Somewhere, there must be the assignment editor who harbors the wish of finding Pope Francis at an outdoor table of a sidewalk cafe on the Via Fosse di Castello enjoying a dish of spaghetti carbonara with a cardinal or two.
That would be an ultimate achievement in the pope-as-a-regular-guy exercise of the past few weeks.
We can be grateful for the coverage in newspapers, television and on websites. But the media is as likely to fall out of love as quickly as they were to fall in love with the new pope. This will come when Pope Francis does something seen as conservative or heavy-handed, perhaps reaffirming a doctrine of the faith.
Here are some clues, gleaned from the experience of more than a few decades in the secular press of how to evaluate this star quality image associated with our new pope.
The media creates characters, personalities and then supports it by coverage. The pope’s turn came more rapidly than experienced by other world leaders, athletes or entertainers.
Soon after he first appeared on the balcony, it was decided that Pope Francis was a touch more informal than his predecessors. Soon there were reports about him as a man who pays his own hotel bills, makes his own telephone calls, chooses to live in an apartment rather than a palace, moves into crowds and kisses babies.
Other things he does as a “normal person” will be reported to add to this public personality. But the time will come when he acts against this media-created personality. Eventually Pope Francis will “disappoint.”
Headlines about the pope’s washing of feet of men and women resulted in headlines such as “Pope disregards church law” and “Pope breaks church law.” He did not. There are laws and there are customs and traditions, the Holy Thursday liturgy being one of the latter. But the coverage portrayed something revolutionary.
So it must follow that a man who can do this can surely tackle same-sex marriage, celibacy of priests and women’s ordination to the satisfaction of the trendsetters. Failure to do this makes him act against his character of the nice guy.
The church is not an easy institution to report about. In fact, Pope Francis remarked on this in a talk to thousands of journalists shortly after his election.
“The church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual: the church is the people of God, the holy people of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ. Only from this perspective can a satisfactory account be given of the church’s life and activity,” he said.
“It is important, dear friends, to take into due account this way of looking at things, this hermeneutic, in order to bring into proper focus what really happened in these days.”
In other words: You have to know what you are reporting.
The media, fascinated by what he did on Holy Thursday, was intrigued by the huge crowds at his first Easter Mass and “urbi et orbi” address. It did make one cringe to hear a network television correspondent say Pope Francis “delivered” Mass to a quarter million people.
Pope Francis urged people to join him in praying to be transformed by the power of God’s love and mercy and to help “change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace.”
Those three changes urged by the pope should receive more attention than his actions.
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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