Is pro-life state of the union homily a story? In Francis era?

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As I type this with my cold fingers (starting at about 12:30 p.m.), the sun is out here in Washington, D.C., but the temperature is still a frosty 14 degrees. Suffice it to say it has been a cold morning after a night of wild weather here in Beltway land.

My office in the District’s Northeast quadrant is only about a 10 minute walk from the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, because I’ve been in class all morning, I have no idea how many people were able to make it into the city for the annual March For Life. I imagine that the crowd is smaller than the usual 300,000 or so, in part because the throngs were much smaller than normal last night and early this morning in Union Station (through which I commute).

There will be the usual, and valid, debates about whether the mainstream media did an adequate job of covering the march. If the march was smaller than normal, will that be seen as a fact of the weather or the political climate? Inquiring minds will want to know.

I do know, however, that there was a major story in Washington last night linked to this event. At least, the pre-march Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception should have been a big story for the mainstream press if reporters and editors are serious about the effect of Pope Francis on the pro-life movement and, specifically, how the Catholic Church expresses its teachings about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

Why? The speaker at last night’s Mass was Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Why does that matter so much? More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile here is a sample of the Washington Post story on the pre-march activities:

The March for Life draws mainly high school and college youth groups, many from Catholic schools, and buses from around the country had already poured out thousands who attended a Mass on Tuesday night at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington. Through the night, priests there heard confessions as people held a vigil in the Crypt Chapel of the huge basilica.

Thousands of abortion opponents, many from outside the region, were in Catholic Masses on Wednesday morning, praying, receiving confession and listening to music before heading for the Mall, where a concert and rally are scheduled to run from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Seventh Street. Marchers, as they do each year, will head up Capitol Hill at 1 p.m. to the Supreme Court, where they hold a prayer vigil and are always met by a handful of abortion rights supporters and inevitable debate and discussion. …

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of the country’s best-known church leaders — he is also Boston’s archbishop and an adviser to Pope Francis — spoke at the Tuesday night Mass. And movement leaders noted that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had rejiggered the schedule of the party’s winter meeting Wednesday morning to allow delegates to attend the march.

First things first. What, pray tell, does it mean for these believers to be “receiving confession” before the march? Penitents will “receive absolution,” but they do not “receive confession.” Might this be a rather obvious typo that made it into the story? Surely this was supposed to have said that these Catholics “received Communion” in numerous settings before the march? Just asking.

Here’s my other question: So Cardinal O’Malley was there, but what did he SAY in this sermon at this highly symbolic Mass? After all, the sermon was on television (which was convenient on such a cold and snowy night). Did editors at the Post actually assign coverage of the event itself?

Now, let’s compare the Post language and factual information about this event with that of veteran Catholic-beat scribe Rocco Palmo at the Whispers in the Loggia website. This is long, but essential:

Always given on the eve of the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion in the US — and the 22 January March for Life — the homily at the National Vigil Mass for Life in Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is invariably one of the most significant messages from an American Catholic leader in light of the issue’s centrality to the church’s public witness.

This year, however, the preach’s prominence and import is even bigger still. While Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley OFM Cap. returned to the pulpit for his second year as USCCB chair for Pro-Life Activities, of course, events outside that role since last time — the ascent of Francis and the Pope’s designation of the 69 year-old cardinal as his principal North American adviser — have recast the context, both in terms of the ecclesial turf and, indeed, the negative perceptions of the new pontiff maintained by some of the base’s more vocal exponents.

So O’Malley isn’t just an “adviser to Pope Francis,” he’s the leader of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops here at the beginning of the Pope Francis era. Also, as this media-superstar pope begins a period of reformation in Vatican bureaucracies, O’Malley is the North American who has been placed at the center of the process.

So, yes, this is not your ordinary homily. This one really matters, if news consumers are interested in what Pope Francis is truly saying about this issue. This homily was a news event.

Back to Palmo for more information about the setting:

In years past, the March Eve homily reflected a tone akin to a “State of the Union” speech for the pro-life movement: a pep talk brimming with applause-lines to affirm and prod on the faithful. But this time around, O’Malley drove a very different message, a shift underscored by his choice of Gospel for tonight’s Mass — John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery … and most pointedly, those who would seek to judge her.

Accordingly, the cardinal received no applause until he finished, and compared with the customary vibe in the room, the ovation was palpably tepid at that. …

Working in numerous citations from the Argentine who’s since become Pope — and going beyond abortion to touch on life issues ranging from adoption to poverty and immigration — here’s full video of O’Malley’s preaching tonight before the packed Shrine, its 5,000 seats overflowed into the usual standing-room crowd despite several inches of snow.

Through the night, “Mary’s House” traditionally becomes the capital’s biggest hotel as, by the thousands, marchers take up every inch of the nation’s largest church with sleeping bags to keep vigil. …

So, even with the wild weather, one of the world’s largest sanctuaries was still jammed? There was tension in that massive space as O’Malley related church teachings on abortion to a wide range of social, cultural and moral issues?

Sounds like a story to me. Perhaps Post editors should have assigned someone to cover the speech?

Well, we do have the video. And veteran Godbeat writer Ann Rodgers — now a press aide and educator with the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh — was there to tweet throughout the event. Sample?

And also:

And also:

Cold fingers and all, Rodgers is also serving up a stream of newsy tweets from the march itself. Turn in, if you want coverage.

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.

  • FW Ken

    I’ve read two sources today, including the WaPo story, that refer to “thousands” coming for the March, although it will certainly be tens of thousands; in a normal year, hundred of thousands would not be inaccurate. To include concurrent matches nationwide, it will certainly be hundreds of thousands.

    It will be interesting to look for a piece that covers the story from a nationwide perspective.

    • FW Ken

      Yep, Diane Sawyer just announced that “thousands” were there for the March. Then she gave us Pres. Obama’s statement praising Roe v. Wade. End of story.

      • Kodos

        On my drive home, ABC radio said that “thousands” were at the March for Life; no exact figures were stated and later my rudimentary attempts to find out the attendance numbers online came up empty-handed.

        When I got home I turned on MSNBC. The host was talking to a woman from “Rolling Stone” about how abortion rights are being rolled backwards. Later I switched to CNN and heard Anderson Cooper devote a significant portion of his show to the “breaking story” of the lady in Texas who died when pregnant. Her husband wants to disconnect her from life support but state law prevents it. His lawyers released information today (!) that the baby is severely deformed, and thus it’s terrible that Texas anti-abortion laws are so draconian.

        I can’t find much of anything about the march. It must not be very important. Nothing about the Pope, either.

        It’s days like today that I really lose hope in the future of journalism in our country. It’s discouraging beyond measure.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    I wonder–since reporters who can’t tell the difference between confession and absolution in the Catholic Church are sent out to cover Catholics in the news–would reporters who can’t tell the difference between a home run and a single in baseball be sent to cover the World Series.???


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