Nashville Tennessean

Facing the heart of Jean Vianney: Reporters should be careful when covering saints and prayer

Facing the heart of Jean Vianney: Reporters should be careful when covering saints and prayer

This post is brought to you by the letter “V” — as in “veneration.”

Trust me, as someone who has made the journey from being a Southern Baptist preacher’s son to ancient Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I am well aware that talking about prayer and the saints is a theological minefield. Part of the problem is that some Catholics do, from time to time, use language that is a bit, well, sloppy or sentimental when talking about the saints. This then lights fuses for many Protestants who are quick to attack centuries of tradition seen in ancient churches.

Now, mix in a news hook that involves “relics” and you have the potential for mistakes that can cause waves of angry emails to the newsroom.

So here is the Gannett Tennessee wire story that I want to praise. The headline in the Knoxville News-Sentinel version: “Why the (literal) heart of Saint Jean Vianney is coming to Knoxville.”

NASHVILLE — Catholics in Tennessee are lining up to see a relic of a nineteenth century French priest.

The heart of Saint Jean Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, is traveling the country and making a one-day stop at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville. … On Wednesday, the heart relic was at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.

After the morning Mass wrapped up, churchgoers stood single file in the center aisle waiting to take in the small, dark object nestled in an ornate, gold case. The relic is considered to be the physical, incorrupted heart of Vianney, who died Aug. 4, 1859.

The faithful took turns quietly kneeling before the relic under the watchful eye of a member of the Knights of Columbus. The fraternal Catholic organization is not only sponsoring the relic's seven-month tour of the U.S., but guarding it while on public display.

Right. The big word is “kneeling.” Here in the Bible Belt that kind of language, and action, can make lots of people sweat.

But the story quickly turns to the Rev. Edward Steiner, pastor of the Nashville cathedral, for an explanation of what is happening and what is NOT happening:

The Catholics who approached the relic are not worshiping it, Steiner said, but venerating it.

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United Methodists punt on sexuality; some journalists try to cover from their newsrooms

United Methodists punt on sexuality; some journalists try to cover from their newsrooms

The United Methodist bishops punted.

This tense flock committee-fied. Kicked the can down the road.

All those clichés were coined for news events like the United Methodist Church conference this week. The Methodists faced a choice: to allow gays to be ordained and married in the church, as other old-line Protestant denominations have done; or to keep the belief that both are "incompatible with Christian teaching," as the denomination has said for more than four decades.

Either option might have split the denomination, especially in an era in which the denomination is in decline in America and growing in the more conservative Global South. So the conference voted instead to have a committee study the matter further.

Let's see how mainstream media covered the decision, starting with the Religion News Service -- which, again, distinguishes itself with onsite coverage in Portland, Ore., rather than just phones, emails and bits of other articles.

This 1,100-word article interweaves updates, background and balanced sourcing. It points out, for one, that the delegates did more than simply delay the day of reckoning. Instead, they allowed bishops to have a commission re-examine all references to sexuality in the Book of Discipline, their basic rulebook.

The ambivalent wording reflects denominational worries:

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And this just in! Southern Baptists still convinced Christianity has been correct on marriage for 2,000 years

And this just in! Southern Baptists still convinced Christianity has been correct on marriage for 2,000 years

I think it is time for a moratorium on the use of the word "rail" by mainstream journalists, or at least by those who are not writing editorial columns or essays for advocacy publications.

Maybe it is time to say that we should only rail unto others as we would like them to rail unto us.

Now, I know that the word "rail" is legitimate and can be used accurately. I am simply saying that there is a high test for communications that can be accurately described with this word. Consider the following online dictionary material:


rail ... verb (used without object)
1. to utter bitter complaint or vehement denunciation ... to rail at fate. complain or protest strongly and persistently about. "he railed at human fickleness"

Elsewhere, you can find synonyms such as to "fulminate against, inveigh against, rage against, speak out against, make a stand against" and so forth. Now, some of those are fairly neutral and others capture the way this term is commonly used in news reporting. I think "rage against" is the hot-button concept.

So with that in mind, consider this USA Today report about the current Southern Baptist Convention conference on the dark side of family life in a post-Sexual Revolution world. 

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