Got news? A fishy hole in all those Lent stories

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So it’s a Friday in Lent (only in Western churches, at this point), so what did you have for lunch?

As a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, I have always been interested in how other ancient churches — think Rome and, to some degree, Canterbury — handle the great fasting seasons. When you add them all up, including our normal fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, practicing Orthodox Christians live as vegans or, at the very least, vegetarians more than half the year. The Catholic Church, in recent decades, has been having a lively debate about the relevance of fish on Fridays.

My point isn’t theological. Actually, I think there is an interesting story here, one that rarely shows up in the mainstream press (I mean, beyond your basic Lenten fast food stories, such as this item from Nation’s Restaurant News). Those stories tend to lead to this kind of reporting:

Every year restaurant chains focus their menu development and marketing to make sure they are not giving up traffic and sales between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, a 40-day period when Christians observing Lent abstain from certain vices or habits.

For most foodservice brands that means stepping up seafood and fish offerings for the season when Christians typically stop eating meat on Fridays.

This year several chains, including McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr. and Wendy’s, are finding new ways to market fish items typically promoted during Lent, which began on Feb. 13. Some chains are even thinking beyond the typical fried fish sandwich.

Well, it’s understandable that this story focuses on the dominant liturgical Christian tradition in our culture, which would be Catholicism. I get that.

However, this brings me to my main point: What is Lent, these days, even for practicing Catholics? What are the agreed-upon practices for keeping a holy Lent?

In particular, I’d like to ask for input from GetReligion readers, especially this site’s many Catholic readers: Does anyone know where this whole “give up one thing for Lent” idea came from? I dug into this five years ago for a Scripps Howard column and I couldn’t find anyone who knew the facts on where this universally discussed sort-of tradition came from.

It didn’t come from from Catholicism. We can’t blame the Lutherans or Anglicans. It’s sure as heck not from Eastern Orthodoxy.

This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a great case study for the state of Catholic spiritual disciplines and practices post-Vatican II. Here’s an even more important question: How many American Catholics are going to Confession before receiving Communion at Easter?

But back to the “one thing for Lent” thing. Here is what I found several years ago, talking to one popular Catholic apologist:

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The Pope joins Twitter #HabemusPapam

YouTube Preview ImageEven though the Pope joining Twitter has been news for weeks, I was still surprised at what a big story it was yesterday. I’ve been on Twitter for years (joined the morning after an epic anti-Twitter rant at the local pub) and I don’t even have 4,000 followers. Even before the Pope had issued his first tweet, he had more than 1 million followers. He tweeted his first item yesterday. Or as Rocco Palmo put it, #HabemusPapam.

And yes, everyone got super excited. The cool thing was that there was some really great coverage of the piece. And I’m not talking about The Onion‘s hilarious “Pope To Identify With Catholic Youth By Giving Up On Catholicism” satire. We’ll get to the better stuff in a minute.

One religion reporter sent us something that she thought was not so hot. She was too kind. It read like it was written by a teenager who thinks he’s a lot funnier than than he is. Headlined, “Mockery outweighs piety after pope’s Twitter debut,” the AFP story begins:

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s debut on Twitter got off to a bumpy start on Wednesday, with mockery outweighing piety in reaction to the first tweets from the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

The pope’s second tweet — “How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?” — prompted a string of tongue-in-cheek- answers.

“With some nice cold chocolate milk. And the Lord?” wrote one user tweeting in Portuguese with the handle @tensoblog.

Another distinctly sin-minded user, @binnie, joked: “Hookers and blow.”

Hardy har har har har har. Anyway, the claim made by the news outlet is that mockery outweighed piety. The story doesn’t even come close to substantiating this claim. It doesn’t even try. It leaves out information that might have thrown the claim into question. For instance, there’s no mention that the Pope had, say, 50,000+ “retweets” or close to 20,000 “favorites.”

Is a story about the friendly jokes — and the unfriendly mockery — worthwhile? Perhaps. Perhaps that’s what you want to emphasize. But to claim that the Pope’s Twitter debut got off to a rocky start and that mockery outweighed other reactions is more media wishful thinking than reality. Let’s stick to reality in journalism, please. And if you do want to do a story about people who curse, mock, tweet risque pictures at the Pope, could you at the very least move it beyond the “OMG! Naughty words to B16!” level of discourse? What does this say about people who would do such a thing? How does it make Catholics feel? What do the Pope’s people think about this? Etc.

