Every now and then, the editors who run major newspapers get this urge to run a story that simply jumps out at readers and proclaims, "This Is A Religion Story!" These stories are especially popular if they feature beautiful art of religious people wearing religious clothing walking around doing clearly religious things. This is one reason why you see way more A1 feature stories about Hindus and Episcopalians than you do about Southern Baptists and Mormons, even in newspapers in places like Dallas or Atlanta. Ever tried to take colorful photos for a story about a Baptist preaching conference? Ah, but that Catholic conference on Latino liturgical dance? Bingo.
Often, this journalistic fact of life yields good stories.
Often, this journalistic fact of life yields bad/weak stories.
When small evangelical magazines and/or public-relations offices run this kind of story, journalists have been known to call them "happy little Jesus stories."
When major newspapers run these stories, the result is often PR for a group that is in favor with the editors.
I returned from my recent trip to the Southern Highlands and discovered, in my large stack of Baltimore Sun newspapers, an A1 story in the publication's "Hidden Maryland" series that contained some interesting material, some nice details and an unusual lack of facts related (just maybe) to some major news stories. This was surprising, for me, because the reporter (I know from experience) likes to ask a lot of questions. Maybe news was not part of this assignment as envisioned by the Sun editors?
Anyway, this feature ran under a headline that tells you quite a bit about the approach and the photography:
All work and all prayer at Baltimore Carmel
The nuns at the Towson area monastery aim to 'share contemplation with the people'
Here is a key piece of background material:
Turn left at a little white sign south of Seminary Avenue, cruise up a wooded lane and park near a fieldstone mansion, and you'll find yourself on the 27 quiet acres that serve as home to Baltimore Carmel, which descends from the first community of religious women formed in the 13 colonies.
"Oh, there's a whole other world back here -- that's one way to put it," says Sister Monika Bies, a German native who joined the community in 2001. "It's more interesting than you might guess." ...
One of 65 Carmelite monasteries in the nation, Baltimore Carmel houses 18 nuns and two postulants (aspiring members), women ranging in age from 33 to 93. Their ex-professions include dentistry, nursing, education and the law. Their spiritual focus is prayer, and their roots go a long way back.
Now, numbers are important in a story like this, as are long-range trends in an era when many Catholic orders are aging and, in some cases, veering close to extinction.
It's good to know something about the present, and the story includes a few facts that describe the present -- a few, but not the key ones.
How many of the sisters are, let's say, under 60? How large was this community, let's say, in the years between 1950 and '60? What are the statistical trends that describe it's future? In some cases, 20 would be a solid community. In some cases, 20 would be a dangerously small number in comparison with the past. Which scenario is unfolding here?
As you would expect, the story does deal -- a bit -- with the impact of the Second Vatican Council.
This is, no surprise, handled primarily in terms of style:
For 185 years, the nuns practiced strict seclusion. They wore habits and veils, stayed behind grates when interacting with the public and rarely left the grounds. Then came the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, in the early 1960s, which sought to modernize Roman Catholicism.
Baltimore Carmel, like many others, adapted. To some, it was a relief.
"I was fine with the old ways at the time, but the habits were heavy and hot, we looked like penguins, and I still have bald spots from the veils," says a chuckling Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester, 80, who joined in the 1950s. "I'm glad we left those days behind."
Today's nuns wear white robes for services, regular clothes the rest of the time. The grates and veils are long gone.
These details matter. However, in light of recent conflicts between Rome and liberal Catholic sisters and nuns, it would have been good to have included some information about what the leaders of this order BELIEVE as well as how they dress. Does the order have defenders? Does the order have critics?
In other words, in the current Catholic context, might there be some news content attached to this community's work, some connections to topics being debated in Catholic life.
For example, consider this online search for materials linked to "Baltimore Carmel" and "feminism." There are a few things worth looking at.
Or, at another point in the story, there is this interesting passage that is actually linked to religious content:
At 7:30 on a recent morning, the women file into a chapel for lauds, an "office" in praise of God. Sister Monika, a musician, breaks the silence with some bright notes on the piano, and the sisters take up a quiet chant. "Praise the eternal God in all your words and deeds," they sing.
It's hard to know much about this service, based on this one quote from a public prayer. However, the God language range a bell. Just for journalistic fun, I put that whole phrase -- "Praise the eternal God in all your words and deeds" -- into a search engine and got nothing (other than the Sun report). This is strange and, well, it suggests that this prayer is not part of a regular Catholic liturgy. Is this from an alternative rite of some kind?
The bottom line: I don't know if there is some news out there. However, in this "nuns on the bus" age, it would not have hurt to have included material linked to issues of this kind. For example, might Sun personnel have bumped into some of the Carmel crew while covering other stories?
Like I said, I don't know. But I am curious why this story does not contain more news, to go along with its nice A1 art. But it Is A Religion Story.