If you want to write a big story, you need to take on a big subject. The big-button subjects on the religion beat are the big-button subjects of life and many reporters, and even a few editors, know it. They are subjects like life and death, sin and redemption, love and hate, marriage and family, greed and grace. Create your own list.
Well here is a big story about a big topic and an even bigger button is hiding in the background -- life after death. Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe has a major hook for this feature, which is about the fight of Father James A. Field with cancer.
I only want to argue about one word and I'll get to that later. Here's a taste of what this fine story is all about. We open on Pentecost and then hit this:
The Rev. James A. Field has spent years helping others cope with death and dying. He has anointed the sick, buried the dead, and comforted the bereaved.
But now he is confronting his own mortality, much earlier than he had expected. He is 58 years old and he has pancreatic cancer, an incurable and fast-moving disease that he knows he can't survive. And, in a step that has rallied the Parish of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ around its pastor, Field is bringing the congregation along on his uncommonly public final journey, preaching and writing about each up and down. "This is what I got, and this is how I deal with it," he says. "I'm a teacher, and this is a teachable moment."
Field could have retired or gone on sick leave, but he has chosen to remain with the parish community he loves, and he is using the march of cancer across his body as a text from which to preach on Catholic notions about suffering, hope and faith.
There are all kinds of wonderful details that grab you.
But let's look at one word -- "notions."
What does that word mean to you? I know there are formal definitions, but for me the essence of the word is that it is rooted in personal feelings. I have a notion that the economy is going to pick up. If I am an economist with a doctorate and a shelf full of international awards in my field, the press may not say that I have a "notion." My beliefs might get a more authoritative word, based on my credentials.
Thus, does the Catholic Church have "notions" about suffering, hope and faith? Or even about life and death? How about life after death? Now, before you click comment and tee off -- with cause -- about the fact that all discussions of the afterlife are rooted in faith, please stop and think about other words that could be used in that crucial, pivotal sentence.
Would the word "teachings" work? How about "doctrines"? This close after Easter, one could even say "foundational beliefs"?
But, "notions"? Am I alone here? Did others slap themselves up against the side of the head after reading that? This raises another question: What is the ultimate subject of this story?