Two nice waves in the papal news ocean

Vestments.jpgIt has been very hard, the past few days, to decide what waves in the ocean of Vatican coverage are worth surfing. We will continue to try to note some of the better sites collecting valuable links.

One of the hardest things to do during this kind of news tsunami (said the stressed-out syndicated religion columnist) is finding some kind of new, yet valid, angle for coverage, something not being offered by at least 1,000 other reporters in the same news cycle.

Here are two of my favorite feature angles so far.

The first is by veteran Godbeat scribe Don Lattin in San Francisco. He picked one element of John Paul II’s intellect — his facility with eight or more foreign languages — and turned that into a witty glimpse into what it is like for an English-speaking reporter to attempt to cover, on deadline, a global press scrum with such a leader. Here is a sample from his first-person column:

Pope John Paul’s traveling press entourage was the most international (and for many years the largest) in the world. That meant that the questions were asked in five or six languages, and often answered that way by the multilingual pope.

That could be a problem for English-only reporters on a tight deadline. You never knew if the answer given in Spanish, French, German or Polish was going to be the real news, or one of the English answers you were able to understand.

I could cite dozens of other interesting stories, but let me mention one quiet little feature — with no byline, in fact — from South Africa. It appeared in one of my Google searches with this scan-stopping headline: “Women in the pope’s life.”

This story focuses on the five Polish nuns who surrounded and supported John Paul II throughout his episcopal ministry, right until the very end. There are too many touching details to mention, but here is a sample, a glimpse inside the papal apartment:

Sister Germana’s vegetable pies – especially spinach – wowed the late Italian president Sandro Pertini, who was a regular at papal working luncheons and dinners when John Paul II was well enough to entertain guests. Others fondly remember the carp served on Christmas Eve as a typical Polish delicacy.

For Polish visitors to the Vatican, the obligatory dishes included piroshki – dumplings with meat or fruit filling – pates, cheesecake and fish in aspic.

Sister Fernanda was in charge of the pope’s pantry, replenishing it mainly with fruit, vegetables and milk from Castelgandolfo, the pontiff’s summer holiday home just outside Rome.

John Paul II’s wardrobe was the responsibility of Sister Matylda, who must have suffered immense humiliation during a papal visit to France, when a horrified French bishop gasped: “There’s a smudge on the pontiff’s robe!”

John Paul II, we must remember, lost his family at a very young age. Then this loyal son of Poland lost his homeland. Frankly, I am amazed that more people are not writing about this inner circle of loved ones in his life — the nuns and his other trusted Polish aides — and the role they played in his ministry.

I would be willing to live without one or two of the lengthy reports on the impact of his life on the Democratic and Republican parties, if it meant getting to read some longer feature stories of this kind.

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We only have 30 seconds

cavanaugh.gifConfession time: I shrugged it off when I saw this statement by GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly:

This pope’s life is impossible to capture in a few dramatic images, a three-minute sound-bite blitz and a sentence or two about the length of his tenure (second longest ever) and the number of nations he has visited (125 so far).

I believed those limitations applied only to television and radio journalism. Then I took an assignment to write about the life and legacy of John Paul II for Reason magazine. It was torture.

When I splashed over the 1,200 word wall, I had barely begun to scratch the surface of the surface. Probably the best obit that I’ve read appeared in Canada’s Globe & Mail (by ethics and religion reporter Michael Valpy) and I marvel at its compression and wit (at 3,228 words).

I decided to start out by taking a dig at the cable coverage of the event:

As John Paul II’s health was failing unto death, American cable news networks started with the around-the-clock coverage and newspapers over the world started to release their papal death packages. Because of the slow working of the Vatican press office, some members of the Italian media jumped the gun and called his demise early.

The news shot across newswires and websites, which sent television and radio producers frantically scrambling to find experts to tell us what this all means. I caught a few minutes of Larry King Friday night. The suspendered colossus of talk paired Father Richard John Neuhaus with deep thinker Deepak Chopra but cut them both short to make way for James Caviezel.

