Eye to eye with Mother Teresa (farewell to Scripps)

Eye to eye with Mother Teresa (farewell to Scripps) December 14, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I flew the black religion-beat flag here at GetReligion to mark the announcement that the Scripps Howard News Service was closing its doors. That was rather stunning news for me, since — to one degree or another — that meant the end of the weekly “On Religion” column that I had written for that wire service for more than 25 years.

The end? At the very least, it meant saying good-bye to many readers who had been reading my column in papers that were linked to the Scripps list, which was taken over by the McClatchy-Tribune organization — which declined to keep my column.

However, there was always a chance that someone else would keep the column alive, especially the folks behind the Newspaper Enterprise Association, which for several years has been sending my column to 600 or so smaller- and mid-sized newspapers in North America. And that, I am happy to report, is precisely what happened.

While we are still working out a few details, I will keep on writing the column for the Universal Uclick company, which many GetReligion readers would know by its former name, the Universal Press Syndicate. I am also happy to report that it appears that some of the Scripps newspapers that have carried me for so long (Hello readers in Knoxville!) will be picking it up from Universal.

So this week I wrote my last column for Scripps Howard, but not my last “On Religion” column. I’ve got that same old Wednesday deadline coming this next week. Turn, turn, turn.

Still, this was an ending of sorts and I wanted to mark that for the readers that I would be losing.

What to say? After all, I had already written a 25th anniversary column last year that said what I wanted to say (Hello retired editor Harry Moskos in Knoxville!) about why I think the religion-beat deserves respect and support in the mainstream media. I didn’t want to write that column all over again.

So I did something different and addressed the question that I have heard from readers more than any other over the past quarter of a century:

Who is the most remarkable person you’ve met while covering religion? That’s a tough one. The Rev. Billy Graham or novelist Madeleine L’Engle? Who was the more charismatic positive thinker, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale or actor Denzel Washington? What was more amazing, seeing Chuck Colson preach inside a prison on Easter or Bono lead a Bible-study group at the U.S. Capitol?

And the answer?

That would be the Blessed Mother Teresa. Read the whole column if you wish, because that will help you understand the context for the twist at the end.

You see, the key to the story is that my 1989 encounter with the remarkable sister from Calcutta ended up affecting the very story that I was sent to cover that day in Denver. A logical, but very direct, question that I asked during a press conference came up again during a face-to-face encounter and then again at the end of the prayer rally that was the day’s main event.

That meant that I had to tell my editors that — apparently — my conversation with Mother Teresa was linked to the news development that simply had to lead the story. This is, by the way, the only time something like that has ever happened in my journalism career.

Thus, here is how the column ends, beginning with me hiding among the clergy waiting to take part in an ecumenical prayer rally with Mother Teresa:

Suddenly, Mother Teresa entered, spending a few moments with each of the clergy. When a priest tried to introduce me, she took my hand. “Yes,” she said, smiling. “He asked me earlier about starting a house here.” We talked briefly and she said she was surprised that a reporter had asked that question.

Hours later, as the rally ended, Denver’s archbishop followed protocol and gave the elderly nun several gifts from the people of Colorado. Then she raised her hand to silence the crowd.

“I have a gift for you,” she said, gesturing toward members of her team. “I will give you my sisters and I hope that, together, we are going to do something beautiful for God.”

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford — now a cardinal in Rome — flushed red with shock. The work to build a Denver mission would begin immediately, rather than many years in the future.

Mother Teresa’s gift was the story of the day and my editors kept asking a blunt question: What led to her shocking decision?

Well, I had a quote from Stafford, who said: “She is a spontaneous person. Maybe we will never know why she made her decision now.”

But I also told them about my strange encounter with the woman that millions already considered a living saint. Could I include this factual material in a news report, even though I was directly involved in what transpired?

What happened really happened. The quotes were in my reporter’s notebook.

Nevertheless, we decided to play the main story straight.

The problem was that I was the eyewitness. I was there and so was Mother Teresa, the most remarkable person I have encountered in my journalism work.

We buried the first-person information in a small sidebar, rather than having me put a first-person passage in the main story that led the newspaper. You didn’t write hard news in first-person voice, you see.

Here’s my question now, all these years later: How do you think editors would have handled that TODAY in the age of social media? Would the rules be any different?

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  • FW Ken

    No idea about your question, but congratulations on the new gig. But I have to ask j writing for UPS, can you guarantee the story will get there the next day?

  • Julia B

    Interesting question. And fascinating to be involved in her decision about Denver. About how to handle being the person who was an eye-witness: I note that John Allen would say that The National Catholic Reporter asked such and such __________ and then so and so told The National Catholic Reporter ___________________ – instead of speaking of himself personally.

  • Julia B

    Glad your column is not disappearing.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The answer is…it depends. With someone as professional as yourself, I doubt it would show up on Twitter. But with others: “I asked Mother Teresa if she was going to start a house in Denver and she said no, then she said yes! Was that because of me?”

    • tmatt

      Actually, I said that she deflected the question in the press conference. That was part of the mystery. Was she already thinking about this matter?

      • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

        Yes, I know what you said. I’m saying what someone else would say in a tweet.

        Her deflection was probably because it WAS being added to a long list of diocesan requests from all over the world. But your question to her probably got her to thinking and praying about it. And when she prayed about something, you know that she got answers pretty quickly. With all due respect to Cardinal Stafford, her being “spontaneous” wasn’t the reason — it was her very deep and personal relationship with God.

  • Allan Daniel

    It’s a bit sad. I grew up reading the columns of Robert Ruark as a boy seeking African adventure.