The New York Times got it right: Faith had something to do with Sister Ruth Pfau's ministry

If you drew up a list of the 10 most common complaints made by GetReligion readers about mainstream religion news coverage, this would be one of them.

The complaint: Why do so many journalists ignore the role that faith plays in the lives of prominent and inspirational figures, especially when writing major profiles or, most symbolically, in their obituaries?

No, we're not just talking about sports heroes and entertainers.

In this latest case, we are talking about one of the world's most courageous Catholic nuns, the woman often called the "Mother Teresa of Pakistan." Here is the top of a major report from Al Jazeera:

Tributes are pouring in for a German nun who spent more than half a century in Pakistan battling leprosy and helping the country's most vulnerable people.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi announced in a statement that a state funeral would be held for Ruth Pfau who died on Thursday, aged 87.
"She gave new hope to innumerable people and proved through her illustrious toil that serving humanity knows no boundaries," the statement said. ...
Pfau trained as a doctor in her youth and went on to join a Catholic sisterhood. She arrived in Pakistan, where she spent the rest of her life, in 1960. She specialised in the treatment of leprosy, a disease that causes discolouration of the skin, sores, and disfigurements.

Now, some of the stories -- because of her medical training -- referred to this Catholic hero as "Dr." Ruth Pfau.

However, it took some time to find a report that included a rather important word -- "Sister." As a GetReligion reader noted: "Might this woman's faith have had something to do with her work?"

As we would say here at GetReligion: Just asking.

Frankly, this faith-shaped hole in an Al Jazeera story was a bit of a surprise -- since this news organization often produces reports that take religion very seriously. This particular story did, toward the end, include a snippet of religious language, one that did not require actually talking to a human being.

An obituary notice put up by the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre, which Pfau helped found, said her funeral would take place on Sunday, August 19 at a Christian cemetery in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial centre.
"Let us all pray together that Almighty God may grant [her] eternal rest and her family strength to bear this great loss," the notice read.

I thought that this embedded tweet was also important, in a land as tense and bloodied as Pakistan:

Well, that was Al Jazeera. Surely National Public Radio did a better job?

Well, I have good news and bad news about that. The NPR piece is powerful and opens with the anecdote that, for many, defined Sister Ruth's life. But note the crucial missing word in the lede, which symbolizes the missing elements of this whole piece:

Ruth Pfau was not supposed to go to Pakistan.
The German-born nun and doctor had been sent by her Catholic order to India. But on her way, in 1960, visa hang-ups forced her to stop in the Pakistani city of Karachi — and that was where she encountered the leprosy patient whose plight persuaded her to stay.
"He must have been my age, I was at this time not yet 30," Pfau told the BBC in 2010, "and he crawled on hands and feet into this dispensary, acting as if this was quite normal, as if someone has to crawl there through that slime and dirt on hands and feet, like a dog."

I'm happy to report -- this will shock a few readers -- that the foreign desk of The New York Times did a much better job of handling the faith element of this major story (even with the "Dr." Ruth Pfau reference.

This report even mentions which Catholic order she joined! It's also interesting that Sister Ruth was a convert to Christianity and then to Catholicism.

Here is the crucial, and finely detailed, section of the biographical section of the Times obituary:

As a teenager, she barely survived Allied bombing, which severely damaged her home during World War II. She was inspired to become a doctor shortly after the war, when her baby brother became ill and died. She escaped from the Soviet Occupation Zone in 1948 and followed her father to Wiesbaden, in West Germany, to study gynecology at the University of Mainz and in Marburg.
At college, after meeting an elderly Christian concentration camp survivor who had devoted the rest of her life to preaching love and forgiveness, she rejected a marriage proposal from a fellow student. She was baptized in the evangelical tradition, converted to Catholicism and joined the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary in 1957.
“When you receive such a calling, you cannot turn it down, for it is not you who has made the choice,” she told The Express Tribune. “For it is not you who has made the choice. God has chosen you for himself.”

Again, look at the details in that passage, including the encounter with the concentration camp survivor.

The piece ends with this unforgettable detail:

Her only wish was that she would not experience a violent death. (She died peacefully, and with no immediate survivors). She expressed no regrets about her life.
“Leading a life committed to service does protect the soul from wounds,” she said. “These are the workings of God.”

The nun's desire for a peaceful death raises another issue that I would like to raise, as a final note.

Pakistan is, to be blunt, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian, let alone a Christian leader. It's blasphemy laws are notoriously vague and dangerous. Click here for a BBC report on that.

While the stories stress, with good cause, the affection many Pakistanis felt for this remarkable woman, it might have been good to have included ways in which her work was affected by tensions with radical forms of Islam that are active in that tense culture.

After all, as recently as a few weeks ago, a major Catholic voice in that land -- Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shaw -- openly discussed the impact of persecution on Christians in Pakistan. He mentioned one infamous event that, alas, does not stand alone:

Shaw cited the aftermath of a 2013 incident in which 100 homes in a Christian neighborhood of Lahore, known as the Joseph Colony, were burned to the ground by an enraged Muslim mob after allegations of blasphemy toward a Christian man.

Why did Sister Ruth fear violent death? How did religious tensions surrounding her affect her life and work?

It's clear -- from the Times report -- that she carried on. And, yes, faith had something to do with this remarkable nun's ministry to the least of these.

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