Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
September 18, 2015
Among my duties at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations where I began to work in March has been to assist with the huge interest on the part of the media on Pope Francis’ visit to the United Nations.
Many journalists have been asking questions trying to anticipate what Pope Francis might say during his half hour talk at the UN on September 25. That’s totally understandable as they seek to get up to speed on the background of some of the issues the Pope will likely address when he speaks to the largest assembled number of world leaders in papal history.
Many others have been asking about the multilateral diplomatic labors of the Holy See at the UN in general and where Pope Francis’ visit might fit into that work. That, too, is totally predictable as few in the media have a grasp on the history and importance of papal diplomacy exercised through those the Vatican diplomatic corps.
And there has been a barrage of questions about the Residence of the Permanent Observer Mission where Pope Francis will be staying during the New York portion of his apostolic journey.
Scores of reporters, photographers, and camera crews have been asking to get into the residence in order to see where Pope Francis will be sleeping, taking his meals, meetings his guests, praying, and relaxing. Others have been begging for details about what he’ll be eating, who’ll be preparing the food, and who’ll be serving it.
In an age when increased security for public figures is unfortunately a must, it would be naïve to allow a stream of strangers into the residence where the Pope will be staying and then to broadcast it to everyone, including those who might be unstable or have nefarious intentions. Most journalists, despite their disappointment, readily see the point about why we can’t grant their wish for access.
But some reporters don’t like to take no for an answer and have tried various means of argumentation to smooth talk their way in.
One of the conversations, I think, is worth sharing because it is relevant to understanding our larger media culture and what we need to look out for in the coverage of the upcoming visit of Pope Francis.
“Father, don’t you think,” this reporter asked me, “that it’s a good thing so many are interested in Pope Francis? We want to do a human interest story to help people relate to him better.”
“I think it’s a great gift that so many are interested in Pope Francis,” I replied. “But the question would be at what level we’re going to help people engage with him.”
“Isn’t any level good?,” the journalist retorted.
“Some levels,” I responded, “are not particularly helpful or worthy of the subject matter.”
She confessed she didn’t see my point and asked me to elaborate. So I tried to explain that there are different types of “human interest stories” and news organizations need to choose among them.
They can focus on what Pope Francis will be eating or on how he’s spent his life trying to feed people with the Gospel.
They can cover whether he’ll be sleeping in a twin- or full-size bed or on how he is coming to America to sound an alarm clock to wake us all up spiritually.
They can report on how many flights of stairs he may need to climb in a Residence or how he’s seeking to help all of us climb Jacob’s ladder heavenward.
“But Father,” she said, “the types of things we’re looking for is what people are interested in. He wants to engage people and we want to help him.”
“I appreciate your intention,” I politely replied, “but is the better way to do that to bring Pope Francis down to the level of chowing and snoozing or to lift people up to meet him on the plane of his dramatic and inspiring life and the power of the message he’ll be communicating by words and actions?”
Since the reporter seemed to be about my age, I asked her if she remembered the controversial MTV interviews in the mid-90s with President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
After she said she did, I queried, “Do you think it was worthy of the office of the President of the United States and the Speaker of the House to get asked what type of underwear they wear? That the most memorable parts of their interviews were not their views on the pressing political and cultural issues of the day, but whether they preferred boxers or briefs?”
She admitted that she thought that the questions were vulgar, inappropriate and immature.
“Do you see any similarities between those types of questions and the focus on how many pillows Pope Francis will have on his bed or whether he’ll eat frankfurters from Big Apple hot dog vendors?”
She laughed and said, “Perhaps,” before adding, “But like it or not, that’s what people are interested in today and we’re just feeding that appetite.”
It was a helpful conversation that highlighted for me one of the big questions about the papal visit: For what fare are people hungering? What is their true appetite?
Will people — and the media who inform them — be interested to go beyond the superficialities and trivialities to meet Francis in the depth of his radical personality and Christian message?
Will they — we — hear his provocative appeals about holiness, receiving and spreading God’s mercy, growing and sharing our faith, strengthening the family, alleviating poverty, welcoming the stranger, caring for the environment, and confronting global indifference, the idolatry of mammon, and the throwaway culture?
Or will we focus rather on what types of vegetables he is eating, what color shoes he’s wearing, or what metal his pectoral cross is made out of?
Jesus once gave a parable of four types of soil: stubbornly resistant, superficially responsive, hedonistically or fearfully distracted and abundantly fruitful (Mt 13). What is our soil sample in anticipation of Pope Francis’ visit? At what level do we want to meet him?