Journalism professor knighted for lifelong service to the Catholic Church

Posted on 06 November 2008 by Victoria Caswell

In 1978 William Thorn, now journalism chair and associate professor, never dreamed he would be doing work with the Vatican regularly, but 30 years later he is still heavily involved with media issues that are related to the Catholic Church.

He was teaching photography and reporting when the Dean of the former College of Journalism, James Scotton, approached him.

“Scotton said, if you were to put on a conference about the situation with the Catholic Press, who would you invite and what would it look like?” Thorn said.

Thorn successfully put together the first conference and was then put in charge of the Institute for Catholic Media, and he began to investigate the future of the Catholic Press. The Institute was started in 1948 after World War II and provides research grants, readership studies and pulled into the work of the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

Then a Jesuit visitor from Rome needed someone at Pontifical Gregorian University, the first Jesuit University founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome. The University was starting a new program and Thorn was invited to be the first full time faculty member. In 1982-83, while on sabbatical, he moved to Rome to begin teaching at the Center for Communication. It was there that he got a call from the Vatican asking him for help with a documentary on media relations for seminarians. He was invited back to the Gregorian in 1985, 1987 and 1980 to teach short courses on church and the media, but backed down when he was invited to be a part of the drafting committee on Pope John Paul II’s document, Tantus Nove, or “New Era.”

“I was one of 17 or 18 from around the world in the final drafting committee, and one of three who wrote the final draft,” Thorn said. “When he (Pope John Paul II) came into a room, he filled it. He had a desire to get to know everybody.”

He continued working with the Vatican after that and was president of the teachers and researchers division of the International Catholic Union of the Press for 10 years.

By this time he was in Rome or elsewhere in Europe every four months for conferences. Pope John Paul II was very interested in communication issues. Thorn had several audiences with him and was in Rome in 2005 when he died.

Recently, the Vatican called him to put together another conference, which will take place in 2009 at Marquette and will be co-sponsored by the Vatican and Marquette on the theme of how institutions’ Catholic identity influences classes. It is a part of a Vatican initiative to listen to faculty teaching advertising and public relations, broadcast and electronic communications, communication studies, journalism and film and how Catholicism is reflected in how the professors teach and what problems they have.

“We have a lot of departments where a majority of the faculty aren’t Catholic. How does that work? What about student population,” Thorn said. “You can’t force anything on them. How do you maintain a professional stance, but still maintain your Catholic identity?”

Those attending the conference will hear what issues college faculty members at other Catholic Universities have with identity.

Thorn said that he has gotten into a lot of high-level involvement that he could never have imagined as a doctoral student.

“It looks like my connection (with the Vatican) isn’t going to end soon,” Thorn said, “After Scotton got me into this, it’s been something very important to me. Sometimes God has plans that we don’t know about. I really think this reflects what has turned into a lifelong commitment to put my intellectual and professional life into the Church.”

Scotton claims that he wasn’t too involved in Thorn’s vocation.

“I didn’t choose him, he chose himself,” Scotton said. “He’s been active in communication in the church for many, many years. He has a tough job.”

On October 12, Thorn joined a distinguished number of Catholic men and women as a new member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre dates back to the first Crusade and has very strict restrictions on members. According to Thorn, there first has to be a recommendation from either the Archbishop of the candidate’s local diocese, an officer in the order, a bishop or a local knight. The recommendation then has to be approved by the archbishop, then the regional Cardinal, then finally the Vatican. The candidate is notified by letter if he or she is accepted and is required to fill out paperwork, and references are checked. Thorn’s wife, Victoria, was also nominated.

Thorn said that it was very common for husbands and wives to be nominated together.
“I suspect I was nominated because of all the years I worked with the Catholic conference with media and communication issues,” Thorn said. “(My wife) founded Project Rachel in 1985, which is the official post abortion outreach of the Catholic Church in the United States.”

Project Rachel is now world-wide and is in almost all American diocese.

“When all is said and done, only our faith in God matters,” Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan said at the ceremony at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, 601 W. Lincoln Ave.

Over 400 knights and ladies from the Midwest came to the ceremony to welcome the 60 new members of the Order.

Thorn is from Janesville, Wis. He received his undergraduate degree from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. He did his masters work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his doctoral work at the University of Minnesota.

After doing his master’s, he went to Los Angeles to “seek his fortune.” He soon realized he couldn’t make a lot of money freelancing and decided to start teaching. He met his wife in 1971.

“I came to realize I liked teaching better,” Thorn said.

In 1975 he came to Marquette because George Reedy, the former press secretary for Lynden B. Johnson was the dean of the former College of Journalism.

“Everything is here if you want to teach journalism,” Thorn said. “That’s why I chose Marquette over other schools. I had more fun teaching, so I stayed here.”

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