No doubt about it, journalists really love Pope Francis. In many cases, they love the version of this pope that they have created through misquotes, partial quotes and by ignoring much of what he has to say. Hey, but who am I to judge?
Pope Francis had a lot to say during 2015 and, frankly, I thought that most of it was somewhat predictable, in terms of what we already knew about him. His sermons and addresses during the visit to Acela land in the media-rich American Northeast had lots of substance, but very few surprises.
So here is my question: Would Pope Francis think that he was the world's most important news story in 2015? I think not.
If you were looking for remarks by Francis that received little coverage, consider his steady stream of remarks about the persecution of religious minorities worldwide -- especially Christians in the Middle East. In the following quotes, drawn from a July sermon in a Mass with Eastern Catholics, he even comments on how the powerful have been ignoring this truly historic massacre:
“Dear brothers and sisters, there is no Christianity without persecution. Remember the last of the Beatitudes: when they bring you into the synagogues, and persecute you, revile you, this is the fate of a Christian. Today too, this happens before the whole world, with the complicit silence of many powerful leaders who could stop it. We are facing this Christian fate: go on the same path of Jesus.”
The Holy Father also remembered the broader persecution of Christians in the present day. “We now, in the newspapers, hear the horror of what some terrorist groups do, who slit the throats of people just because [their victims] are Christians. We think of the Egyptian martyrs, recently, on the Libyan coast, who were slaughtered while pronouncing the name of Jesus.”
During this week's "Crossroads" podcast, host Todd Wilken and I -- as is our end-of-the-year norm -- worked out way through the Religion Newswriters Association poll to pick the Top 10 religion-beat stories. Click here to tune that in.
To no one's surprise, the top story of the year was the U.S. Supreme Court's Obergefell decision to legalize gay marriage. That was a huge news story (it was No. 2 on my ballot), but stop and think about it. Was that decision a surprise? I mean, the only lingering question was when Justice Anthony Kennedy would act, producing yet another 5-4 decision on a crucial issue.
Also, to no one's surprise, Pope Francis was -- for the third year in a row, by a wide margin -- named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.
As I told Wilken, this was the rare year in which my ballot was radically different than the results of the RNA poll.
My vote for the year's top story went to the global wave of violence linked to the Islamic State and half of my ballot was dedicated to acts of violence linked to religion, both here in the United States and abroad. The massacre in the Bible study at "Mother Emanuel" Church in Charleston, S.C., was No. 3 on my ballot.
Also, I voted for the 21 Christians beheaded by ISIS in Libya as the top Newsmakers of the Year. The Coptic Orthodox Church immediately honored them as martyrs.
So here is the rest of the RNA list, as I wrote it up in this week's "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate:
2. Refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere pour into Europe by sea and land.
3. ISIS expands its reign of horror in Syria and Iraq, while claiming responsibility for the beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians, the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot, the deaths of hundreds on a Russian airliner and deadly attacks in Beirut and Paris.
4. Anti-Muslim rhetoric flares in the U.S. and Europe as some politicians -- citing concerns about terrorism -- call for surveillance of Muslims and a ban on Muslim refugees.
5. Pope Francis makes a triumphant and historic visit to the United States, speaking to Congress and the United Nations.
6. Paris reels from its second major terrorist assault in 2015 as attackers linked to the Islamic State massacre at least 130 and wound many others in attacks at a rock concert hall, in restaurants and at a major soccer stadium.
7. Pope Francis issues his Laudato Si encyclical on the environment, calling for replacing fossil fuels linked to global warming and lamenting a destructive, throwaway culture, including legalized abortion and euthanasia.
8. A white supremacist is charged in the shooting deaths of nine black Christians during a Bible study at a historic Charleston, South Carolina, church. Afterwards, many Southern institutions remove displays of Confederate symbols.
9. #BlackLivesMatter draws support from faith-based groups, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and Unitarian Universalists, amid rising scrutiny of police killings of black suspects.
10. Pope Francis continues to shake up his church -- ending a three-year period of oversight for a progressive organization of U.S. nuns, linking abortion and the death penalty in a consistent pro-life agenda, streamlining the annulment process and seeking a more pastoral tone while upholding canon laws on divorce and remarriage.