Next up, Jesus!

And it turns out that National JournalÂ’s Hotline picked up on this particularly wacky episode. A reader forwarded me this:

Today’s Hotline QoD from Larry King (“Jim, you think he’s with Jesus now? We only have 30 seconds”) has inspired a new Last Call! feature: as long as it’s funny, expect a Larry King Question of the Week every Monday in this space.

In the remaining space, I tried to give readers a thumbnail of JPII’s life and rise to the papacy, his style as pope and the effect that this had on the stunned world, his contribution toward bringing down the Soviet Union, and — for American Catholics — his legacy of church governance.

Finally, I gave the piece a super-abrupt ending by jumping into the debate over his response to the American priest sex scandals. Quite a few readers have complained that the piece more stops than ends, but that was all the news that would fit.

Regarding my toss-off line about World Youth Day, Wlady Pleszczynski wrote in,

[World Youth Day ] had to have a case of Wojtyla beating the commies at their own game. Communists every few years organized an International Youth Festival, which was gathered in the various “socialist” capitals and even Havana and did attract Soviet bloc youth and fellow travelers to what I’m fairly certain became a rather (by communist standards) hip and totally godless event. Leading Soviet bloc entertainers attended, among other “celebrities,” and the thing was maybe even popular for lack of anything else. Seems to me the Pope knew what he was doing when he set up an alternative international youth event.

Reason web editor Tim Cavanaugh (pictured) decided to weigh in on the JPII extravaganza to put my effort to shame, but I’ll note that he gave himself over 1,800 words to get the job done.

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New York Times: "need some quote from supporter"

O4AKqCHTPTKJgJkOnJcq0WldcxWo.jpgI think it was during a seminar at the Poynter Institute that I first heard a line drawn between “balance” in a news story and the concept of “false balance.”

Balance is when a news story manages to tell both sides of a heated controversy in a way that accurately reflects the views of people on both sides. However, it is often hard to do this. So I have also seen news organizations that are committed to old-fashioned values such as “balance” and “fairness” dedicate multiple stories to competing viewpoints, offering a way for readers to hear different voice speak for themselves. This is a good thing.

“False balance,” on the other hand, is when a reporter or news team has a very one-sided, slanted story written and then, to add balance, will call one person on the other side for one paragraph of protest to the revealed truths contained in the news report.

This is often done in European-style analysis publications — think The New Republic or The Weekly Standard. Discriminating news consumers also flinch when this happens on network and cable television. You know how often the Rev. Pat Robertson shows up on talk shows attempting to respond to some articulate progressive linked to a complex issue? False balance.

You also hear some people use the term “false balance” when newspapers use a kind of he said-he said approach that makes it seem as if two perspectives are equal in a public debate, when the public reality may be more like 90-10.

“False balance” has been known to show up in the MSM, but never as clearly as it did in The New York Times shortly after the death of Pope John Paul II. I need to begin with a big tip of the hat to the Powerline blog for nailing the screen shot from the Times that serves as the hook for this little case study.

Let’s look at the replay, shall we? The basic Vatican City report from correspondent Ian Fisher contains all kinds of intelligent Catholic progressives saying all kinds of critical things about the papacy of John Paul II and almost all of the comments are valid, to one degree or another, and worthy of response.

However, this is what showed up online for a few fleeting moments, before being taken down by the copy desk.

Even as his own voice faded away, his views on the sanctity of all human life echoed unambiguously among Catholics and Christian evangelicals in the United States on issues from abortion to the end of life.

need some quote from supporter

John Paul II’s admirers were as passionate as his detractors, for whom his long illness served as a symbol for what they said was a decrepit, tradition-bound papacy in need of rejuvenation and a bolder connection with modern life.

“The situation in the Catholic church is serious,” Hans Kung, the eminent Swiss theologian, who was barred by from teaching in Catholic schools because of his liberal views, wrote last week. “The pope is gravely ill and deserves every compassion. But the Church has to live. . . . In my opinion, he is not the greatest pope but the most contradictory of the 20th century. A pope of many, great gifts, and of many bad decisions!”

