Pod people: What was top 2013 story for Pope Francis?

I am sure that GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked to know that the Godbeat professionals in the Religion Newswriters Association selected the election of Pope Francis Superstar as the top religion-news story of 2013. It goes without saying that Pope Francis was also named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

Click here to read the official RNA release about the Top 10 stories of the year.

Faithful GetReligion readers will also be shocked, shocked to know that I understood the logic of the RNA vote, but had a slightly different take on the top news event or trend in 2013.

And finally, GetReligion podcast patrons will be shocked, shocked to know that host Todd Wilken and I dissected all of this material, and more, in this week’s “Crossroads” episode. Please click here to listen to that.

So here is my logic about this No. 1 story vote.

Of course I understand that the election of Pope Francis produced more headlines and glowing ink over the last year than any other religion-beat story. In terms of mainstream news coverage, the election of the charismatic, yet walk-his-talk humble, pope had to be one of the most powerful earthquakes in this past year’s news — period.

But stop and think about it.

How long has it been since the occupant of St. Peter’s throne resigned his post? That would be 600 years or so, right? Thus, one could make the case that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was one of the most important stories in Catholicism, and thus, Western Christianity in, well, decades — at the very least. Try to imagine the long-term ramifications of Benedict’s astonishing exit.

So how can a story be one of the most important stories in Western religion in DECADES and not be the most important religion story of the YEAR?

I know, I know. Pope Francis was the religion-news earthquake of 2013 and that’s that. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI finished in second place.

Well, I have one more angle I would like readers to pause and consider. Here’s how I put it in this week’s “On Religion” column for the Universal Uclick syndicate:

… Here is an interesting question to ponder: Based on his own words and actions, what 2013 event or trend would Pope Francis have selected as the most important?

As the year came to a close, it appeared the pope’s attention was increasingly focused on the persecution of believers around the world, especially endangered Christian minorities in Egypt, Syria and throughout the Middle East. In a sermon on Nov. 28, he even urged his listeners to recall that when people are forbidden to worship, and faith is driven from public life, the end times could be near.

“What does this mean? It will be like the triumph of the prince of this world: the defeat of God. It seems that in that final moment of calamity, he will take possession of this world, that he will be the master of this world,” he said, in remarks that drew little commentary from world media.

When this happens, explained Pope Francis, “religion cannot be spoken of, it is something private, no? Publicly it is not spoken about. The religious signs are taken down. The laws that come from the worldly powers must be obeyed. You can do so many beautiful things except adore God.”

Pope Francis talking about the power of the prince of this world (think Satan), the Second Coming of Christ and the end of all things? I am sure you read about that sermon in your local newspaper. Not.

The pope must think that the rising tide of religious oppression is a pretty big deal.

In other words, I am convinced that — if he had been allowed to vote in the RNA poll — Pope Francis would have said that the year’s most important event or trend was the rising threat to religious freedom around the world, often expressed with swords, bullets and firebombs, as well as legislation. In particular, he has been vocal about the crushing oppression that Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians increasingly faced this year in the Middle East.

So where did that trend place in the RNA poll?

Click here to read the rest of my column on the results. And enjoy the podcast.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • fredx2

    To state it bluntly, the media ALWAYS gets the story exactly backwards when it comes to the Catholic church. They called JP II a medieval cretin – and 5 milliion people came to his funeral, and he will be made a saint.
    However, five little words made Pope Francis the darling of the media. If he had done nothing else or said nothing else, these five words would have launched him into media super stardom
    .”Who am I to judge”. As long as the Pope says nothing to contradict that, he will be the media’s favoritest pope ever. If he says something to contradict it, or makes statements against gay marriage, suddenly there will be stories about how poorly the sex abuse situation was handled in Buenos Aires, how the curia is in disarray, and the scandals at the Vatican Bank.
    Remember, right after his election, when they thought he was just another conservative, they tried to smear him with collusion with the dictators in Argentina, they began talking about the sex abuse situation in Argentina, saying that it had not been handled correctly. They made fun of him for talking about the Devil.
    All that goes away, so long as the Pope stays on the “correct path”

  • FW Ken

    The RNA list is about celebrity and pop culture as much as religion. Last I looked, Nelson Mandela (#6)was a secular story. And while the Boy Scouts adhere to a generic “God”, the real hook was the gay angle (#9). The RNA might have at least included religious reactions to the forward march of gay marriage (#3). Next time someone objects to GetReligion including abortion and gay marriage as religious issues, point to the RNA list. It was nice to include the condemnation of the Boston bombing by Muslims (#10). I do think I read an article that mentioned it.

    News flash: A full 20% of American Jews say they have no religion (#8); that’s a shocker when you consider that only 20% of Americans say they have no religion. Yes, religious violence made the cut (#7), with even a limited nod to murdered Christians (but only by Muslims, not the atheists of North Korea).

