Theology, ESPN, then a terrible headline: 'The thing that Jesus does best is second chances'

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Over the years, I have read many news stories about men finding their way into the priesthood.

As you would expect, I hear about many of these features because of emails from GetReligion readers. It is extremely common for these emails to include a comment that sounds something like this: Ah, come on! How can journalists write about men becoming priests (or women becoming nuns) without including a single mention of Jesus?

That's a good question. This is one kind of story in which a person's religious experience is a crucial part of the news equation. I think it's safe to assume that having some kind of mystical relationship with Jesus -- also known as "The Lord" -- does play a role in these career choices. The word "God" often shows up in these news reports, but rarely, well, the "J-word."

That brings me to a recent "Acts of Faith" piece at The Washington Post that ran with this headline: "Fired by ESPN for a racist headline, he’s finding his second chance as a Catholic priest."

To cut to the chase: This is a very fine story and, yes, Jesus does get a shout out. My only complaint about this story is that it was not accompanied by some kind of longer Q&A feature. This is a man with a unique story to tell and, with his journalism background, an interesting skill set to bring to the priesthood.

To set the stage, Anthony Federico's life in journalism changed because he accidentally wrote a racist headline about Jeremy Lin, whose meteoric rise at the New York Knicks was one of the hottest sports stories of 2012. Federico's job in the editorial process included writing headlines and he didn't have a safety net. He clicked "save" and the flawed headline went live.

That set up this amazing sequence of life changes.

Then the barrage of social media outrage started, and he saw what he had done.
“I went to the bathroom and vomited,” he said at the time, describing the sickening realization that he had inadvertently made a racist pun that was now circling the world. What came next was predictable: As angry emails poured in from readers all over the world, Federico was fired from his dream job in sports media.
What came after that, however, was not predictable at all. Five years past the night he thought had ruined his life, Federico is on the brink of becoming a Catholic priest.
Now, he’s preaching the gospel of second chances.
“Looking back, I think God allowed this to happen to me to put me on a path to being a priest, a path that I was avoiding,” said Federico, now 33. “I’ve never been happier.”

The minute I read that passage, I immediately wondered the degree to which this Post feature would dig into the crucial words "a path that I was avoiding."

I also wondered if the story would note the irony that Lin was an unusual NBA star, not just because of the Asian angle, but because of his outspoken Christian faith.

That would be check. And check.

Federico and Lin had lunch after the outcry, and he said Lin accepted his explanation that he had no racial connotations in mind when he wrote the headline. The two men, both devout Christians, ended up spending most of their lunch talking about faith, Federico said. ...

“Everyone thinking of me as a bad person, an evil person -- it was the worst 30 days of my life,” Federico said in a coffee shop in Brookland recently. ...
“To think I could be in a place now where I’m genuinely happy with my life and excited about serving the people of God -- if you told me that then, I wouldn’t have believed it. I think the thing that Jesus does best is second chances.”

The story includes some logical material from the vocational director at the Archdiocese of Hartford, who is helping shepherd Federico through seminary in Washington, D.C. Yes, being a journalist-writer provides a kind of head start when it comes to homiletics classes (as in preaching skills). His ESPN work did require him to tell stories and get to the point.

This raises another question: How did he end up in journalism in the first place?

That's where the story ends, with some interesting dialogue about this man's lifelong love of sports, and the church. The tension was always there. The fatal ESPN headline focused new attention on a conflict that Federico was already feeling.

Landing the role at ESPN was a dream job. Yet once he got there, he wasn’t satisfied.
“I thought I had everything I was supposed to have to be happy. But I would lay awake at night, thinking, ‘What am I missing?’ ” he said. He threw himself into volunteer work. He started thinking back to his Catholic school upbringing and his college major in theology.
As the call to the priesthood felt stronger and stronger, he found himself bargaining in his head with God. “I remember just driving to work every day thinking, ‘You can’t be serious, God. I know what you’re saying to me, [but] I’m in the media. This is what we’ve settled on.’ ”

Note: He majored in theology. But he also loved sports and journalism.

What an interesting story. By all means, read it all.

MAIN IMAGE: Screenshot from ESPN.

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