Passionist History in the Public Service
by Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D.
I suspect we were introduced by name tag. That started my conversation with Christopher Bellitto. It was a simple dialog common to so many of us, taking place ever so quickly at a history convention. He simply told me he had read The Passionist Heritage Newsletter and liked it. I appreciated the sentiment and we moved on. Later, I got an email to send the next issue to his new address. As I made note of the change, I daydreamed a bit and wondered what it might be that he liked about the newsletter? When I spied him across the room at the 2011 spring meeting of the American Catholic Historical Association, I made a point to ask him. In retrospect, I think the question took him a bit by surprise. Nevertheless, he answered with honest respect and made me appreciate why I and so many others love to read and learn about history but often find ourselves wishing we had more time. I am thankful he agreed to put his thoughts in writing below. A primary objective of The Passionist Heritage Newsletter is to shrink history and make it accessible to the average person or the dedicated scholar. Yes, all of us who love history wish we had more time to pursue our interests. We here at the Passionist Historical Archives hope you will continue to support us as we reveal our Passionist history to the public.
Here's my confession: I glance at more publications than I skim and I skim more than I read. Too many things come into our snail and email boxes. The last thing we need is to read more things that are put in front of us by people who are sure their material is urgent and no one else's is. Some of them are important, most of them are earnest, a few things are just annoying and completely disconnected to me or my interests.
So here's another confession: I was curious why Rob Carbonneau, C.P., asked me to write up my thoughts about The Passionist Heritage Newsletter. Truth be told, there's no obvious reason why I should spend time with a newsletter about Passionists. Apart from Rob, whom I've gotten to know at meetings of the American Catholic Historical Association, the only other Passionist I'd ever even met was Paul Zilonka over a decade ago when we were both teaching at the Institute of Religious Studies at St. Joseph's Seminary/Dunwoodie, just north of New York City. (I'm Jesuit-trained, after all, and we tend to stick to our academic own.) I've never used the archives, either. Much of my own research is on late medieval church reform.
I asked Rob why he approached me and he told that whenever I see him, I tell him that I enjoy reading the newsletter. It's true: despite everything that comes across my desk—welcome and not so much—I do, in fact, make time for The Passionist Heritage Newsletter. The reason is simple: because I know very little about the Passionists, their charism and history, their preaching missions and lifestyle. But I learn a great deal each time about a group of committed men who, through their stories told themselves and through historical accounts, take me to places I've never been and engage in topics like evangelization, enculturation, and missiology that I don't study or do on my own. Through the newsletter, I'm taken from my comfort zones and I learn about individual efforts to spread the gospel in particular places by specific people working in their own ways and times—and often enough, via the archives, I hear their own voices.
It is just this kind of individual and precise micro-study on which broader interpretations and wider studies are built. The newsletter and the archives from which it grows are not only reminders that we are a global church, but they are the building blocks for telling a bigger story about that church. Surely, there are articles, books, and dissertations to be found in the boxes and shelves of an archive in a gritty New Jersey city that can take readers around the world. We'd do well, especially, to point graduate students to this repository to find more examples of the church's story.
Admittedly, that story is not always pretty. Witness the Winter 2010 edition, with its tale of the Passionists' closing of their facilities throughout Massachusetts. This last chapter in a century-old apostolate could be sad, disappointing, dispiriting, and frustrating for the historical actors—in this case, our contemporaries. The contributions do not, in fact, shy away from those feelings and observations, which is consistent with the newsletter's mission of looking "at the present situation of the Province through the eyes of Faith to try to ascertain what lessons, if any, History may be able to teach us as we try to understand our present moment and the future." That, too, is an historian's job: to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The Passionist Heritage Newsletter does just that.
Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at Kean University in Union, NJ, and academic editor at large of Paulist Press. His most recent book is 101 Questions and Answers on Popes and the Papacy (Paulist Press, 2008).