I like puns and wordplay as much as anyone else (actually, more than anyone else, to hear some of my friends complain). But when a joke is a little too obvious -- as when headlines quote Pope Francis saying that mercy "trumps" judgment -- then it gets, well, a little too obvious.
Two of them did it yesterday, in announcing the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Francis. It's supposed to be a year when the faithful gain forgiveness for sins and rededicate themselves to modeling Christian values. But at least two stories start with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink toward American politics:
"Opening the Holy Year, Francis says mercy always trumps judgment," says Crux, briefly forsaking its usual high road.
"Pope Francis: Mercy trumps moralizing as he launches Holy Year," echoes the Associated Press story, which ran in the Salt Lake Tribune.
Francis, of course, said nothing about presidential politics or the judgmental Donald Trump in launching the Year of Mercy. He merely reminded us to care about what he believes God cares about, and to act in accordance with our beliefs. And in grand papal imagery, he symbolized the opening of the year by pushing open a large bronze Holy Door at St. Peter's Basilica, allowing clergy and pilgrims alike to enter and find mercy.
After Crux pushed past its little dig at Trump, it did provide a nice article. It also focuses on a quote used in many other media reports:
ROME — Pope Francis opened his Jubilee of Mercy on Tuesday, saying that this year will be one in which Catholics are called to grow ever more convinced of God’s mercy, which should always come before judgment.
"How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we speak of sins being punished by his judgment before we speak of their being forgiven by his mercy," he said as he celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Square that marked the opening of the jubilee.
"We have to put mercy before judgment," he added.
Crux then narrates the Holy Door ceremony, noting the presence of former Pope Benedict XVI -- and that it was the first time in the 700-year-old tradition that two popes attended such an event. The story adds that Rome will feature three other Holy Doors, and every cathedral around the world will have its own.
I also liked the concise explanation of Holy Doors. "To enter through the Holy Door means to rediscover the deepness of the mercy of the Father, who welcomes all and goes out to meet everyone personally," Francis says.
Crux may have thought the basics were covered in its previous story on the Jubilee Year. That story roots us in history:
Also called Holy Years, jubilees normally occur every 25 years. They feature special celebrations and pilgrimages, calls for conversion and repentance, and the offer of special opportunities to experience God’s grace through the sacraments, especially confession.
Extraordinary holy years, such as the Holy Year of Mercy, are less frequent but offer the same opportunities. The last extraordinary jubilee was called by St. John Paul II in 1983 to mark the 1,950 years after the death of Jesus. John Paul also led the last holy year, known as the "Great Jubilee," in 2000.
The Year of Mercy called for by Francis is the third "extraordinary" jubilee since the tradition began 700 years ago.
Wish I could be as nice about the Associated Press' story on the event. Here is what dominates the top of the story:
Some 5,000 extra police, carabinieri and soldiers have been deployed around Rome, and a no-fly zone imposed on its skies, to protect the pilgrims who are flocking to Rome on foot, by car, train and plane to participate in the yearlong celebration.
Security was heightened after the Vatican was listed as a possible target following the Paris attacks, but the extra police patrols and traffic stops extended far beyond the immediate vicinity of the Vatican or even the other main pilgrimage sites in Rome.
Francis launched the 12-month jubilee to emphasize what has become the leitmotif of his papacy: showing the merciful and welcoming side of a Catholic Church more often known for moralizing and casting judgment.
Then it adds a jab about the Church being "more often known for moralizing and casting judgment." Yes, in a news article.
Funny thing is, when the story gets around to the actual topic, it provides some interesting facts. Like how the Holy Door at St. Peter's has 16 bronze panels "depicting the redemption of man's sin through mercy."
The article says perceptively that Francis did a kind of soft launch of the Year of Mercy last week in the Central African Republic, when he opened the Holy Door of the cathedral there. Yet even when filling in background, AP can't resist a couple of casual insults:
Holy Years are generally celebrated every 25-50 years, and over the centuries they have been used to encourage the faithful to make pilgrimages to Rome to obtain an "indulgence" — the ancient church tradition related to the forgiveness of sins that roughly amounts to a "get out of Purgatory free" card.
Unlike in Martin Luther's time, these Holy Year indulgences are free and available to those who pass through the Holy Door.
"Get out of Purgatory free" card. "Unlike in Martin Luther's time." How they must have chortled in running that story.
In a similar sullying vein, the BBC seems to equate the Jubilee year with having priests "absolve women who have had abortions." BBC also smirks about the medieval practice of paying for "indulgences," or pardon from sins.
"It was a tradition that not only contributed copious cash to the Vatican's coffers, but also contributed to the theological turmoil that led to the establishment of rival Protestant churches across much of northern Europe," the article says. It notes that Pope John Paul II called the last Holy Year in 2000, but fails to admit that no such money changing happened then.
Fortunately, the Religion News Service avoids the above gaffes, right from the headline: "Pope Francis opens doors to 'Year of Mercy' in a time of fear." After narrating the procession through the Holy Door, RNS fluidly interweaves story, background and a direct quote:
A holy year usually occurs every 25 years, although Francis chose to call an "extraordinary" jubilee just 15 years after the previous one. While the idea of a jubilee dates to the Bible, the Vatican tradition began in 1300 when Pope Boniface VIII announced the first Christian jubilee.
Before opening the current Jubilee Year, Francis highlighted the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, a turning point that sought to engage the Catholic Church with the modern world.
"Before all else, the council was an encounter," the pope said. "It was the resumption of a journey of encountering people where they live: in their cities and homes, in their workplace." The pontiff then encouraged Catholics to adopt the same enthusiasm and openness during the Jubilee Year, which runs until Nov. 20, 2016.
That's the difference a seasoned religion reporter can make. And if that doesn't convince you, read the 'Splainer sidebar with even more facts. 'Splainer is an occasional RNS backgrounder, and it doesn't come up short here.
So please, ye angels of mainstream media, keep the spirit of the season. Just give us the facts and shun the snide and the pun-laden. Those who are crying for mercy shouldn't be the readers.
CORRECTIONS: I originally wrote that the story in the Salt Lake Tribune led with security preparations for the Year of Mercy. That was inaccurate. Also, the story came from the Associated Press, although the Tribune ran it. I've rewritten this column to fix both errors.