Pope Francis surprised news media yet again when he flew back from an ecumenical meeting last weekend with 12 new passengers: three families of Syrian refugees.
Francis said the Vatican would sponsor the families and get them settled in Italy, in a clear object lesson for other nations. And the lesson was not lost on mainstream media, which covered the story with grace, sensitivity and intelligence. At least, when they got over being caught off guard again.
Francis came to the Aegean island of Lesbos to visit refugees from the war-ravaged Middle East along with two Eastern Orthodox leaders: Bartholomew I, patriarch of all Orthodoxy, and Ieronymos II, the archbishop of Greece. But as NBC News and other media report, the pope got a last-minute idea to do more: to sponsor three families directly and set an example for the world.
The religious leaders had lunch with eight refugees to hear their stories of fleeing war, conflict and poverty and their hopes for a better life in Europe. Then they prayed together, tossing a floral wreath into the sea in memory of those who didn't make it.
The pope vowed to continue helping refugees.
"Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories, and need to be treated as such," he tweeted Saturday.
Video clips tell the story even more vividly. Euronews shows a man falling at Francis' feet, sobbing "Thank you, thank you." On CNN, a little girl clutches his ankles, apparently in overwhelming gratitude. He then gently lifts her to her feet.
In a poignant follow-up, two NBC reporters profile the families themselves. Some of the article gets a little preachy, such as: "In many respects, Hasan and Nour Essa are like any other parents. They're looking for a good preschool for their 2-year-old son, Riyad, for whom they simply want a normal life." And that was the lede paragraph.
Fortunately, the article gets better as the families tell NBC are clearly stunned by the pope's gesture.
"I was overwhelmed with emotions. No Muslim leader has done what he has done," says one. Echoes another: "What's happening with us, it's like a dream. It's like a beautiful dream." That's a benefit of NBC taking direct interviews, instead of stitching other stories together.
It also yields evocative passages, which make us feel with the families and offers insight on the nature of kindness:
In interviews Sunday with NBC News, the three families, all of them Muslim, expressed a common sentiment: that the pope's passion supersedes his religious doctrine.
"I still don't believe we are here now," said Osama, who fled the Damascus suburb of Zamalka with his wife and two children. "He is the father of peace in the world, and peace has no religion."
Nour Essa said Francis was "more important than any Muslim religious man, because what the pope did with us has never been done by an Arabic leader or by a Muslim religious man."
Francis, she said, "is a real human being. ...He's not like the others."
NBC then narrates the families' stories. One fled to Aleppo after the Syrian government tried to draft the father for the military; then in Aleppo, ISIS tried to do the same. Finally, the father found smugglers to get them to Turkey, then to Lesbos. The report says many of the 850,000 refugees who have funneled through Lesbos in the previous year could tell similar stories.
The main thing I'd differ with is the claim that "the pope's passion supersedes his religious doctrine." No, it's part of his religious doctrine. The reporter should have questioned the source a little more closely at that point.
Francis made clear his beliefs about refugees in a video message today, reported by Agence France-Presse:
"Forgive us the closure and indifference of our societies which fear the changes to our way of life and our way of thinking that your presence requires.
"Treated like a burden, a cost, in reality you are a gift. You bear witness to how our kind and merciful God is able to transform the evil and the injustice afflicting you into something good for everyone.
"Because each and every one of you can be a bridge that brings together people who are far apart, that makes the meeting of different religions and cultures possible."
All of that is consistent with what Pope Francis has said since his election.
Still, I want to end with praise for the coverage of Francis' gesture of compassion. The stories I saw generally told it straight; they set emotional scenes, and they set the background of the general refugee crisis.
I don't know if this story is a beautiful dream; but whenever mainstream media fulfill their mission of helping us understand -- not just absorb info -- it does seem like a dream come true.