Among liberal Catholics, he was criticized for his strong opposition to abortion, homosexuality and contraception, as well as the ordination of women and married men. Though he was never known as a strong administrator of the dense Vatican bureaucracy, he kept a centralizing hand on the selection of bishops around the world and enforced a rigid adherence to many basic church teachings among the clergy and Catholic theologians.

And so forth and so on. The key words, obviously, were “need some quote from supporter.”

I especially like the slap of the word “some,” as in “go to the closet and get me some old flannel shirt so I can change the oil in the car.” It doesn’t matter what quote from what pope lover. The story is written. The point of view is established. The desk just needs some quote from some reporter talking to some pope supporter to add some balance to the editorial viewpoint of the newsroom.

This would be funny, except that we are talking about the most important elite institution in the American press. Again, click here to see the screen shot.

Here is another question. Where is the once-sacred line drawn at the Times, these days, between the news desk and the editorial pages? Here is the opening of the newspaper’s official editorial on the life of one of the dominant figures of the 20th century. What was his life about? Why, John Paul II lived and died to show that the Times was right in its editorial viewpoints about the Terri Schiavo case.

The death of Pope John Paul II came at a time when Americans have been engaged in an unusual moment of national reflection about mortality. The long, bitter fight over the unknowing Terri Schiavo was a stark contrast to the passing of this pontiff, whose own mind was keenly aware of the gradual failure of his body. The pope would certainly never have wanted his own end to be a lesson in the transcendent importance of allowing humans to choose their own manner of death. But to some of us, that was the exact message of his dignified departure.

One more question, while we are being picky. Underline the word “us” in the phrase “to some of us.” Who, precisely, makes up this “us”? Does that include the news desk?

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If only the nonpartisan Lillian Carter were still here

BushPope.jpgMaura Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times reports today on President Bush’s plan to attend Pope John Paul II’s funeral, interpreting it as an effort to cultivate votes among Catholics:

Some might read Bush’s inclination to fly to Rome as a transparent attempt to court Catholics, a constituency in the cross hairs of strategists seeking to expand the Republican electoral base.

But for all the praise the president has lavished on Pope John Paul II in recent days, the relationship between the two men and their politics was tense and complex. And for all the attention paid to the role of social conservatives in Republican politics, the “Catholic vote” is still up for grabs.

“Both the pope and the president have indeed had an impact on socially conservative Catholics becoming more Republican,” said Mark J. Rozell, an expert on religion and politics at George Mason University outside Washington. “But the non-churchgoing or occasionally churchgoing still don’t identify with the Republican Party.”

In his comments after the pope’s death, Bush emphasized the pontiff’s support for the “culture of life” — a phrase the president borrowed from the pope and uses to refer broadly to specific positions on abortion, euthanasia and marriage.

But the president made no mention of other issues on which he and the pope disagreed: the decision to go to war in Iraq, the death penalty and the West’s responsibility, in the pope’s view, to curb rampant consumerism and combat global poverty.

A few thoughts:

• George Bush is not running for the presidency again, and it won’t be much longer before his name is preceded by “lame duck.”

• Does anyone think many Catholics would be more inclined to support Social Security reform, or the war in Iraq, simply because President Bush attends the pope’s funeral?

Of course Bush’s relationship with John Paul II was tense and complex. Given the pope’s widely known convictions about abortion, is it possible to imagine that his differences with President Clinton made for hours of hilarity and backslapping?

• Is George Bush now on record as supporting rampant consumerism or rejecting the West’s role in combating global poverty?

Reynolds includes some helpful distinctions from John C. Green, the University of Akron’s always insightful researcher on religion and politics:

“Catholics haven’t become more conservative,” said the University of Akron’s Green. “They have pretty much the same views as they had in the past. The difference is that more traditionalist Catholics have connected their views to their vote, which meant they voted more Republican.”

