It's kind of charming that all popes have to deal with bad media coverage and global press frenzies. This week we've seen some awful media coverage of Pope Francis, including coverage of his blessing of a man after Mass on Sunday. Part of the blame must go to the Italian press, which really went crazy with the story in a way that might not be prudent. But I'll restrict myself to the English-language media. Let's begin with the Telegraph (U.K.):
Pope Francis appears to have been captured on video performing an exorcism in St Peter’s Square.
The astonishing footage, taken immediately after Pentecostal mass on Sunday 19th May, shows the Pontiff approach the second of two wheelchair bound people, whose face is pixelled out.
After a priest leans across the boy or young man to tell Francis something, the Pope’s expression becomes more serious, the voice-over notes. He then grips the top of the subject’s head firmly and is seen pushing him down into his wheel chair. As this is happening the Pontiff recites an intense prayer, and the boy’s mouth drops wide open and he exhales sharply, Italian press reports added this morning.
Where to begin? Let's begin by pointing out that Sunday was Pentecost. Not Pentecostal, which suggests something else entirely.
OK, as for this exorcism, it would be a curious exorcism indeed since it was relatively quick and spontaneous, compared to the rites and protocols used by Roman Catholics and other traditional Christians. How to analyze these claims, which seem to be fueled largely by the claims of one Fr. Gabriele Amorth? Usually the media are really good at being skeptical of the claims of any Catholic and it would be wise to reach deep for just a tad of that skepticism when covering this one, as Mark Shea explains here. I'm not saying his claims shouldn't be covered, but they should be placed in context of previous claims he's made and how he's viewed by, say, traditionalist Catholics.
I'm perhaps most disappointed by various reports I saw under the Associated Press. Take, for instance, how WHPTV headlined its AP story on the matter:
Pope Francis accidentally performs exorcism
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis' obsession with the devil has taken on remarkable new twists, with a well-known exorcist insisting Francis helped "liberate" a Mexican man from four different demons, despite the Vatican's insistence that no such papal exorcism took place.
This isn't journalism. It's very embarrassing. That word "accidentally" is scandalously untrue as is every other word in the headline. And how about that lede? Obsession? Obsession? Excuse me? What the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is this?
A longer version of the story is headlined, at Newser.com,
The pope and the devil: Francis' obsession with Satan leads to suspicion he performed exorcism
The story is written, according to that link, by the AP's Vatican reporter, which is somewhat difficult for me to believe. I mean, all reporters should know this, but religion reporters should definitely know that Satan figures prominently in Christian thought. You want to write about someone completely over-the-bend obsessed about Satan? How about this guy?
I mean, is the Pope being Catholic really something we want to have straight news writers present as "obsession?" And, what's the substantiation for this sick compulsion that Pope Francis has? Let's see what's in the story:
Fueling the speculation that Francis did indeed perform an exorcism is his frequent reference to Satan in his homilies — as well as an apparent surge in demand for exorcisms among the faithful despite the irreverent treatment the rite often receives from Hollywood.
Who can forget the green vomit and the spinning head of the possessed girl in the 1973 cult classic "The Exorcist"?
Um, what? I literally have no idea in the world why the second half of that excerpt is anywhere near this story. But, perhaps more importantly, mentioning Satan in homilies is standard in Christianity and always has been! To be told, suddenly, that occasional mention of Satan makes one obsessed requires much more of a case to be made. That there is a "demand" for exorcisms -- which, of course, is completely unsubstantiated in the article -- has really nothing to do with this particular prayer, does it?
Then we're told that not only -- gasp! Shut the front door, Mabel! -- did the pope mention the devil in his very first homily but he's done it "a handful of times" since then! It's almost as if he's an ordained priest in a Christian church, isn't it? Is the pope Catholic, indeed!
Then there's a section of the story that explains that exorcism has an actual rite that involves various blessings, particular demands placed on the demon, etc.
This is my absolute favorite line:
While belief in the devil is consistent with church teaching, the Holy See does urge prudence, particularly to ensure that the victim isn't merely psychologically ill.
Sigh. Yes, it turns out that belief in the devil is consistent with church teaching. The things you learn! (Kirsten Powers tweeted that AP should simply change the headline to the piece to "BREAKING: Pope Francis believes the Bible".) And I'm not sure I like this "while" in there -- as if prudence is at odds with belief in the devil.
Anyway, the article ends by noting that Francis didn't just start this obsession with "the devil" recently. Why, he even talked about it when he was just archbishop of Buenos Aires. Fascinating, isn't it?
It was getting too long to include here, but be sure to note that the story says that "Francis' frequent invocation of the devil" is a "reflection of a Catholic Church weakened by secularization." Invocation really isn't the right word to use there, since it means to call upon for help or support or to call upon for authority or justification.
You know, coming from a confession of faith that emphasizes Satan's work, I have definitely noticed that Francis speaks about him in ways Lutheran theologians do. I find that fascinating and I had hoped we'd see some journalism about his direct way of talking about the Evil One. But if this is what we're going to get, I think I'll pass.
I note, upon completing this, that the AP has updated the story so that the pope is no longer obsessed so much as "fascinated." OK. This USA Today version of the AP story has a mixture of fascination and obsession.