The pope is abroad. This means, of course, that it is time to look at the papal texts -- Vatican site here -- and play a mainstream media game that can accurately be called "spot the political sound bite."
The key to this game is that, no matter why the pope is traveling to a particular region and speaking to a particular audience, it must be assumed that the lasting impact of his trip will be related to real life in the real world, which for all too many journalists means politics. Period.
Now, it is possible that, should the pope address a social and cultural issue that is related to public life, journalists have a chance to discuss theology and politics at the same time. If this is the case, then the goal of the game is to stress that the pope is expressing HIS MERE OPINION of the issues at hand, as opposed to restating church ancient church teachings that have been reaffirmed through the ages.
Remember, the pope and other members of the hierarchy play have no unique, authoritative role to play in Catholic life. His point of view is only as important as the latest opinion poll in which he is out voted by the views of millions of cultural Catholics who rarely kneel at Catholic altars or go to (heavens!) confession.
So, it's day one in Brazil for Pope Francis, a mold-shattering pope from Latin America who certainly knows a thing or two about this rapidly changing part of the world. The trip, of course, centers on events in World Youth Day. And the lede in The New York Times focuses on real life:
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Pope Francis arrived in Brazil on Monday for his first international trip as pontiff, treading carefully and in ascetic style in a nation where antigovernment protests have recently shaken a privileged political hierarchy, which faces withering criticism in the streets over claims of incompetence and abuse of power.
“Let me knock gently at this door,” the Argentine-born pope, 76, said in a brief address delivered entirely in Portuguese to his hosts, including President Dilma Rousseff and Sérgio Cabral, the governor of Rio de Janeiro. “I ask permission to come in and spend this week with you.”
Francis sidestepped the issue of Brazil’s protests in his first public remarks here, emphasizing instead the importance of youth evangelization.
OK, I'll bite. What did the pope have to say about youth evangelization? What did he have to say about the purpose of his trip, since we are told that he emphasized that topic?
Sorry, wrong news source for that kind of subject. Try looking over here.
Now, to be truthful, the Times team did -- high up in the story -- mention at least one crucial topic other than the possible political implications of the Jesuit pope's trip.
When it comes to religion and demographics, Brazil is at the heart of dizzying, stunning changes in this region. Click here for an essential package of data from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. A taste of that reality actually made it into this report:
While Brazil still has more Catholics than any other nation -- an estimated 123 million -- rising secularism and the fast-growing Protestant churches have challenged centuries of Catholic supremacy in Latin America’s largest country. Only 65 percent of the Brazilian population now identifies itself as Catholic, down from 92 percent in 1970.
Surprising some here not accustomed to his avoidance of conspicuous trappings of power, Francis made his way from the international airport to downtown Rio in a modest motorcade, riding in a compact Fiat car with the window open. People crowded around the vehicle, extending their arms in the pope’s direction while taking pictures of him on their cellphones.
That's essential material, of course. The story does a good job of helping readers see some of these remarkable public scenes, through concise descriptions of the events.
I am not saying that these kinds of, well, worldly topics are not important. That would be naive.
What I am challenging is the assumption that readers in this day and age are automatically more interested in Brazilian politics than they are in what the leader of the world's largest Christian flock had to say -- even as he stood in front of state leaders -- about the moral and spiritual lives of young people and their parents.
Let's see: Interest in world politics vs. interest in parents and children. Is it safe to assume that more readers are interested STRICTLY in the former, as opposed to a mix of these two topics? In other words, might it be wise these days for journalists to play "spot the human/spiritual sound bite" as well as "spot the political sound bite"?
In this case, it might be nice to hear a sample or two from this section of the arrival speech by Pope Francis:
Here it is common for parents to say, “Our children are the apple of our eyes”. How beautiful is this expression of Brazilian wisdom, which applies to young people an image drawn from our eyes, which are the window through which light enters into us, granting us the miracle of sight! What would become of us if we didn’t look after our eyes? How could we move forward? I hope that, during this week, each one of us will ask ourselves this thought-provoking question.
Young people are the window through which the future enters the world, thus presenting us with great challenges. Our generation will show that it can realize the promise found in each young person when we know how to give them space; how to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development; how to give them a solid basis on which to build their lives; how to guarantee their safety and their education to be everything they can be; how to pass on to them lasting values that make life worth living; how to give them a transcendent horizon for their thirst for authentic happiness and their creativity for the good; how to give them the legacy of a world worthy of human life; and how to awaken in them their greatest potential as builders of their own destiny, sharing responsibility for the future of everyone.
Yes, there are political implications in some of those phrases. But there is much, much more.