How do you get the New York Times interested in Protestants?
Easy. Quote the Protestants freaking out over a visit by the Pope Francis. In classic form, the newspaper uses a single source to explore (exploit?) differences among Christians as Francis prays for peace and unity there.
It's one of more than 3,900 articles on the first pope to visit Korea since John Paul II in 1989.
It's also an extreme example of the antagonistic coverage the church gets from American reporters, according to an article by Father Thomas Reese in the National Catholic Reporter. Reese complains that while obsessing over abortion, gay marriage and birth control, reporters have been ignoring other actions of the American bishops -- such as their stances on the environment, disarmament, immigration reform and peace in the Middle East.
That sounds really, really serious, when this Reese piece is actually quite hilarious, which is why religion-beat pros have been chattering about it for days. This is your chance to hear (read, actually) a priest respond "Go in peace" after a journalist curses.
But back to the pope and South Korea. We'll get to the Times' behavior later. Fortunately, other stories show some lucid, literate coverage.
Reese might well approve the Wall Street Journal's treatment, which summarizes Francis' goals for his half-week in South Korea: spreading the faith in Asia, peace between the North and South, and saluting young Catholics for Asian Youth Day. Here's a nice passage:
The opening day of the visit—Pope Francis' third abroad and the first papal trip to Asia since St. John Paul II went to India in 1999—included meetings with bishops and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who said the pontiff's decision to make the trip demonstrated his special interest in the country—whose population is 10% Catholic—and a desire to bring peace to a divided continent.
During his stay, the pope will hold a Mass for reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.
The Journal and other media did considerable coverage of the open-air Mass to beatify 124 Korean martyrs. The Guardian sets an outstanding example, blending mood and history:
These early Catholics were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Joseon dynasty, which tried to shut the Korean peninsula off from Western influence.
In his homily, Francis said the lessons of the martyrs were relevant today for Korea’s church.
“They were willing to make great sacrifices and let themselves be stripped of whatever kept them from Christ – possessions and land, prestige and honour – for they knew that Christ alone was their true treasure,” he said. “They challenge us to think about what, if anything, we ourselves would be willing to die for.”
Francis praised in particular the fact that lay people were so crucial to the church’s foundation and growth in Korea.
In its own coverage of the beatification Mass, The Los Angeles Times teases out another angle -- Francis' oft-stated theme of benevolence:
During the service, the pontiff also called for greater charity for the poor, saying the martyrs’ “example has much to say to us who live in societies where, alongside immense wealth, dire poverty is silently growing; where the cry of the poor is seldom heeded.”
The pope’s emphasis on helping the poor and disadvantaged, a key theme of his papacy, has struck a chord in South Korea, where ostentatious displays of wealth and status are common. Poverty in South Korea is not widespread, but more than half of those older than 65 live in poverty. Income inequality is also a growing concern.
The newspaper uses a traditional "shirttail" method to include other part of the papal visit: a meeting with relatives of those who died in the April ferry sinking, and what many media are calling a "silent protest" against abortion by praying at a monument for aborted fetuses (sorry, Father Reese.) Finally, the article looks ahead to today's scheduled events: a closing Mass for the youth gathering, a the Mass for Peace and Reconciliation at Myeongdong Cathedral, the Catholic's mother church in Korea.
The Associated Press' Nicole Winfield skirts the edge of commentary in her in-depth piece on Francis' Saturday plea for peace in Asia -- a plea she says could have been for China as well as North Korea:
"I'm not talking here only about a political dialogue, but about a fraternal dialogue," he said. "These Christians aren't coming as conquerors, they aren't trying to take away our identity." He said the important thing was to "walk together."
The comments appeared to be a clear reference to China, which severed diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951. But they could also apply to North Korea, where the church is under tight government control and is not recognized by the Vatican. There are similarly no diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and the Vatican.
Francis has already broken ground with Beijing on his first Asian trip by sending greetings to President Xi Jinping when he flew through Chinese airspace. He also sent Xi a letter after the two of them were elected within hours of one another in March 2013, and received a reply.
The coverage, as noted, has not been all sympathetic, or even fair. The Times, quoting a single academic source, paints Protestants as grumbling losers in competition for Korean souls:
Although tensions between South Korea’s Catholics and Protestants are not new, the pope’s visit has brought into focus the often ugly rivalry between churches vying for hearts and souls in South Korea. It also comes as the country is still reeling from accusations by prosecutors that the pastor of a relatively small Christian church siphoned money from the company whose ferry sank in April, killing more than 200 teenagers.
The broader Protestant community has officially welcomed Francis’s visit, the first by a pope to the country in 25 years, and the pope planned to meet the country’s religious leaders on Monday to promote harmony among different faiths. But even many mainstream Protestants feel unsettled by the trip, which comes as some denominations are suffering image problems and stagnating membership after decades of explosive growth.
The Boston Globe devotes nearly 700 words to a controversial healthcare center called House of Hope, whose founder has been accused of corruption. Says the Globe:
Billed as a “father to the poor,” Oh’s shining reputation is matched by equally dark shadows. Since 1999, he has been repeatedly investigated on charges of corruption and embezzlement linked to more than $90 million his organizations receive from the South Korean government.
Several reports remark on Francis' travel choices, like a bullet train and a boxy li'l Kia Soul. (The New York Daily News went the typical tabloid route, saying Francis traveled "Gangnam Style" because Kia commercials include music by Psy.) The gestures had an apparent double aim: to be closer to people and to counter the nation's love for showy symbols of power and status.
I have to double-dip into AP for a charming contribution: on how Francis "sheepishly asked to skip evening vespers on Saturday after he ran behind schedule during a busy day."
"I've got a little problem," he told the crowd. "If there's one thing you should never do, it's skip your prayers, but today we'll have to do it alone and I'll tell you why: I came by helicopter, and if we don't take off in time, there's a danger we might smash into a mountain."
The crowd erupted in laughter once Francis' Italian apologies were translated into Korean.
It's to be expected. We saw such whimsical features during John Paul II's tenure, too.
While I can't speak for Father Tom, I think he might well be encouraged by much of the papal Korea coverage.
Photo: Father Thomas Reese. Photo by Charles Barry, Santa Clara University.