Leading up to the big day of the Pope’s first tweet, I rather enjoyed this whimsical take on “Spiritual wisdom in 140 characters or less,” first published in the Plain Dealer and sent out by Religion News Service. The Washington Post had an interesting take last week headlined “Ask the pope @pontifex: With Twitter account, Benedict XVI just a tweet away.” It’s about how the Twitter account makes him more reachable. Sarah Pulliam Bailey also had a look forward at Odyssey Networks.

The Washington Post had a different take yesterday, noting that the first tweet from Benedict came about because of Twitter outreach:

It may look as if Pope Benedict XVI’s first tweet on the auspicious date of 12/12/12 will be a divine act. But orchestrating the pontiff’s debut on Twitter has been a far more earthbound effort, involving an elaborate behind-the-scenes production…

The effort is part of Twitter’s powerful — not to mention low-cost — strategy to expand its influence and rack up more users by getting the world’s biggest names in sports, Hollywood, government and religion onto the Internet’s leading megaphone for self-promotion.

But man is that a bad opening line, right? Why would it look like a divine act? Why is 12/12/12 “auspicious”?

The Post‘s On Faith section also had a great reaction roundup from a variety of different observers. Sample:

Matt Archbold writes for the National Catholic Register and blogs at the Creative Minority Report.

The pope’s Twitter feed is going live. I’m excited. While this is an excellent opportunity for young Catholics to encounter the church’s teachings, I suspect that this open line of communication will be utilized by some to be able to curse directly at the pope. Do you know how many four-letter words you can fit in a 140 character limit? I don’t have a calculator handy but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot!

But Christians are quite familiar with lion’s dens. Have been for a while. And let’s face it, real lions don’t just curse in ALL CAPS and use clever hashtags.

But the pope getting on Twitter does raise some interesting issues. If you don’t retweet the pope, is that a sin of omission?

If the pope “follows you” doesn’t that really set the Church hierarchy upside down? Do I really want that kind of responsibility? I don’t even have a mitre.

And if you get blocked by the pope is that a 21st century form of excommunication? Are we really about to see the birth of the excommunitweet? Because that would actually be pretty awesome.

Among his other observations are that the Beatitudes are written in 140 characters or less.

Actually, rather than doing this entire roundup, I should have just directed you to Cathy Lynn Grossmann’s comprehensive look in USA Today at the Benedict’s first day on Twitter. She looks at whose questions got asked, the specifics of how questions to the pope got answered, the Vatican’s use of Twitter up to this point, selections from Archbold’s comments, and more.


What should be tweeted via @ThroneOfPeter?

Let’s drop the media criticism for a moment and have a bit of fun (about a topic that is actually pretty serious).

What was your first reaction if and when you saw this short news story? I’ll link to The Los Angeles Times take on it:

Digital white smoke signals may soon be rising on Twitter. The Vatican says Pope Benedict XVI will begin tweeting from a personal Twitter account, possibly before year’s end.

This clearly won’t rival Pope Benedict XVI’s first appearance on the St. Peter’s balcony –- or even his first appearance on Twitter. But it should give him a far more apostolic follower count than his Vatican account (some 28,000 faithful).

The 85-year-old Benedict first tweeted from that Vatican account last year. That’s when the Vatican launched a news portal. No one was really a fan of the handle @Pope2YouVatican. No word yet on the new handle. …

The Vatican says the Twitter account will belong to Benedict (though it’s likely he will write 140-character messages in longhand and let someone else do the actual tweeting).

That’s most of it, aside from the obligatory joke about the possibility that the pope will give up tweeting for Lent. Actually, this whole “give one thing up for Lent” story is rooted in myth, not Catholic (or Anglican or Lutheran or Orthodox) tradition, but that news hook lives on and on.

Anyway, if @Pope2YouVatican didn’t work, what do the headline writers in our cyber-midst think would be a better handle for Benedict XVI? What do you think the pope should try to accomplish with his Twitter account?

The latter question, truth be told, is connected to an interesting event that took place yesterday in Baltimore — when a pack of bloggers met with a smaller pack of bishops to talk about a new research report (click here for the document) on the state of Catholicism in social media. After spending several days deep down South (speaking at the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi), I rushed back to take part as the only non-Catholic on the main panel.

