Mister Burns

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A former editor of U.S. Catholic remembers the first lay executive editor of the magazine.

The Mister Burns of the title is Robert E. Burns, who, after taking the helm of the Claretians’ editorial and fundraising operations in the 1950s, turned the devotional magazine The Voice of St Jude into U.S. Catholic in 1963. Once telling an audience of Catholic press editors that “the Catholic press has suffered too long at the hands of well-meaning but untrained and unskilled practitioners," Burns possessed an unswerving editorial vision and commitment to excellence.

By guest blogger Brian Doyle

At about 10 in the morning on my first day as an assistant editor at U.S. Catholic magazine, then housed very nearly under the elevated train tracks in downtown Chicago, I was summoned to the august sanctum of the Executive Editor of the Magazine, one Robert E. Burns, known to one and all as Mister Burns. No one knew what the E. stood for although there was a great deal of headlong speculation.

Mister Burns wore a lovely burnished silver-gray suit and had the roundest pleasantest ruddiest Irishest face you ever saw until he opened his mouth and said tersely There are several rules here that you ought to know about from your opening moments with us. We do not begin a sentence with the word hopefully. We do not use pointless words like ongoing. We discourage adverbs. We do not conclude pieces in the magazine with cosmic foolery like ‘it remains to be seen.’ It does not remain to be seen. We do not use such foolery as ‘on the other hand.’ There are no hands in this magazine. We do not edit quotes without that most useful of tools, the ellipsis. We do not respond to lunatic letters with sarcasm or ostensible wit even if they are from John Cardinal Lunatic. The most useful phrase I know is ‘you may be right.’ We respect authorities of every kind but we do not accept their pronouncements at face value and by the word authorities here yes I do mean Our Holy Mother Church. We do not use other languages in the magazine without a very good reason. Anything that can be said in another language can be said better in American English.

There is free coffee in the mail room but you are expected to be reasonable in its consumption. The use of pens, pencils, typewriters, fax machines, reams of paper, and books and periodicals from the library is not monitored by employee but you are expected to be reasonable in their consumption and return the books and periodicals. We will assume by the fact of your employment that you are aware of the history and traditions of Catholicism in America but this is not a historical magazine. We are interested in stories that have something to say about Catholic life in America. We are interested in Catholic life elsewhere in the world but not as interested as we are about Catholic life in America. We are interested in religious and spiritual matters of all sorts but a piece about Hindu life in Australia, for example, would have to be a hell of a fine piece to beat a piece about Catholic life in El Paso, Texas.

We expect you to learn to at least grapple with photography, assignment letters, negotiating payment for authors, recruiting authors, discovering and sifting ideas, editing authors whether they like it or not, and contributing occasional pieces of every sort to the magazine yourself in time. However this is not a literary salon and you are not employed to become a writer on company time. You are employed to be an editor at a damned fine Catholic magazine in the United States. What editing actually entails you will have to find out for yourself.

Inasmuch as I know and esteem your mother and father, I believe you have a genetic leg up on the task but I have been unpleasantly surprised by genetic collapse before and I am sure it will happen again. Let us hope that I am not speaking presciently about you. In the event that you do turn out to be a decent writer, which is all we can safely hope for on this God’s earth, remember that we do not pay extra for contributions to the magazine, and that your contributions to other magazines, which we in general encourage, even for Jesuit magazines, should be composed and polished on your own time and in your own domicile. I believe that covers the general outlines of expectations and responsibilities as you begin with us.

I will assume that you have no questions because you are eager to get to your desk and advance the interests of the magazine, an admirable urge. My best wishes on your work. Close the door gently when you leave. If you see an adverb out there kill it. I think that covers everything.            


Brian Doyle is a frequent U.S. Catholic contributor who served as associate editor at U.S. Catholic from 1978-79.

 Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.