Hey, Dallas, worship is news, too

Here is a principle that I have tried to teach my journalism students in the decade since I left the newsroom and took a full-time gig in a college classroom. All together now: It is better to interview the person who is sitting in front of you rather than the person that you wish was sitting in front of you. I thought about this when reading the Dallas Morning News' very short interview with an important member of the Vatican hierarchy -- Cardinal Francis Arinze. I am sure reporter Jeffrey Weiss asked the Nigerian-born prince of the church precisely the questions his editors wanted him to ask. I also imagine he asked other questions that did not make it into this, to me, amazingly short article. So I hesitate to focus this little post on what Weiss did or didn't do.

The headline leads us into the problem: "Cardinal sits down for a rare interview." Why are interviews with Arinze rare? That is the lead:

Cardinal Francis Arinze was the Vatican's point man for interreligious outreach for 18 years. Yet, he is famously reluctant to be interviewed.

Partly, that's said to be tied to his impatience with secular reporters who badger him about his chances of ascending to the papacy. The 72-year-old Nigerian-born cardinal is on any short list of candidates to succeed John Paul II.

Well, you know that old Vatican saying: Men who go into conclaves as future popes come out as cardinals. So there is no surprise that Arinze doesn't like talking about that question. Yet, is the news what he won't talk about or what he will talk about? The Dallas Morning News article also makes it clear that the editors consider the stuff of the cardinal's old job -- head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue -- to be newsworthy.

But what about Arinze's new job, as head of head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of Sacraments? After all, the cardinal was in Dallas for a conference on liturgy. Well, it turns out that liturgy is considered newsworthy -- if it has an impact on American politics.

Despite the internal focus of his current job, Cardinal Arinze thrust himself into last year's American presidential campaign when he issued a statement from the Vatican saying Catholic politicians who unambiguously support abortion are "not fit" to receive Communion.

Democratic candidate John Kerry, a Catholic, had said that he was personally opposed to abortion but supported the legal right of a woman to obtain one. Someone who publicly embraces a particular faith has an obligation to live in accord with that faith, the cardinal said. . . .

"A person should be clear on what that person's religion teaches . . . and make an effort to live it," he said. "It demands sacrifice. But every student or . . . athlete who wants to win in the Olympic Games knows that sacrifice is necessary if you want a good result."

I'm curious: Did the state of John Kerry's soul come up at the Dallas conference? I'm curious: What did the cardinal say at the Dallas conference, to Catholics in Dallas, about their lives at their own altars? We never find out.

I would like to know and, I suspect, that what the cardinal said would have been considered newsworthy to a surprising number of local and national readers. I say this because, in my 16 or so years writing my Scripps Howard column, I have found that columns about worship -- especially music -- draw an unusually high number of responses from readers. And there are all kinds of controversies out there about liturgy (see this traditionalist site). These kinds of controversies even take place in Dallas.

In other words, I am just as interested -- more, actually -- about what the cardinal had to say about Texans going to confession and receiving Communion than I am in the state of Kerry's pilgrimage. Perhaps the same is true of readers in Texas. I am just as interested in what the cardinal came to Dallas to say as I am in what he did not come to Dallas to say. Does that make sense?

My thanks to Theodor Gauss for his permission to reprint a photograph from his webpage about the cardinal's visit to Heidelberg during the Christmas season of 2003.

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