Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Day the Music Died... and the Headlines Came Alive

So I popped over to my aunt and uncle's house yesterday in search of something approaching a breather. I always tend to get one at their place, and this time was no exception.

But there was a little something extra this time: a voracious reader/philosopher/jazz man in his retirement, my uncle found something he thought I'd like. And, well, to say I merely like it wouldn't suffice. Just in case anyone else didn't know about it, thought some of you might like it, too.

The present was a book compiled by the Florida-based Poynter Institute -- some of you know 'em as the good-journalism people who used to run the clergy abuse tracker -- of newspaper covers from around the world on 3 April 2005, when the top story was, of course, the death of John Paul II. (A sampling of the covers are also available online.)

I don't think it'd be a stretch to say that those were emotional days for more than a few of us. But even so, and even as many of us were in the thick of it, whether in the parishes, in the press, in Rome, or even all of the above, going through its mass of front pages I couldn't help but be taken back, and taken aback, in the best way possible. The collection of layouts, photos and headlines are stunning, and my personal favorite (if any particular one comes close) was the day's blaring banner of the Dallas Morning News. While others ran with some variation of "Pope Dies," "World Mourns John Paul," or "Rest in Peace," the DMN offered a four word tribute to top its coverage: "He touched the world."

What's more, the flood of tributes, and all the coverage surrounding those days, still serves as an exemplary and emotional proof positive that obliterates the unjust stereotype of the secular press that still exists (and mightily so) in some quarters of the church.

You see, the comprehensive, laudatory tributes that circulated over those days in the global public square weren't the expected, choreographed hagiographies of diocesan newspapers or other church media, but the products of the very outlets which, so it's usually alleged, comprise the "soapbox of the big bad anti-Catholic world that rejoices in the destruction of the church," or something to that extent.

The more you look over these emotional, evocative pieces of the first draft of history, however, the more ludicrous that assertion becomes.

The task of the secular press is not to be the church's house organ, the mere recipient and regurgitator of a manufactured message. Its mission, in fact, is much like that of the church itself: to know, speak and seek the truth. And the more the church lives up to that mission in dealing with the media, the better off it is. The reason these pages (not the covers, but the outlet you're reading right now) exist owes itself to no small amount of frustration at the disconnect, often needless and mutually hubris-driven, sometimes descending into near-combat, that's marked the church-press dynamic in too many places, the easily avoidable misconceptions that negatively impact coverage where said state of affairs exists, and the damage -- in the best-case scenario, the disservice of an incomplete or unbalanced story -- which is its bottom line.

With John Paul, reporters had anything but an incomplete story... and that didn't turn out badly at all, did it? Sure, he made great copy and, in a way, the business was indebted to him, but there are at least two lasting lessons of his final days that are worthy of note as they helped underpin the ensuing tidal wave of captivation and goodwill.

Having known a newsroom since my youngest days, I know all too well that few stories get a scribe's heart beating quicker than turning up the Klieg lights on a high-flier whose deeds don't match up with their words. (This is something which, painfully, the church has experienced in unprecedented ways in recent years.) Even though one would be challenged to find a hotter spotlight than the papacy, it'd be an error to say that John Paul was Teflon, because there was little that could be thrown at him -- he got the marks he did for simply living the message, his message: He said "be not afraid," and he wasn't. He preached peace, and he lived it. He didn't just teach mercy -- he gave it, even under the most humanly challenging of circumstances.

At its best and fairest -- which it is more than it usually gets credit for -- the press doesn't demonize or hunt down at will; it simply holds public actors responsible for the standards they set for themselves. This shouldn't be a concept foreign to the life of the church. We even have our own term for it: "faithful witness." The editorial boards might voice gripes about some aspects of church teaching on the occasional slow news day, but in the face of Papa Wojtyla's testimony of faith and the end of its earthly chronicle, even on those same opinion pages no doctrinal qualms could dilute an overarching sense of respect, appreciation and admiration, whether from people of this faith, those of other faiths, and even those of no faith.

Moral of the story: the credibility of an exemplary witness is not limited to this flock alone. Talk of policies, documents, spats and speculation will come and go, but in the modern Areopagus the story of this church -- both in history and in the daily papers -- is written with the ink of its sons and daughters, whose fidelity becomes (even in these oft-underrated times) a contagious light and leaven in the world for people of good will, or whose glaring inconsistencies become the perilous obstacle to faith.

