When I first joined the archdiocese 10 years ago this April, one of the very first people I spoke with was Susan Gibbs who was then communications director for the Archdiocese of Washington. The next person I spoke with, at Susan's urging, was Sister Mary Ann Walsh RSM, the long-time spokeswoman for the USCCB, who passed away last week following a courageous battle with cancer.
I worked closely with Sister Mary Ann over the years, and in particular during the conclave in March 2013. Her leadership and strategic approach to managing the media was critical as thousands of reporters from all over the world descended on Rome. To understand the scope of the work, here in the archdiocese alone we responded to some 1,000 unique media inquiries during that period. Magnify that exponentially and you get the picture what it was like behind the scenes. Sister Mary Ann never lost patience. She was steady and clear in her guidance and advice, most notably to the bishops who were being inundated with requests. This was not her first time in the driver's seat. She handled media for papal visits, from the historic Denver World Youth Day with Saint John Paul II in 1993 to Benedict XVI in 2008. Her voice, knowledge and expertise will be missed as the United States prepares to welcome Pope Francis in September.
Sister Mary Ann was a savvy, smart and kind person. She possessed an unmatched institutional knowledge of the American Catholic Church. I spoke to Susan the other day about the loss of Sister Mary Ann. The word "sad" came to both of us in our chat. But the reality is she was and will remain a bright and shining example of love for all people regardless of their station in life. She knew reporters and their families on a personal level. She cared about the people she served and those with whom she served.
Working with the media has a lot to do with establishing and maintaining relationships. Building trust and respect is an essential element in managing media relations. Reporters are just like you and me, with professional and personal responsibilities, failures and accomplishments. It is how you manage those relationships that can impact a story in so many ways. There was no one better at it than Sister Mary Ann. She put Christ and the Church above all else and was focused on engaging with the media to help people better understand the Gospel and to connect with their Church and their faith.
Writing that Sister Mary Ann was "always, a Catholic of deep faith and devotion," the fine Catholic journalist David Gibson called her a "straight shooter" and someone the media respected when she had to get tough with them (which was often).
It was not all serious with sister. She had a good, perhaps dry, sense of humor which sometimes would appear in her tweets and blog posts. She understood the power of digital media and the advance of the age of technology. Tweeting about the Mass on the Border in April 2014 she wrote "Wonder who your neighbor is? The answer is here." Accompanying the tweet was a photo, taken by the archdiocese's own George Martell, of the Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, giving Communion through the fence that separated Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. She could be hip with tweets like "To the man who made Ecclesiastes famous, Pete Seeger, R.I.P. To Everything There is a Season 'Turn, Turn, Turn.'"
There are people in our lives who impact us in different ways. Those might be dramatic, inspiring, subtle, and maybe even quiet. Sister Mary Ann was more the subtle and quiet type. If you attended a Bishops' Conference meeting, you would often see her walking the room delivering messages from the media to bishops with requests for interviews during the plenary sessions. She knew her craft and performed it well. She sought no personal exposure or recognition. She empowered people around her, staff and colleagues, to do their jobs.
While it is indeed sad to experience the passing of family, friends and colleagues we are blessed to have known these people in our lives. I know many folks, like me, feel blessed to have shared in the life of Sister Mary Ann Walsh who today is walking the plenary session of saints delivering a message from an inquiring journalist.
Rest in peace, Sister Mary Ann.
TERRY DONILON IS THE SECRETARY FOR COMMUNICATIONS AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS FOR THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON.
Terry Donilon is the Secretary for Communications and Public Affairs for the Archdiocese of Boston.