NYTimes: Why did two towns produce so many priests?

At least once a year, a major newsroom in the United States produces a big story about the OTHER Catholic crisis in this land, which is the declining number of men entering the priesthood (and women and men entering religious orders, as well). The American priesthood is getting smaller and older.

It is possible to write this story over and over, year after year, covering the same ground and pretending that this is a “news trend.” However, skilled journalists can find new wrinkles within this decades-old story and, thus, do fresh reporting.

That’s good. And that is clearly what The New York Times national desk was going for in an interesting news feature that ran under the headline. “In Two Michigan Villages, a Higher Calling Is Often Heard.”

So what is the new angle? Well, it appears that there are small, intensely Catholic communities that are producing way more than their share of priests. Why is that? What does that look like on the ground?

What really jumped out at me was that the Times team actually — buried near the end of this piece — came close to discussing a really crucial demographics issue linked to this big story. More on that later.

At the heart of this piece are 26-year-old twin brothers, Gary Koenigsknecht and Todd Koenigsknecht, who are about to be ordained as Catholic priests. The story notes that they will be “two of 477 men in the United States expected to be ordained this year.”

They demonstrate that priestly vocations are not evenly distributed by family or geography: they are among six priests in their extended family, and among 22 from their hometown, Fowler, Mich., population 1,224. They officially tie up the leader board with the neighboring village of Westphalia, population 938, which has also produced 22 priests, making for a robust rivalry in both football and Roman collars.

In an era when the number of priests in the United States continues to dwindle — declining by 11 percent in the past decade and crippling the Catholic Church’s ability to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population — this rural patch of Clinton County offers a case study in the science and mystery of the call to priesthood.

With the older generation of priests dying off, it would take three times as many priestly ordinations as is occurring nationwide to maintain the population of 38,600 priests, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The story updates all of the dire statistics, as it should.

But the strongest material in the piece, from my perspective, is the detailed background information — high up in the report — about what Catholic life is like in these parishes. What’s going on here?

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Nuns, strippers and the never-boring Godbeat

Put another one in the “Godbeat sure ain’t boring” file.

I first read about the dispute between a group of Chicago-area nuns and a neighboring strip club in the Chicago Tribune:

A group of nuns is suing to shut down a strip club next to their convent in Stone Park that the sisters say keeps them awake at night.

The Missionary Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo Scalabrinians say in the suit that Club Allure has ruined their peace with blinking neon lights and loud thumping music. The nuns say they have witnessed drunken fights and found condoms littering the area.

The suit, filed against the club and the village of Stone Park, states that the club violates a state law against operating adult entertainment within 1,000 feet of a school or place of worship. The club is also near houses, and three neighbors have joined the suit.

“I think most people would find that offensive, to put a strip club next to a home for sisters,” said Peter Breen, attorney for the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that filed the suit on behalf of the nuns.

The Tribune offers a straightforward, non-cheeky account of the conflict, highlighting the nuns’ concerns, the tricky legal issues involved and the strip club’s response — all in less than 450 words.

The paper even provides a link to the lawsuit.

All three sources quoted — one each on behalf of the nuns, the municipality and the strip club — are attorneys. While that is entirely proper and journalistically sound, I found myself wishing I could hear directly from a nun. Or even a stripper.

The Chicago Sun-Times did quote a nun (although I’d rank its overall story below the quality of the Tribune’s):

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Arizona Republic gets lots of the Latin Mass details right

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It’s time for a simple test. Yes, this does involve some Latin.

True or false. The following quotation is taken from the Communion passages in the Latin Mass.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccàta mundi; miserère nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccàta mundi; miserère nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccàta mundi; dona nobis pacem.

Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccàta mundi.
Beàti qui ad cenam Agni vocàti sunt.

Yes, this is a bit of a trick question.

Actually, this is a short quotation from the modern Novus Ordo Missae, but drawn from the official foundation text — which is in Latin. Of course, millions of Catholics know this rite through its many official translations, from the Latin, into the languages common in their pews. There are parishes that, with the permission of their local bishops, perform this rite in Latin.

Thus, this quotation is taken from a Latin Mass. But it is not taken from the rite that is commonly known, for millions of older Catholics, as “The Latin Mass.”

Why do I bring this up? For this simple reason: The staff at The Arizona Republic recently waded deep into the details of Catholic liturgy in a lengthy feature story written as part of its coverage of the recent murder of a young priest named Father Kenneth Walker and the savage beating of another priest at the same parish, Father Joseph Terra.

Both were members of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which, as the story explains, is dedicated to Catholic life and worship as expressed in the traditional Tridentine Mass. Here is some background from this long and very detailed story:

In 1988, about a quarter of a century after Vatican II was formed, the new pope, John Paul II, at the urging of conservative Cardinal John Ratzinger, who would later succeed John Paul as Pope Benedict XVI, allowed a limited return to the Tridentine Mass, but only with a bishop’s approval.

