The Wrong End of the Telescope

Although the first newspaper I read every morning is The Daily Telegraph, which will come as no surprise to many, the reader may be surprised to learn that, yes, I do read reports and commentary from news outlets whose editorial views are generally not sympathetic to my own: by which I mean, of course, The Manchester Guardian.  So it was a pleasant surprise today to read this opinion piece in The Guardian from commentator Andrew Brown, a man who is neither Catholic nor Spanish, and to find him asking himself the same question I was asking myself last evening.  To wit: why is it that the media are so focused on those tiny numbers of people protesting the Pope and World Youth Day, and not on the stunning success thus far of the event itself, which has attracted gigantic numbers of pilgrims in a way not even the most messianic of American presidents can do?

As regular readers know, an anti-Catholic protest march was planned for Wednesday, and news reports indicate that it attracted roughly 5,000 protestors.  Keep in mind that these same media outlets estimate that somewhere between 1 to 2 million pilgrims are gathering in Madrid for the World Youth Day festivities, which culminate on Sunday. While many people will be headed to Madrid for the Sunday mass, there are already many, many pilgrims in the city.

On Thursday evening the Pope arrived at the Plaza de Cibeles, in central Madrid, to enormous crowds; numbers varied, but all media outlets agreed that the supporters, who braved evening temperatures of 95 F/35 C,  were in the hundreds of thousands.  The same evening, a group of anti-Catholic protestors gathered once again, in the Plaza del Sol, and estimates of the protestors this time ranged from 150-300 people.  News, yes, but hardly news of any great significance.  More people protest the opening of a new Wal-Mart on any given Tuesday.

The efforts by the left to protest the Pope have not had much success in Madrid, which as it happens is also true of the tiny protests mounted during the previous visits this Pope made to Santiago and to Barcelona last year. Not that the media would have you believe this, of course, because no one at the news desks of the major newspapers or television news channels seems to have sat down and thought, “Let’s look at the ratio of supporters to opponents, here, and see how we should be reporting this.” The people of Spain, and the young in particular, have now turned out in what can only be described as droves, on three separate occasions, in three different parts of the country, to see an elderly, soft-spoken German priest and theologian. These undeniable facts defy belief, at least in the mainstream media.

The headline of Mr. Brown’s piece pretty much says it all: “The pope draws 1.5 million young people to Madrid – but that’s not news?” He notes that the BBC and other news outlets have focused on those protesting the Papal visit, but not on the infinitely larger numbers of people there to support it – and particularly the fact that there are so many hundreds of thousands of young people who are celebrating their Christianity together. Mr. Brown’s thesis is that reporters simply do not “get” these young people: the pilgrims are so different, so unlike the reporters themselves, that they cannot relate to them. The reporters can, however, relate to what we might call the “condom crowd”, because the opinions of those types of people, who usually just scream louder than everyone else, make up what is fashionable to report on in the media these days.

Not being a Catholic or a Spaniard of course, Mr. Brown has a slightly different perspective from that of journalist Charo Zarzalejos, who comes from the Basque Country. Sra. Zarzalejos, in a brilliant commentary published today in many news outlets in Spain, points out that the miniscule protests, which have been characterized by, as she puts it, “coarse and vulgar” acts, surprised her, because “the protestors do not raise deeper, more serious arguments.” The protestors Madrid has seen have made, not cogent arguments about religion in general or Catholicism in particular, but “a pathetic attempt to ridicule a religion and a Church that moves thousands and millions of men and women on all continents.” She notes, as does Mr. Brown,  how strikingly unexpected it was to see the well-organized, well-behaved, and happy young people from Spain and the rest of the world, gathered together in Madrid for the celebrations.

It is in this failure to understand Catholicism, I believe, that the media is doing both Spain and the world a great disservice, by ignoring the enthusiasm of these young people, and instead focusing on those who mock them. What Spain needs now, in a very desperate way, is hope for the future, not the childish and vitriolic ravings of diseased minds unable to form cogent arguments or behave civilly.  As Sra. Zarzalejos points out, the “hundreds of thousands of young people who have met in Madrid are hopeful youths, and hope has no price nor does it fall by the taunts of others. Madrid is serving as a good example of this.”  I only wish the mainstream media would stop looking through the wrong end of the telescope, and recognize the same thing.


World Youth Day Pilgrims gathered in the Plaza de Cibeles, Madrid

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