sniveling bigots, blind bureaucrats who imposed regulations while children starved. And he had causes, but as his colleague and friend Martin E. Marty said at his funeral Mass, "Robert E. Burns never allowed his causes to turn into obsessions."

Mr. Burns was blessed with many talents: writer, editor, manager, fundraiser, and much more. What makes his life worth re-examining is that he knew what the talents were for: the common good and the glory of God.

Robert E. Burns died in Portage, Wisconsin on March 13, 2000. His loving family attended him in his illness. His colleagues attend to the publishing ministry he forged. He rests in peace. 

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