The other lesson going forward is a bit closer to ground-level, and there's a challenge in it for each of us. Three weeks after those first headlines ran, as the Catholic world turned its eyes to a new era and a new Pope, John Paul's successor put forward a message of that period that became, even in death, another element of his predecessor's titanic legacy: "During those sad days of the Pope’s illness and death, it became wonderfully evident to us that the Church is alive. And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future. The Church is alive and we are seeing it...."

Alive and young, and the world saw it. In those days, we saw for ourselves -- as did the world -- the best of who we are and what we do, and the effect wasn't just indescribable, it was contagious. Again, it was a message conveyed largely in the pages of the papers and in the glow of TV screens, but as the footage of Wojtyla's triumphs and tribulations dominated the newshole, the meaning of those days could only be fully understood by those who saw the vigils, walked into the packed churches, who saw the eyes and felt the prayers of a flock whose members "felt like orphans."

The Pope was dead, but in his final moments, the task of showing the joys and worth of the journey whose merits he primarily made manifest not through his voluminous texts, but in the universal language of the expressions of the human heart had passed from his bedroom above the square, over the dais full of prelates at prayer, and landed squarely in the midst of the masses beyond. And by the sheer force of their witness and zeal, the story got picked up: by week's end, the coverage's top line became the 5 million who flooded the Eternal City, and the tens of thousands who tried mightily to join them, but had to be turned away.

The helmsmanship of the Barque of Peter may have been refilled, but as its incumbent recently noted, "It is not enough for the Pope to be in Rome." As it always did, the charge to keep those days in mind, not as a one-off occurrence but a gold standard to renew always, remains our responsibility to burnish. Just as the new fire of Easter night isn't spread instantaneously by a laser beam, but grows carefully from wick to wick, those of us who, thanks the luminous souls we've encountered in the journey, have been lit by it can't just be content to let it sit there, but are charged to ever set it forward, wick by wick, person to person, until it can't go any further.

This isn't to say, of course, that John Paul was without his imperfections and that, for all its many achievements, his pontificate didn't have its share of neglected business. Nor is it to deny that I've gone on-record as being, at times, a little quizzical of the continuing phenomenon of "Wojtylamania," and a little rueful of the shadow it's cast over the reign of his successor. It's simply to say that, for all those things that can be (and are) sliced and diced beyond the sane realm of analysis, the one thing that stands above it all is the reality that we will never again see anything like him, or the days when the world bade him farewell. And as with all the best of history, that's not just something to be reflected upon, but only when a moment of grace continues to serve as the seed of an even better, brighter future does its fullest purpose and promise truly reach its fruition.

Much has changed for me since those days which, in more ways than one, gave life to this work. I've been offered gigs in the religion press and in the institution, and have turned both sides down. Even before those early days, I always believed that there was a value to standing at the intersection of the two, seeing the best in both, helping each along its way -- but not being beholden to, nor on the payroll of, either. And almost every experience of the last 25 months has confirmed that experience anew in ever-richer ways. (Not financially richer, of course: these pages exist as a public service, not a cash cow.)

It's a blessed niche to have, to love the church and the press, to cherish one's colleagues, correspondents and faithful alike, to know the sincerity and good intentions present on both sides, to be proud of their excellent work and to egg both even further and ever closer together. When the two make that genuine effort, it's a blessing for both, and an immense asset not only for their diverse constituencies, but for the building up of a better-informed, better-served society, and a clearer mirror through which the church can objectively gauge the state of its life and health.

Along those lines, those days in early April two years ago made clear that not only was the church alive and young, but that for all the ominous prophecies to the contrary (even from inside its walls), the church still matters, it still looms large, the world still finds a beacon in it and its place in the public square remains uniquely inviolate -- the only question is whether, day in and day out, we truly step up to the plate.

There really should be nothing to fear in that department: the message remains sound, and to engage well and fruitfully is far easier than the anxieties of those who shirk the task would often allow themselves to believe. More than any other, that magic time when winter's end betrayed the signs of a new springtime didn't just vindicate these things beyond any doubt, it showed us the way. Yet while that road doesn't follow on its own, all that's needed to keep going along it is an ever-firmer "yes," from which the rest effortlessly flourishes.

As we strive to muster it, the world watches, the world awaits....

Oh, and you might want to buy the book.

PHOTOS: The Poynter Institute