Francis' U.S. visit: About that (mostly) exemplary Associated Press advance story

Friendly and perceptive and literate? The Associated Press' advance on Pope Francis' U.S. visit forms almost a shopping list of things that should go into such a story.

Emphasis on "almost." The story misses a couple of elements. More on that later.

Written by Godbeat veteran Rachel Zoll, along with Nicole Winfield out of Rome, the article looks at the rift between the Argentinian Jesuit pontiff and the nation he'll visit Sept. 22-27 -- for the first time in his life, the story points out.

This nearly 1,300-word piece notes that previous pontiffs like John Paul II knew the place well. Why doesn't Francis? For answers, AP asks its sources about Francis' mindset, his South American heritage, and how politics and economics may influence his relations with the United States.

"Francis’ lack of firsthand experience of the United States stands out for many, especially those struggling to absorb his unsparing critique of the excesses of global capitalism and wondering whether this first Latin American pope harbors resentment about the history of US policies in his native region," AP says.

Nor does the article just pontificate, as it were. It gets live quotes from its sources:

‘‘This trip to the United States will be the most difficult, the most challenging, and the most interesting because he’s exploring a world that for him is more foreign than Asia, than the Philippines,’’ where Francis traveled last January, said Massimo Faggioli, an expert in church history at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. ‘‘It’s not just a language barrier. It’s a cultural barrier.’’

Later, AP quotes Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, an Argentinian and advisor to Francis, saying that the pope admires the ideals of the United States. But he also sees the cozy history of the U.S. with Latin America dictators, and the damage that runaway capitalism has caused to the poor, according to Sanchez Sorondo:

‘‘I don’t think the pope has anything against America,’’ Sanchez Sorondo said in Rome. ‘‘What the pope might have is that he felt the repercussions of America in Latin America.’’

AP even looks at personal reasons for Francis not traveling much at all: his love for his homeland, his homebody habits on days off when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, his vow never to seek higher church offices, and his belief that a bishop should stay close to the people rather than jetting around.

Another telling detail: Before landing in America, Francis will visit Cuba Sept. 19-22. As AP points out, he helped broker the "historic thaw" that led to the exchange in diplomats between that nation and the U.S.

The story blends an interesting stable of experts. Besides Faggioli and Sanchez Sorondo, it quotes three journalists: a book author, the editor of the Jesuit magazine America and the ubiquitous Father Tom Reese of the National Catholic Reporter. It also references a Q&A with Francis last October, probably from notes by Winfield herself.

For me, this story is a good case in point for the need to read more than one news source. I was all ready to criticize AP for an overly short "indepth" story, short on explanations and quoted sources. Then I found that the version I read, in the Boston Globe, had been cut by more than half.

One overstatement, I think, is how the AP story contrasts Francis' attitude toward the U.S. with those of previous popes. Sure, John Paul visited several times, even before he was elected pope.  AP tries to show how pro-American Pope Benedict XVI was when he said "God bless America" to President Bush. But Benedict visited the U.S. only once, in 2008, as the article itself reports.

Nor has Francis sounded cozy with Europe. As I wrote in December, he scolded the European Parliament on issues like poverty, immigration and joblessness. Some of that speech echoed Laborem Exercens, John Paul's 1981 letter that criticized capitalism for allowing "flagrant injustices" to workers. So the rift between Francis and the West, at least in this case, may not be that great.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't point out the lack of moral and religious references. As the Pew Forum and others have shown, American Catholics members often disagree openly with Church teachings about abortion, gay marriage, priestly celibacy and women's ordination. And a new Pew survey, announced today, says that most U.S. parishioners are OK with cohabitation, contraceptives and children being raised by divorced parents.

This was a frequent complaint of John Paul, and American attitudes haven't changed in the Francis era. I can only guess it wasn't included here because it would have added several paragraphs to an already-long article.

Well, here I go again, waxing long on perceived flaws after complimenting an article. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is other than a fine piece of journalism: incisive but not cynical, the work of seasoned reporters. Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. The original, not the chopped-up Globe version.

Picture: Caricature of Pope Francis by Donkey Hotey via Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

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