(In 2007, Pope Benedict issued what amounted to an executive order allowing any priest to celebrate the Tridentine Mass in any parish.)

Pope John Paul also approved the creation of a new priesthood order, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, named for the Apostle Peter, who is considered the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike other priestly orders, this one would be dedicated to maintaining the tradition of the Latin Mass.

So what is the problem in this story, which, frankly, is way better than the norm? From my perspective there are two issues.

First of all, while the historical details in the story are good, the Republic keeps switching back and forth between calling this rite the Latin Mass, when there are actually several Masses in Latin, and calling it the Tridentine Mass, which is much more specific. Trust me, I know that it is hard to get these details precisely right (I am sure that in this post I will use language that is not accurate enough for insiders), but it is important to be as precise as possible.

Consider the details in this passage. This is long, but crucial.

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Got news? Yes, there was a funeral for Ann B. Davis

I realize that I have written two GetReligion posts (here and then here) about the mainstream press coverage of the life and faith of the late actress Ann B. Davis, who was a friend of mine from my days on the religion beat in Denver. However, I continue to hear from readers who find it amazing that so many journalists spent so much ink on reports about Davis, yet didn’t seem all that interested in her actual life, other than her roles on television screens.

Well, there is that principle again: Television (or politics, or sports) is real and worthy of ink, religion is not so real and, thus, is not so worthy of ink.

The woman we all called Ann B. died at age 88 at home just outside of San Antonio, the home she shared with Episcopal Bishop William C. Frey and his wife Barbara, the final connections of a multi-family, multi-generational household that had been together since the mid-1970s. If you knew anything about Ann B., and especially her love of Bible studies, you will not be surprised to know that she was active in a nearby parish and that people there knew her well.

Thus, I am happy — thankful even — to report that The San Antonio Express-News sent a reporter to cover the her funeral. It is especially fitting that they sent the newspaper’s religion-beat specialist, reporter Abe Levy, rather than someone out of the entertainment pages. The resulting report included content from the words spoken in the funeral, something that cannot be taken for granted in this journalistic day and age. Here is a key chunk of that:

Her spunky personality and Hollywood success laced eulogies at her private funeral Friday morning at her home parish, St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Boerne. Yet, the gathering focused memories on what the speakers called Davis’ exemplary devotion to her faith, especially her decision in mid-career to leave Tinseltown and join an Episcopal community in Denver. …

“The media had a field day” recalling her acting career, said William Frey, 84, a close friend and retired Episcopal bishop, during the homily. “But most of them have missed out on the one thing that has driven her for the last 40 years, and that is her faith.” …

Davis moved with Frey and his wife to San Antonio in 1996. She regularly sang in the choir and rarely missed Bible studies or the church’s morning worship service on Wednesdays.

Direct, and to the point. However, note the reference to Wednesday morning services.

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BBC veteran: You know, the press just doesn’t get religion

Well, here is a gift to a GetReligionista who is on vacation.

I mean, what kind of headline would YOU write on a Press Gazette (over in U.K.) report that opens with the following:

BBC journalist Edward Stourton has said Britain’s lack of appreciation for the importance of religion across the world damages its news coverage.

Stourton, presenter on Radio 4′s religious programme Sunday, believes British journalists have a “blind spot” when it comes to religion, meaning coverage can be “skewed”. He highlighted coverage of the Ukraine crisis, the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria as examples of stories which would be covered better with more understanding of religion.

“I do think that there is a problem with British culture … in the way that we treat religion as a sort of curious ‘ghetto’-like thing,” he told Press Gazette.

“And I don’t say that from the point of view of arguing that religion is a good thing — because very often it’s not. But it does damage our understanding and our ability to perceive stories accurately.”

A blind spot?

You don’t mean a blind spot as in “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” maybe? What do you think?

Basically, this whole interview sounds like a best of global GetReligion re-mix (although I am not claiming that it is a LITERAL echo of work here). But, honestly, you have heard this before, right?

(Stourton) suggested that British news organisations have not considered the importance of the growth of churches in Russia and what Russian nationalism means in coverage of Ukraine. And on Middle East stories, he said “we continually misread the story because we don’t think what a powerful force religion is”.

A consistent theme is that the icy elites that define big media simply do not understand how the rest of the world works. This has always been a problem, when it comes to the facts of journalism, but this chasm between journalists and reality has become a crisis in the past decade or two.

Why is that?

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We don’t need no religion education, or do we?

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I’m on the road this week, sunburned and tuckered out.

So rather than do a normal GetReligion critique, I’m going to ask a couple of journalism questions that are related to what we do here.

