The Pope Francis guy is still traveling around down there in South America and, gosh dang it, he keeps preaching sermons. Isn't that unkind of him?
These sermons, of course, mix commentary about Catholic teachings and life in the public square -- as if the pope was arguing that faith and life are on the same level, as opposed to real life being on the ground floor in the created order, with religious truth claims either (a) locked in a private closet or (b) mysterious things that are stored, with God, in an attic above our heads (perhaps one without a pull-down ladder, even).
Once again, I am not arguing that journalists have to believe what the pope believes. I am not arguing that they need to produce sermon summaries or evangelistic pamphlets. I am saying that, in order to accurately cover him, journalists need to understand that this man is not delivering political stump speeches as he stands at pulpits next to altars at which he will celebrate the Mass.
Pope Francis is preaching. The faith elements are part of the content, not words that create an irrelevant frame for the real news, which by definition has to be about politics.
This conflicts, as I said the other day, with the "mainstream journalism Grand Unified Theory" stating that "no matter what the pope cites as his reasons for visiting a land or region, he is actually there for political reasons. He is there in an attempt to impact the lives of real people through political ideas or actions (as opposed to through sacraments, biblical truth, etc.)."
Now, to its credit, the New York Times team attempted, the other day, to cover a sermon while leaving some of the religious language intact. There is even a biblical reference in there! Here's the lede:
GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador -- Standing above a huge dirt field engulfed by hundreds of thousands of followers, Pope Francis on Monday used the first full day of his Latin American trip to ruminate on the anguish and joy of family life, alluding to the broader debate among many Catholic prelates about whether church teachings should be changed regarding gay people and the divorced.
Francis has arrived in Latin America as a wildly popular returning son, a source of pride as the first pontiff from a continent where for decades he helped shape the Roman Catholic Church. He came with an extensive agenda and is expected to raise concerns about environmental destruction, the rights of indigenous people and the church’s legacy in the region.
But he began on Monday with family, a theme central to Catholic life, if also now contested in the politics of the church.
Gotta love those church politics.
Now, when journalists use words like "alluding" they really need to point readers toward the insiders who helped them break the code allowing them to cover what the pope really meant, as opposed to the words that he said. The Times team notes:
Parsing Francis’s speeches can be tricky work, as he deliberately resists being pigeonholed. But he is organizing a major October meeting, or synod, at the Vatican in which church leaders are expected to debate whether the church should change its teachings on family -- including contentious issues like whether divorced people should be allowed to receive the sacraments and how the church should receive gay men and women.
Time for a moment of journalistic confession:
Francis never mentioned gays or the divorced directly on Monday, but many analysts believe he wants to push the church to take a more accommodating stance. He pointed to the importance of the October meeting to “consider concrete solutions and aids to the many difficult and significant challenges facing families in our time.”
He asked for people to pray, so that Christ “can take even what might seem to us impure,” scandalous or threatening and turn it “into a miracle.”
The comments, constructed on a biblical lesson about the wedding feast of Cana, seemed aimed at the church debate, though Vatican officials argued otherwise.
“The pope hopes the synod will find a way to help people move from situations of sin to situations of grace,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. “He is not referring to anything specific.”
The key to this passage? Might readers be told some of the names clumped under that umbrella term "many analysts"? Of course not. Might these be the scholars and activist priests who follow the press around, serving as color commentators? Probably so, methinks.
Later on in the story, the sermon returned to the spotlight for just a moment, since the pope himself built a bridge between the biblical material and real life.
Standing on a stage beneath a yellow metal roof, Francis used the wedding feast of Cana -- in which by the biblical account Jesus ultimately turned water from ablution jars into wine -- as a metaphor in which the wine symbolizes happiness, love and abundance.
“This lack of ‘wine’ can also be due to unemployment, illness and difficult situations which our families may experience,” he said.
And that's it? Just to show the difficulty of this work, let's look at the entire passage from which this tiny quote was taken. Believe it or not, it is actually from a section on the sermon focusing on what believers can learn about prayer, through examinations of the words and actions of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Let us attend:
Mary is attentive, she is attentive in the course of this wedding feast, she is concerned for the needs of the newlyweds. She is not closed in on herself, worried only about her little world. Her love makes her “outgoing” towards others. She does not seek her friends to say what is happening, to criticize the poor organization of the wedding feast. And since she is attentive, she discretely notices that the wine has run out. Wine is a sign of happiness, love and plenty. How many of our adolescents and young people sense that these is no longer any of that wine to be found in their homes? How many women, sad and lonely, wonder when love left, when it slipped away from their lives? How many elderly people feel left out of family celebrations, cast aside and longing each day for a little love, from their sons and daughters, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren? This lack of this “wine” can also be due to unemployment, illness and difficult situations which our families around the world may experience. Mary is not a “demanding” mother, nor a mother-in-law who revels in our lack of experience, our mistakes and the things we forget to do. Mary, quite simply, is a Mother! She is there, attentive and concerned. It is gratifying to hear this: Mary is a Mother! I invite you to repeat this with me: Mary is a Mother! Once again: Mary is a Mother! And once more: Mary is a Mother!
But Mary, at the very moment she perceives that there is no wine, approaches Jesus with confidence: this means that Mary prays. She goes to Jesus, she prays. She does not go to the steward, she immediately tells her Son of the newlyweds’ problem. The response she receives seems disheartening: “What does it have to do with you and me? My hour has not yet come” (v. 4). But she nonetheless places the problem in God’s hands. Her deep concern to meet the needs of others hastens Jesus’ hour. And Mary was a part of that hour, from the cradle to the cross. She was able “to turn a stable into a home for Jesus, with poor swaddling clothes and an abundance of love” (Evangelii Gaudium, 286). She accepted us as her sons and daughters when the sword pierced her heart. She teaches us to put our families in God’s hands; she teaches us to pray, to kindle the hope which shows us that our concerns are also God’s concerns.
Now, it is hard to turn most of that into news copy, I get that. But when I read this sermon, I primarily hear the pope addressing some challenges in the spiritual and material lives of ordinary families today. Like that reference to the abandoned elderly. Might that actually be a worthy subject for a story?
Just saying. This is hard work for journalists, I know. Popes rarely produce logical soundbites.