As you would hope, and expect, Ann Rodgers of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette went the extra mile and covered the event. Another Godbeat veteran, Cathy Grossman of USA Today, was also there and I hope we see a report from her soon.

Meanwhile, you can also dig into a few of the remarks via, naturally, the event Twitter feed: #bpsblog

Here is the top of the Rodgers story:

BALTIMORE – The majority of Catholics use social media, but only the most ardent visit Catholic sites, which typically do a poor job of attracting fallen-away Catholics and those searching for a faith connection.

The statistics came from a study released just before the annual Baltimore meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. About 25 bishops arrived early to learn from bloggers and other social media experts how to have a more effective online presence.

The gathering, sponsored by the bishops’ communications office, was modeled on a similar session held last year at the Vatican.

“Catholic media, at this point, is very effectively preaching to the choir … and to the very small percentage that agree with you on almost everything,” said panelist Terry Mattingly, religion columnist for the Scripps-Howard news service and co-founder of, which analyzes religion coverage in secular media.

But if a bishop is trying to engage in evangelization without a sophisticated social media outreach, he said, “you have a promising future in ministry to the Amish.”

The study from the bishops’ research agency, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, showed that 62 percent of Catholic adults, including 37 percent of those 70 and older, have a profile on Facebook. Two-thirds of Catholic adults, including 84 percent of those 30 and younger, visit YouTube. Yet just 5 percent of Catholic adults with Internet access follow blogs related to the Catholic faith, though that number rises to 13 percent who attend Mass weekly. Despite a vigorous Vatican website and countless official and unofficial Catholic sites, 53 percent of more than 1,000 self-identified Catholics surveyed weren’t aware of a significant Catholic presence on the Internet.

Believe it or not, the subjects that interest Catholic readers the most — according to Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate — are church history and the lives of the saints.

Yes, much of the information was THAT inside baseball. Thus, I asked if bishops were willing and able to supply digital offerings linked to film, dating, family life, humor, liturgical music, books and other normal, everyday topics. Would anyone else be willing to join Cardinal Timothy Dolan in reaching out to the Comedy Central world?

The most stunning moment in the afternoon, for me, was supplied, naturally enough, by the unofficial czar of the Catholic blogosphere.

Several bloggers specifically mentioned problems with racist posts from professing Catholics. Rocco Palmo, whose “Whispers In the Loggia” blog on church leadership is nearing 25 million site visits, pointed out that 60 percent of Catholics under 30 in the United States are Hispanic, but the Catholic blogosphere doesn’t reflect that.

When he writes an annual post in Spanish for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “I never get more angry, vitriolic hate mail,” he said.

He advised bishops to directly address bigotry online.

“We have a major problem when people in our church think they can get away with that and be in communion with the Catholic Church,” he said.

The bishops, in chorus, expressed several common concerns. Many were concerned that life in cyberspace would be too hectic, too shallow and too divisive. How could they keep up? Would any opinions they expressed be blown up into controversies?

Listen to these voices:

“I’m afraid of making a fool of myself,” said Archbishop Roger Schwietz of Anchorage, Alaska. “This is personality driven. What I’m used to is to focus on the message and stay out of the way.”

Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City, Mo., compared the digital age to the era that saw the birth of Christianity. “It spread like wildfire. You had the system of Roman roads … and the spiritual hunger of people who would go after any new mysticism,” he said.

Panelist Mary DeTurris Poust, who has spent a 30-year career in Catholic media, said Google searches for “Catholic” and related words are declining while searches for “spiritual” and its variants are rising.

“That should send up a warning flare,” said Ms. Poust, who blogs at “Not Strictly Spiritual.” “It reflects a virtual version of what we are seeing in [bricks-and-mortar] searches. People are searching, but they are not searching for us. … How do we reach Catholic adults who are disconnected from the church but are desperately seeking a spiritual connection?”

By all means, read all of the Rodgers story. Then you can turn to this Catholic News Service report. If you would, please point us toward other online reports about this gathering and this subject.

In the end, I concluded that the issue is not whether bishops should blog or tweet. That’s a question for each shepherd to make on his own. If you can preach, you can blog.

The key for me is whether the bishops can find talented Catholics — with or without collars — who are talented enough to write quality, provocative material that can attract and hold the overloaded eyes of modern Catholics, sort-of Catholics, young Catholics, ex-Catholics and, yes, unbelievers. Do these bishops have talented people on their staffs? If so, all they have to do is support them and work with them. Just do it.