It may be the religion-beat question of the year. So all together now: Why is Pope Francis so popular with mainstream journalists? That's the question that I keep hearing from a wide variety of readers and even journalists, no matter where I go -- including a quick trip last week down to Buenos Aires for a conference on religion and the news. More on that in a minute.
To no one's surprise, the media comet called Francis is in the short list to grace the cover of Time magazine as Man Of The Year for 2013.
Once again, the question is "Why"?
From the point of view of the professionals in the mainstream press, why is this pope so important and so, from their point of view, why is he so revolutionary?
Well, here's why. Consider this tweet from Father James Martin:
Salute Time for nominating the Pope as Person of the Year. Lament it's for "rejection of church dogma." He has not. http://t.co/C5zngcLaR4
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) December 9, 2013
Wait just a minute. What did the principalities and powers at Time actually write, in the online nomination promoting Pope Francis for this honor?
Does anyone out there have a screen shot they can share? The current version of the text has a fantastically symbolic correction and that's that:
Vote Now: Who Should Be TIME’s Person of the Year?
As always, TIME's editors will choose the Person of the Year, but that doesn't mean readers shouldn't have their say. Cast your vote for the person you think most influenced the news this year for better or worse - in both a straight yes/no poll and a candidate face-off. Voting closes at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 4, and the combined winner of our reader polls will be announced on Dec. 6. TIME's Person of the Year will be announced Dec. 11. ...
The first Jesuit Pontiff won hearts and headlines with his common touch and rejection of luxury.
And here comes the correction. Wait for it.
Correction: An earlier version of this post suggested that Pope Francis rejected some church dogma. He does not.
Wow. If there is no screen shot out there, does anyone know the precise wording of the original Time text?
Anyway, it didn't take long for the ripples from that rather interesting error to get back to the source, leading -- thankfully -- to quick action.
— Michael Peppard (@MichaelPeppard) December 9, 2013
So what, precisely, was going on here?
This past week I took part in a conference by The Media Project -- the global network behind GetReligion -- down in Buenos Aires. It focused on religion and the mainstream press and, no surprise, included a panel discussion featuring several interesting Argentine leaders who had years of experience dealing with Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio before his election as pope.
The common threads in their commentary included:
* First and foremost, Francis is a pragmatic pastor and evangelist who wants to bring marginalized people back into the sacramental life of the church, as well as reaching out to the spiritually lost. For evidence, look beyond the typically political news headlines about his new “apostolic exhortation” -- Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) -- and look the vast majority of its contents.
* When it comes to doctrine, Francis is much more interested in pastoral actions than precise theological formulas -- which makes it easy for journalists to misunderstand what he is talking about. But he is not promoting a move to the doctrinal left. The key formula for this man: Love the sinners, show them mercy and then lead them into the full sacramental life of the Catholic faith.
* When Pope Francis talks about reform and renewal, he is primarily talking about local, regional and global church structures and how Catholic leaders relate to their people. It's important to remember the Latin American context of his life and career, where he constantly saw his historic church chained to the ruling establishment. When reading "The Joy of the Gospel," note his many references to trying to escape the "museums" of the past.
In my "On Religion" column last week, I featured anecdotes from one mainline Protestant leader and a key evangelical who had years of experience working with the cardinal on projects linked to social justice, ecumenism, Bible education and evangelization. Here is how the column ends:
The “museum” references may be linked to Latin America, said the Rev. Salvador Dellutri, a Church of the Brethren pastor who worked closely with Bergoglio on projects for the Argentine Bible Society. While the future pope led an institution with great prestige due to centuries of ties with the political and cultural establishment, he was increasingly candid about his church’s struggles in an age of globalization, moral relativism and mass media.
“He worries about a kind of fake Christianity that in the past became a way of life for many,” said Dellutri, through a translator. “But if people are worried that Francis wants to turn the Catholic church into some other church, this is not going to happen. ... This pope remains close to the doctrines of his church. Divorce is a sin to this pope. Abortion is a sin to this pope. But he wants to express mercy to sinners and, if possible, to bring them into the church.
“You cannot say this too much: This man is a pastor. He wants the church to be known more for its actions than for its words.”
Meanwhile, can anyone think of a more amazing religion-beat correction during the past 12 months than this one in Time? Anyone have any good URLs?
UPDATE: Thank you Twitter readers! The Google cache yields:
The first Jesuit Pontiff won hearts and headlines with his common touch and rejection of church dogma and luxury.