First question: Do you know any journalists who could benefit from advanced study of religion?

If so, I have terrific news. The Religion Newswriters Association invites journalists to apply to its Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program. According to an RNA news release, the scholarships give full-time journalists up to $5,000 to take any college religion courses at any accredited institution at any time.

What a deal!

More from the news release:

Religion headlines are dominating news coverage—politics, religion, Islam in America — now is the perfect time to dig deeper into today’s hottest stories. More than 290 people have already taken advantage of RELIGION | NEWSWRITERS’ Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program for Journalists.

Topics reporters have studied include: Religion & Politics in the 20th Century and Beyond, God & Politics, Buddhism in the Modern World, Politics of International Religious Freedom, Religion and Social Justice, Violence and Liberation, Muslim-Christian Relations in World History and many more.

“The courses led to dozens of story ideas and new resources. I came out a sharper researcher and writer, two benefits I was not expecting going in,” said Eric Marrapodi of CNN who took four Lilly scholarship courses in three years at Georgetown University.

The scholarships can be used at accredited colleges, universities, seminaries or similar institutions.

Read on for more info.

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Building religion IQ in reporters? We say, ‘Amen!’


Usually, GetReligion focuses on critiquing mainstream media coverage of religion and pointing out holy ghosts.

Occasionally, we share news on personnel changes on the Godbeat — such as Jim Davis’ must-read interview this week with laid-off Tampa Tribune religion writer Michelle Bearden.

And sometimes — as with this post — we can’t resist recommending an article or essay that hits at the core of our passion for informed, thoughtful religion reporting.

“Building Religion IQ in Reporters” is the title of the piece that Andrea Scott — a former Washington Journalism Center student of GetReligion editor tmatt — wrote for the spring 2014 issue of Philanthropy magazine:

Much news today is somehow related to religion, as a glance at the headlines reveals: Turmoil in the Middle East. Church relief missions after a natural disaster. The actions of Pope Francis. Challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. The ebb and flow of local religious programs that feed the hungry, operate schools, fight addictions, and run hospitals. Statements by the Dalai Lama. Same-sex marriage and abortion debates. Jihadist terror. Differences in community life and politics that link to spiritual perspective. Many of today’s evolving stories are intricately entwined with religious issues.

And beyond its role as a factor in news events, faith is of deep and urgent personal relevance to many citizens. According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them, while another 26 percent say it’s “somewhat important.” This can powerfully influence both private and public actions.

Despite its pervasive importance, religion is a foreign land to many, perhaps most, reporters. “I was practically born and raised in the news business, and know firsthand that newsrooms are exceedingly secular places,” says veteran journalist Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief of RealClearPolitics. “But the people we cover—and our audiences—are steeped in religious faith of all kinds. So to accurately cover the political and civic life of this country, journalists need to know what’s going on in the spiritual life of their fellow Americans.” This, however, is a struggle for under-informed reporters.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

The article goes on to describe the development of a conference designed to improve reporters’ religion IQ, as the title indicates:

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Debating the new Associated Press Stylebook, round two

At this point, I still do not have a copy of the new Associated Press Stylebook, the 2014 edition with the chapter dedicated to issues in mainstream religion-news coverage. I think I will hold out for the spiral edition, which makes it so much easier to work with when writing, because you can open it up next to your keyboard and it stays open. Where do get one of those these days, since Amazon only sells the paperback?

That said, I am really enjoying some of the online debates about the contents. You can see some of the battle lines in the comments after our initial post by Bobby Ross, Jr. Click here to catch up on that.

However, you can really sense some of the tensions in this short online piece at The Atlantic, written by Emma Green. This is not a news piece, of course, but it is an article directly related to the craft of religion-beat work, so I wanted to point our readers toward it. It also reminded me of something.

Long ago, as in the early 1990s, I heard a nationally known religion writer turned scholar opine that the true purpose of improved religion-beat coverage in the mainstream media was to promote diversity and pluralism in modern America, thus “undercutting Judeo-Christian hegemony.”

Wait for it.

As in, wait until you check out the comments thread at the end of The Atlantic piece. But first, here’s a key chunk or two for starters:

When The Atlantic was revising its style guide for the web a few months ago, my cubicle unexpectedly turned into a metaphysical brawling zone. Our house policy is to capitalize “God” when it refers to the entity worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (Other times, it’s not capitalized — for example, when writing about how I’m the “god of the office candy jar.”) In my opinion, this suggests a belief on the part of the writer: Capitalizing “God” means he or she believes in the formal existence of a thing called god, so that name is capitalized like any other name. My boss disagrees. Neither, he says, does capitalizing the protagonist’s name from The Big Lebowski entail belief in the existence of the Dude. So we capitalize God.

Interested? Carry on, because that thought leads straight to the new AP book:

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