    As to the popes, I agree that they reversed the importance of Benedict’s resignation and Francis’ election. Arguably, they could have been two facets of one story. However, the real story is how remarkably wrong they are about Francis, from the left (“Who am I to judge”) to the right (MARXIST!). They are also wrong about Benedict, but that’s been true all along. You still read people who blame him for doing nothing about the sex scandals, but he reviewed 3000 cases and the only ones not laicized were out-of-ministry anyway, too old and feeble to worry about. He also put Marciel out to pasture. Poor Benedict, a quiet theologian sandwiched between two charismatic, larger than life popes.

    Style over substance.

  • Julia B

    Agreed on not considering Benedict’s resignation as the BIG story of the last several years/decades. When I was young, I hardly knew who the Pope was; most Catholics paid it scant attention because it didn’t seem to affect us. Since Vatican II, the coming of trans-Atlantic cable,satellite TV and jet travel, that has all changed. Benedict saw the handwriting on the wall and made way for what was needed in the new situation. Huge event. I think he also saw the need to broaden candidates for Pope beyond Europe which is becoming less Christian by the day.

    Here is a perfectly horrid article from the Associated Press about how Francis (who I admire to distraction) is dressing more simply for Christmas than Benedict. Doh! Benedict was wearing what Popes have traditionally worn for hundreds of years. He didn’t invent it. Rather than imply that Benedict liked fancy clothes, why not say that Francis is changing the customary garb of the Popes? Why this need to impugn Benedict? I don’t get it.

    http://photoblog.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/12/25/22047865-pope-francis-simple-style-on-christmas-offers-sharp-contrast-to-benedicts-ornate-garb?lite&lite=obnetwork

    Here’s a photo of the real icon of the liberal press – John XXIII, who convoked Vatican II. He was still being carried around in a traditional chair with ostrich plume flabella waving to keep flies away from him! Even Paul VI was carried around on a chair; so why was JPII not given credit for getting rid of the ostrich feathers and going to a Popemobile instead?

    Note the clothes worn by John XXIII that AP mocks when Benedict wore them.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_John_XXIII

    John XXIII carried on a chair with flabella nearby to shoo away flies.
    http://akseac.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/20120920nw1659.jpg

  • Julia B

    Want to make sure nobody thinks I’m dissing John XXIII; just pointing out traditional Pope garb and customs. Lawyers in England wear funny white wigs, academics wear funny head gear and robes at commencement, our judges wear black robes. These are all traditional garb; not the personal clothing choices of the folks who wear them.

  • Darren Blair

    One of the biggest controversies surrounding the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is that all too often, musicians who were actually influential in their respective genres find themselves passed over in favor of less influential but better-known and/or more “popular” musicians. For example, although Richie Valens was one of the biggest figures of his era, he didn’t make it in until 2001 despite having been eligible for induction since the Hall first opened in the 1980s. Or there was U2 getting in a full year before Black Sabbath. Then there’s Ringo Starr being the only “classic” Beatle not in the Hall for his solo career. Et cetra.

    So it seems to be with the resignation of Pope Benedict: the media was in such a rush to heap honors on a name that was still in the public eye that they forgot about the person who even made it possible for Pope Francis to even be Pope in the first place.

  • Howard

    “… Here is an interesting question to ponder: Based on his own words and actions, what 2013 event or trend would Pope Francis have selected as the most important?”

    Arguably, “youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old”, with the odds of such a random nonsense answer increasing dramatically if he is making informal or impromptu remarks or if he is allowing a solitary atheist to give the only account of his comments.

    The answer you give, tmatt, is probably what he would say if he sat down and gave long, hard, serious attention to the question, as he did to the writing of the encyclical, for example: the Dr. Jekyll Pope Francis. It’s the Mr. Hyde Pope Francis who was made Man of the Year, though.

  • Katalina

    I agree with Darren and Julia. Benedict should have been the top newsmaker simply because of the fact that his resignation was in itself historical. Francis in all fairness would have come in second. What the meds Catholic or no seem to keep forgetting that if Benedict had NOT resigned there would be no Francis to gush over and I say that because of the personality cult he now has around him and this is why Benedict is treated with dismissive. Francis is a Breathe of Fresh Air. if I hear that once more I will scream. This is all abut the new pope’s outward gestures with the people nothing else. Under Benedict people actually thought and pondered with Francis like John Paul it is back to the gushy emotional sentimentality. What a shame and pity.

    • Julia B

      Different Popes have different personalities and different life experiences. They don’t run for office. The college of cardinals looks to what they think is needed in the current time frame. Benedict took on the abuse scandal and Maciel – he got no credit for doing that. It may take 100 years for that to be recognized. Meantime Francis is restoring a nice feeling now that the heavy lifting has been done by Benedict. That’s important, too.


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