Trying to take the Catholic pizza magnate's university seriously

My first full-time job in journalism was working as a copy editor, which meant that I spent much of my trying to write good headlines to go over news stories. One of the first rules I learned was this: Don't put a funny headline on a story unless you think there is something truly funny about the content of the story. Which brings us back to my local newspaper -- the Palm Beach Post -- and its page-one story today about the giant plans for Ave Maria University in Collier County, Fla., near Naples. The driving financial force behind the Ave Maria (Latin for "Hail Mary") story is Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza.

There are a lot of big facts about this story, and this project has generated strong opinions on both the left and right sides of the Catholic-education aisle. The key story this week was the announcement of the Phase 1 construction plans, including 15 buildings at the heart of what will eventually be a campus and the new town of Ave Maria. The centerpiece of Phase 1 is a glittering, 60,000-square-foot, 150-foot tall sanctuary that will seat 3,300 worshippers.

In its local print edition, the Post used this headline: "Church built with pizza dough: Extra large." The online version had a variation on the same laugh line: "Ex-pizza magnate's church to be extra large."

The content of the story is, I guess, more serious than these headlines, but focuses totally on the size and novelty of this project. The basic idea is that some very strange and very rich Catholics are building a very large and bizarre church out in the middle of nowhere for reasons that are very mysterious.

Readers that are interested in matters of faith, or even higher education in general, are left with lots of unanswered questions, such as: Why would a university, as its first move on the academic chessboard, build a sanctuary of this size? Why will the sanctuary contain 14 confessionals? Why do the school's leaders think it is going to be such a massive success? What does this say in an age in which most Catholic schools are going "mainstream" and, thus, downplaying religious rites and roots?

To find the answers to such questions, readers would need to head across the Everglades to the Naples Daily News. In fairness, this is a local story for this newsroom (which I should note is operated by Scripps Howard, the news service that carries my column) and, thus, will receive more attention. But even daily news reports can at least hint at some of the faith elements in such a story, and reporter Dianna Smith does so.

For example, the chancellor of Ave Maria is a conservative Jesuit, Father Joseph Fessio. He notes that the sanctuary will be built facing east because, in Smith's paraphrase, the "east is where newness comes from."

"Catholic churches here have always been built facing the east," Fessio said. "We (designed) this church facing the rising sun. Our whole lives should be oriented toward the sun."

By the way, I would be willing to bet that what the priest said next was that churches have traditionally faced east toward the "risen Son." But, that's the kind of detail that is hard to work into most news reports.

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