As I followed the pastoral visit of the Holy Father on television, switching between EWTN and FoxNews, I could not help but contemplate how far we have come. I remember the coverage of the visits to the United States of John Paul the Great in 1979 and 1987. Then the coverage focused on dissenters. The commentators wanted to know when the Church would change its teachings of life, sexuality, marriage and women. When would the Church come into the modern age and cease to cling to ideas that everyone knew were outdated? To the media it was clear, the Church was not attracting new vocations to the priesthood and religious life; it was not engaging the younger generation and if the Church didn’t come around quickly it would soon sink into irrelevance. The dissenters assured us change would come; it was only a matter of time.
By John Paul’s third visit in 1995, the critics recognized that things would not change under his pontificate, but they still held out the hope that he was a passing phenomenon. He was ill. His death was expected and then there would be a new pope who would bring the Church into the 20th century. By 1995, the pundits grudgingly admitted that John Paul had achieved rock star status, he had stopped the decline of vocations and he had attracted the young, but they consoled themselves with the belief that his successor would not be able to match his appeal. The critics were, however, less confident than they had been.
Then the scandal hit and the pundits were sure that this would be the nail in the coffin. Surely, now the Church would at least give up on celibacy, let priests marry, ordain women. The scandal caused terrible harm. Many good souls found their faith tested and some left.
But here we are in 2008 and here is Benedict XVI. This shy, humble scholar is getting the same enthusiastic welcome as his predecessor. We saw stadiums full of young people, young women religious in full habit reaching out to touch his hand, and young priests and seminarians distributing Communion to thousands. One commentator noted that the College of Cardinals seemed to be a better system for picking a leader than our electoral process.
Of course, there are still dissenters, but rather than being lauded, they are the ones who are marginalized. An anti-Catholic comic who slandered the Holy Father was forced to offer an apology. The mainstream media seems to have accepted the fact that the Catholic Church is not going to “modernize.” And why should it? The religious denominations that have bent over backwards to accommodate 20th century sensibilities have found their congregations shrinking, their influence waning. Some are being torn apart in a battle between the modernizers and the traditionalists who refuse to surrender biblical truth.
The new century has come and the Church still stands uncompromisingly for the truth and for Christ. It now appears that there is nothing less relevant as yesterdays “modern.”
What has changed is the media. In 1979, most people got their news from the major networks and newspapers. The dissenters within the Church were probably never as numerous as the media made them appear to be, but for a long time they were the only voices we heard.
Today it is different. First, we have EWTN. The Eternal World Television Network now reaches 80 percent of homes in the United States. This has allowed the pope and teachers faithful to the Church to speak directly to the people. Catholics can hear the truth without distortion.
We have seen the rise of talk radio, which has undermined the ability of the mainstream media to shape the news. The pro-lifers discovered they were not alone.
We have the Internet, which in spite of its many dangers is a way for Catholics to educate themselves and to engage in various forms of activism. My favorite Internet news source is www.lifesitenews.com out of Canada. LifeSiteNews covers the pro-life, pro-family, and religious freedom news from around the world with its own writers and links to local coverage. It’s like having an international newspaper delivered every morning with all the news a concerned Catholic needs.
Television is no longer dominated by the three major networks. The extensive coverage of the Holy Father’s visit on FoxNews was fantastic. The anchors were enthusiastic. The priests/guests knew what they were talking about. One of Fox’s lovely blond ladies beamed as she exclaimed that Catholics really know how to put on a show. What is more amazing is that the “show” she was praising was nothing more than a beautifully celebrated Mass.
Of course, much of the credit for the success of the visit must go to the Holy Father himself. Benedict never missed a beat. He had the right word for every occasion.
The world has changed and John Paul the Great must be credited for leading the way. But we the faithful have played our part. We listened, we responded, we made our voices heard. There is much more to do. Benedict XVI has pointed the way and we will follow.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
Changes in Papal Media Coverage
An excellent overview by Dale O'Leary in The Pilot: