A few words (of faith) about Joe Paterno

One of the most poignant and complex stories in America the last few days has been the prolonged outpouring of grief at Penn State University for the legendary and, in some people's minds fallen, football coach Joseph Paterno. The final memorial service drew 12,000 people and, naturally, it included remarks that touched on the Catholic faith of the deceased. What I can't figure out is how much religious material made it into this event, which was part funeral and part campus rally.

There is no question, however, which quote from the service was given the most ink in the national press, appearing in headlines and in pull-quote graphics on many websites that ran the Associated Press version of the main story from The Morning Call newspaper in the Lehigh Valley.

The quote is found right up top, where it belongs:

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Jay Paterno quoted Sophocles and Tennessee Williams, recounted his father's last moments and led more than 12,000 people in prayer. He also lingered strongly on one point, which Nike Chairman Phil Knight had thundered about an hour earlier.

"Joe Paterno left this world with a clear conscience," he said.

I am sure that some people in other parts of the nation read that quotation and thought: How could Joe Paterno have died with a clear conscience, since it was clear that he and many other leaders on that campus could have and should have done more to shut down the alleged sexual encounters between former defensive coach Jerry Sandusky and the young boys he often brought onto the campus?

Well, when dealing with a Catholic believer, it is one thing to say that he died with no regrets. No one said that. What they said is that the elderly Paterno died with a "clear conscience."

In other words, one can assume that he said a final confession and received last rites. The contents of that confession, any regrets or mistakes that were discussed, are between the dying man, his priest and God. It's hard to put that in a news story. I know that. However, could journalists have done a bit more to set the context of that statement? Frankly, I do not know.

The Washington Post story about the memorial service at least included a reference to the priest who took part in this rite of passage for the family and the community. I almost didn't notice it my first time through the report:

On Thursday at Penn State’s basketball arena, Sue Paterno drew a standing ovation just with the simple act of walking to her front-row seat in front of the stage. Five Paterno children and 17 grandchildren soon followed.

“Lord,” prayed Father Matthew Laffey of the school’s Catholic Campus Ministry, “thank you for this man, and the blessing to have lived when this giant walked the earth.”

This made me wonder: Was this Paterno's priest?

This leads to more questions. How often did the coach attend Mass on campus? Previous stories have stressed that he lived a walking-distance from the campus and kept a very consistent and disciplined schedule. I have always wondered if Paterno was a daily Mass Catholic. I do wish that someone had asked about that. It's a fact that would have intrigued the coach's critics, just as much as his supporters.

Let me make one final point, in the form of a question for GetReligion readers.

Most stories about the service included some version of this anecdote:

At the hospital Sunday morning, just before Joe Paterno died at age 85 after a short bout with lung cancer, Jay Paterno told his father that he had fulfilled his mandate to make an impact larger than his own footsteps.

"In my last words to my father," Jay Paterno said, "I kissed him and whispered into his ear so only he could hear: 'Dad, you won. You did all you could do. You've done enough. We all love you. You've won. You can go home now.'"

That's an incredible quote. However, the Associated Press report ended with another anecdote that, in its own way, I found just as powerful -- especially for anyone who appreciated the coach's love of literature and fine language. In the full report, the story ends this way:

The family celebrated Paterno's 85th birthday in December, when he received a book of letters from former players, and "stressed how blessed he had been in his life."

Jay Paterno also noted that his father ended every game by leading the team in The Lord's Prayer in the locker room. After leading the audience in prayer, Jay Paterno remembered once asking his father why he did that.

"He said, 'It's the words, Jay. The words."'

Here's my simple, journalistic question to our readers. If you read this AP story in your local newspaper, did it include this final passage? My observation is that many copy desks seem to have cut it off.

Space in newspapers is scarce, these days. But that's a wonderful end to a story about this particular man.

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