When Pope Francis visits the United States next week, he will visit not only the high and mighty but the low and humble. Other mainstream media have often made that point. The New York Times proves it in its advance feature that ran yesterday -- with old-school enterprise reporting.
Fast-reading despite its nearly 1,600 words, the Times story offers both an overview and specifics. And it weaves them into prose that can be sweeping without getting flowery:
A papal visit is always an occasion of high ceremony and high-level politics. When Francis comes to the East Coast next week, he will, like his predecessors, visit the president and address the United Nations. He will pray with bishops. He will celebrate Mass before enormous crowds.
But to an unparalleled degree, this pope is making a point of spending time with people on the bottom rungs of American society: day laborers, refugees, the homeless, underprivileged schoolchildren and prisoners.
Like no pope before him, Francis is using the grand stage of his trip to the United States to demonstrate that the church exists to serve the poor and marginalized, and that this is the responsibility of all Catholics — whether pontiff or parishioner.
Many such articles would continue pretty much that same tone throughout -- that know-it-all, omniscient tone about this "people's pope." The Times doesn't; in this story, it fans out and talks to some of the 900 people who expect to meet the pope.
And it doesn't just say that Francis will visit inmates, for instance. It gives specifics on the offenses -- that Amanda Cortes, the subject of the lede, "worked for years as a phone-sex operator" and has been "awaiting trial in Philadelphia on charges that she brutally murdered her infant son." The article also doesn't just say that Francis will meet a refugee from Central America. It says the refugee "fled Honduras alone at age 14 and made his way through Guatemala and Mexico dodging armed gangs and riding atop freight trains."
Other papal meetings will include a reformed addict, fourth-grade students in East Harlem, family members of some who perished on 9-11, a Mexican-born woman whose parents paid smugglers to get her into the U.S., a former policeman who was wounded in a shootout, and recipients of Catholic Charities who are embroidering altar linens for the planned Mass in New York.
And the article doesn't just string anecdotes together. It points out that the planned meetings indicate an aim to lead by example: making visible Francis' foci on immigration, the dignity of the poor, compassion for prisoners. "Each group the pope will visit represents a cause he has taken up, as he urges world leaders and the 1.15 billion Roman Catholics he shepherds to lift up their humblest neighbors," the story says.
It's always fun when a story gives us inside info, and the Times comes through here, saying that those who expect to meet Francis were chosen on reasons "practical as well as spiritual." The Harlem schoolchildren, for example, were screened on who might be able to take the lengthy "pre-pope security lockdown." And charity workers in Washington, D.C., screened out people with acute addictions or mental illness.
Nor does this feature t just list misdeeds of those who will meet the pope -- it also tells of their progress in redemption. Thus, a convicted drug dealer is helping lead an Alcoholics Anonymous group as part of his rehabilitation. And Cortes, the woman who is accused of killing her baby, works in several faith-based programs in prison, including assisting the chaplain.
Still another strength: The Times talks to institutional leaders -- like spokespersons for a prison and for New York archdiocesan schools -- as well as those on the bottom. That furnishes what might be called min-overviews.
Finally, the Times interviews not only Catholics for this article, but also a Baptist and an Apostolic Christian. (The latter admits he doesn't even know much about Francis -- "I need to do more research," he says.) The story doesn't come out and say it, but the pope clearly won't just be preaching to the choir in America.
In this feature, then, we have two examples of, well, setting an example. One is Pope Francis, modeling the way he wants his followers to treat others. The other is the New York Times, showing fellow media folks how to develop a story concept.
Photo: Pope Francis at Katunayake Airport, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photographer: Sajithsameera, via Wikimedia Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0). Cover thumb: Francis greeting pilgrims during a weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, September 2014. Photo by giulio napolitano via Shutterstock.com.