One year ago today, Pope Francis was elected head of the Catholic Church, and a media feeding frenzy surrounding him began. We have now had twelve months of endless storytelling on this Pope, yet because so much of that coverage has based on shoddy, inaccurate reporting, one has to question whether most people have an accurate picture of who the man really is. In fact it has been so bad, that he himself recently commented in an interview that he doesn’t like the way he’s being portrayed in the media as if he is some sort of Superman [which is good, because I’m not resigning from that post any time soon.]
This morning for example, NPR aired a report on “Morning Edition” from senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggoli in Rome, marking the first Pope-versary of this pontificate. Poggoli began by contrasting Pope Francis with his predecessors, referring to the latter as “doctrinal conservatives”. She never mentioned of course, that Pope Francis has not actually changed any Church “doctrine”, a term which the media uses almost exclusively as code for “teachings about sex”.
In the course of her piece, Poggoli spoke to two people: the president of “Catholics for A Free Choice”, a heretical pro-abortion organization funded in part by pornographer Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Foundation, and a priest from the personal prelature of Opus Dei. The former heads a small group with no standing whatsoever in the Church, yet was given two opportunities to talk about his impressions of Pope Francis and what he expects this Pope to do. The Opus Dei priest was allowed about 20 seconds to briefly compare the personal speaking styles of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, and Blessed Pope John Paul II: that’s it. I must confess, I was totally underwhelmed by this so-called journalism.
Catholics who are active in their faith know that there are other media outlets one can turn to, when it comes to getting actual news reporting on Pope Francis, rather than advocacy disguised as journalism. Yet that figure, whatever it may be, is not a significant enough percentage of the market to make much of a difference on mainstream media reporting. I suspect this is partially due to a regrettable tendency among some Catholics to be insular, and pat ourselves on the back saying, “At least *we* know what the truth is.” However if we have learned anything from Pope Francis over the past year, that excuse for doing little or nothing simply isn’t enough.
In looking back over twelve months of stories about Pope Francis, we can see that rank-and-file Catholics are going to need to take greater advantage of those “water cooler” opportunities with friends and contemporaries to clear up misconceptions arising out of bad journalistic practices. Agenda-based reporting against the Church is nothing new, of course. Ask yourself when was the last time you heard a mainstream media reporter try to explain *why* the Catholic Church is pro-life, instead of just treating the term like a scarlet letter that can be pinned to a cassock.
What we have already learned in the first year of Pope Francis’ pontificate is that he wants us to go outside of our comfort zones to bring other people in. From the poor to the marginalized to the disaffected, Pope Francis is making an effort by what he says and does, to remind us that the Gospel is not something we are supposed to remember only when we want to feel good about ourselves. We do not share the message of Jesus Christ with others, if we sit home encased in a comfy cocoon, facing no challenges and thereby refusing to grow in faith.
Perhaps today then, when your luncheon companions are discussing current events and bring up this anniversary, you might buck up the courage to engage in conversation about who Pope Francis really is. Why not take advantage of the opportunity, when you run into your neighbor at the post office and talk about the news, to discuss what Pope Francis stands for as the head of the Catholic Church. It won’t get you on CNN or ABC, let alone NPR, but at least you’ll be educating someone on why they should reject the media cartoon character we have all been presented with over the past year.