“Modernist” Catholics, who by some tallies outnumber the traditionalists, remain staunch Democrats and last year voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who is Catholic.

Near the end of her story, Reynolds mentions this poignant detail:

The last time a pope died — Pope John Paul I in September 1978 — Jimmy Carter was president, and there was little suggestion that he should attend the funeral. Instead, he sent his mother, Lillian, to represent the country.

But since then, starting with Carter when John Paul II visited the U.S. in 1979, American presidents have courted the pontiff, perhaps none so assiduously as Bush. But analysts say that such a courtship may hold sway only with the traditional Catholics who most revere the pope.

Here’s another possibility that applies both to Catholics and other Christians: John Paul II’s dynamism made it unthinkable that another president would send his retired mother to a papal funeral — or at least to John Paul’s funeral.

Reynolds mentions in passing that Ronald Reagan was the first president to send an ambassador to the Vatican. She doesn’t mention that the fiercest objections to that appointment came not from traditionalist Catholics or from conservative Republicans, but from the advocates of church-state separation. For that breakthrough, among many others, social conservatives have many reasons to be thankful for John Paul II’s life and legacy.

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Prince of Poland

the wladster.jpg My old boss at The American Spectator, Wlady Pleszczynski (pictured), gives us his take on the pope, and the view from Poland. The article, titled “Everyone’s Pope,” begins with the cheeky assertion that

Among the Christian religions only one is the genuine article and it’s known as Roman Catholicism. It’s an open secret, especially among non-believers. Reactions to the death of Pope John Paul II don’t really allow for any other conclusion.

For example?

Only the other day our anti-religious zealots were ranting about America as a theocracy run by religious zealots and nuts. They couldn’t wait for Terri Schiavo to disappear and to take Tom DeLay with her. Yet within hours of her death the dominant media shifted dramatically. John Paul II was on his deathbed, and well before 2:27 p.m. eastern time on Saturday the dominant media culture, which normally runs from religion like wild tribesmen from a voodoo curse, was canonizing this greatest imaginable Pope and leading the universal mourning. Vatican City became the center of the world, and no one could express anything other than deep sadness, grief, and a sense of irreplaceable loss.

The television coverage was not much to Pleszczynski’s liking, however, because the broadcasters “couldn’t let the mourners’ tearful sorrow speak for itself. By nature television talks too much. Stopping to think would be more than its practitioners could bear.”

As for print, he noted that many American newspapers ran “bigger headlines than after Pearl Harbor. Huge spreads. Special sections. A five-page obituary in the New York Times alone, and it only scratched the surface.”

Much more to his liking were the “reactions coming out now from Poland,” from a people who instinctively “know just how mysteriously God operates.” To wit,

I went to one of [Poland's] leading secular voices, Adam Michnik’s Gazeta Wyborcza, to gauge reactions. Among those it posted, two leaped out. There was former Czech president and famed dissident Vaclav Havel, commenting thus:

“… I regarded the Pope as my wise and forbearing confessor. John Paul II died a martyr who showed us all that it’s not only important to know how to accept one’s death, but that no less important is it to fight for life to the final moment, because life is the greatest gift which has been given to us.”

This is followed by a long quotation by former Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski and then Pleszczynski’s own coda:

Notice that neither Havel nor Kolakowski described himself as a believer or even practicing Catholic. But they knew the benefit that derived from having been led by someone who did. The trick now will be to remain not afraid in his absence.

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The Sunday Times: A final blessing and "Amen"

I have not been able to read everything, but, so far, it seems that The Sunday Times has the most developed, lovely version of the final moments of Pope John Paul II, complete with lots of clear attributions for sources. Here is a major piece of this triple-byline feature, starting with the pope struggling to dictate a mesage to his secretary:

“I am happy and you should be happy too,” he said. “Do not weep. Let us pray together with joy.”

His last moments were described early today by Father Jarek Cielecki, director of Vatican Service News, a Catholic TV channel. “The Holy Father died looking towards the window as he prayed, and that shows that in some way he was conscious,” Cielecki said.

