Pod people: So what could reporters cover during Lent?

Long, long ago, back at the beginning of Lent, I put up a post that asked a simple question: In all of those stories about more and more Americans deciding to “do Lent,” what did it actually mean to say that one was going to “do Lent”?

The answer, of course, was that whole “give up one thing for Lent” deal, the whole do-it-yourself plan in which an individual creates his or her own personal Lenten challenge. The problem, as you may recall, was that this pseudo-tradition actually has nothing to do with the traditional spiritual disciples (click here for a modernized list from the Western church) linked through the ages with the observance of Great Lent — such as prayer, worship, fasting, alms giving, acts of penitence, etc.

But the create-your-own-Lent thing is very, very American and it’s quirky, creative and even funny, at least as practiced by lots of Americans who, well, enjoy strutting their Lent stuff in social media.

Now we are reaching the end of the season of Lent and we’re heading into Holy Week. Thus, Crossroads podcast host Todd Wilken and I kind of looked in the rear-view mirror at Lent 2014 this week and discussed that the mainstream press could have done this time around, in terms of Lenten news coverage. Click here to listen in.

The bottom line: What could news pros have done instead of merely focusing — as I mentioned in a second post linked to Lent, the one with the infamous Hooters sign picture — on a few style-page features on fried fish and other matters related to food? What else was there to cover that was newsworthy, in any conventional sense of the word?

Well, Wilken and I concluded that the key word was “confession.” No, seriously.

Now, “confession” — or penitence in general — is a big part of Lent, as understood by the church through the ages. But how is that topic newsworthy?

Good question. I thought of two potential story hooks.

First of all, the ongoing collapse in the number of Roman Catholics who go to confession — ever — is one of the biggest and most important stories in the life of the church today. Remember that wise old D.C. priest I interviewed who, when asked to evaluate the whole “Catholic voter” angle in political coverage, stressed that the press needs to understand that there are really four different kinds of Catholic in American life today. Remember his typology? Here is a simplified version with the politics trimmed out:

* Ex-Catholics.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish.

* The “sweats the details” Catholic who goes to confession, is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This, however, is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

Now look at that final, tiny group of Catholics and remember that Catholics are supposed to go to confession at least once a year — with Lent being the perfect time to do so.

Thus, The U.S. Catholic bishops have in recent years created a “The Light Is On For You” campaign — referring to the light in a confession booth showing that a priest is on duty — to try to encourage Catholics to come to confession and, thus, practice the full cycle of the sacraments of their faith.

This is an important story, a hook for coverage that is right at the heart of Lent. I keep expecting coverage, but, once again, I saw little to none on this real Lenten topic.

And meanwhile, what about those Protestants who are giving Lent a try? What is the role of penitence in their experience of Lent? Are there Anglicans who are returning to confession? Liturgical Lutherans? How about people in Eastern Orthodox churches? I know that there are Orthodox churches in which few people go to confession and others in which this sacrament is alive and well. What’s up with that? Why is this essential practice found in some churches and not others?

Lots of good material to cover — during Lent. Maybe next year?

Enjoy the podcast.

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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.

  • Darren Blair

    They could also potentially have taken a look at which denominations do traditionally practice Lent and which don’t, thereby allowing an opportunity to explain who accepts the practice and why.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Matt, I’ll have to call you on using a poor source for proscribed lenten practices in the Catholic Church. Your link was to About.com…hardly an imprimatur source. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have a page with some Q&A on the practices (http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-resources/lent/questions-and-answers-about-lent.cfm), and the EWTN Catholic broadcasting network offers both scriptural and canon law information at this link (http://www.ewtn.com/faith/lent/fast.htm). You are right that American individualism makes their take on Lent quite wacky, in the least.

    • tmatt

      Thanks for that update. This was written in a tremendous rush.

  • Julia B

    In his homily yesterday, the deacon at my parish seems to have read Get Religion. He was joking about giving up things for Lent. He said that can be good for self-discipline, but he wanted to give us some homework for Holy Week – read Isaiah and other sources in the Old Testament prefiguring Jesus. the “suffering servant”.


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