“A short while before dying, the Pope raised his right hand in a clear, although simply hinted at, gesture of blessing, as if he became aware of the crowd of faithful present in St Peter’s Square, who in those moments were following the reciting of the Rosary,” he added. “Just after the prayer ended, the Pope made a huge effort and pronounced the word ‘Amen’. A moment later, he died.”

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First miracle of John Paul II?

Here is a lovely little Associate Press feature about an element of the pope’s life that has been hard to imagine in the past decade or so of sickness and decline — John Paul II the athlete. The story also includes a reference to what may be the first miracle of his papacy: “He has been a terrific sportsman,” said George Weigel, author of a biography of John Paul. A key clip: “As a young man he was a very active soccer player, a skier, a hiker. As a young priest he became very involved in a ministry to university students built around hiking, skiing and kayaking. . . . The first 15 years of his pontificate he took breaks to go skiing, and the miracle about that was the Italian paparazzi actually left him alone.” Anyone see any good photos from this era?

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Maybe it's just a coincidence? Maybe not

1101790618_400.jpgThe mainstream media are now working their way out of the hands-clutching-rosaries stage of their coverage, after a marathon of anchorpersons trying to project nonstop sympathy for the pope and those who loved him. Now we are transitioning into the serious coverage that will resemble the New Hampshire primary with vestments and incense (more on that later). The faux-political polls ought to start coming out any minute now.

But there has been some interesting commentary on the cable channels — not much, but some.

Over on MSNBC, Chris “Hardball” Matthews had a long, detailed conversation with former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn about the role of Catholic faith and doctrine in the current canyon inside the Democratic Party, between the old-line FDR voters and the modern lifestyle left. Both were spunky, but treated each other with respect. Then Patrick Buchanan showed up and Matthews did a pretty decent job of helping him dissect the Catholic vs. Libertarian split, as well. I kept waiting for the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson to crash in and wreck things.

Toward the end of the evening, I heard a commentator — a priest, last name Morris — mention the symbolism of the pope dying on the eve of “Divine Mercy Sunday” and a link between this feast and Polish mysticism. That reminded me of some personal emails earlier in the day from Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher of The Dallas Morning News. Hang on, this gets interesting:

As everybody knows, John Paul is a mystic. As he hovers near death, I’m thinking of another Polish mystic, St. Faustina Kowalska, who died in 1938, and was canonized by John Paul on April 30, 2000. During her short life, St. Faustina lived as a cloistered nun, and claimed to have had many visions and locutions of Jesus and Mary, which she recorded in a lengthy diary. The diary was published some years after her death, and is widely available in English under the title “Divine Mercy In My Soul.”

Anyway, Faustina’s diary records numerous apocalyptic messages, in which Jesus and Mary speak of chastisement coming upon mankind if it fails to repent, and encouraging Faustina to spread devotion to “Divine Mercy” to stay the hand of divine judgment. One of the messages is particularly interesting. In 1937, a year before her death, St. Faustina wrote:

As I was praying for Poland, I heard the words: I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming.

When he canonized St. Faustina in 2000, John Paul made the celebration of “Divine Mercy Sunday” a universal feast of the Catholic Church, as St. Faustina wrote that Christ requested. Divine Mercy Sunday is always the first Sunday after Easter. . . . Maybe it’s just a coincidence.

Later in the day, Dreher came back for another round. It seems that Krakow, Poland, was always the center of the Divine Mercy devotion. So here we have a future Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, a priest who said from the beginning that he felt very close to Sister Faustina, becoming pope, leading the effort to canonize Faustina and making Divine Mercy Sunday a feast of the worldwide church. And then this Polish priest-bishop-pope dies after sundown, as his church begins the Sunday celebration of the Divine Mercy feast, a feast linked to what some Catholics see as a mystical prophecy about a “spark” from Poland that is a sign of . . .

Wait a minute. Do the Left Behind guys know about all of this?

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