Synod Diary: Confessions of a Catholic headline writer
Pope Francis has made very clear that he wants this synod to be a prayerful event; an event where participants can speak boldly but also make listening a priority; and most importantly, an event where the Holy Spirit is not only present but the “protagonist” guiding the discussions and decisions made in the Paul VI Audience Hall. And, to create such an atmosphere, the pope has requested confidentiality on the part of synod members, and certain “fasting from public speech.” If people are to speak freely, they need to know they are not going to see their names and words in the media the next day.
I understand this. Many of us have probably taken part in small faith-sharing groups and fully expected that what we said would stay in the room. On the other hand, Zac, Sebastian and I came to Rome to help accompany readers and listeners through what has sometimes been a confusing and opaque synod process, and, frankly, the pope’s instructions have made participants reluctant to talk to us—even when we make clear that we are not trying to break news about what is happening in the synod hall. After all, the media has an important role to play in a synodal church, too. This is an event that will affect the entire church, or at least that’s what Pope Francis hopes. For that to happen, people all over the world need to be involved in the process.
But, if other Catholic journalists and I do want to be involved in this synodal process, we too need to make listening a priority. That is why, despite my frustrations, I am trying to really listen to the pope’s reasons for this “media fast.”
After making his request for discretion on the part of participants and the press, Pope Francis looks back at previous synods. He notes that at the synod on the family, all the public chatter was about communion for divorced and remarried Catholics; at the synod of the Amazon, the media focused on whether they would open the door to married priests in remote regions of the jungle. “Now,” he said, “there is speculation about this Synod ‘What are they going to do?’ ‘Maybe ordain women’… I don’t know, those are things they are saying out there.”
These are important issues and questions, but the pope is clearly frustrated, and understandably so, that a couple of hot-button issues dominate the media’s coverage of these events. Surely the problems facing the modern family, the Amazon, the universal church cannot be boiled down to a single headline.
And back in New York, a part of my job is, well, writing headlines. The pope has said this month is a time for the church to “take a break,” which means, we may not be hearing all that much about what’s happening at the synod, around hot-button issues or anything else. Perhaps it’s a good time for me to do a headline writer’s examination of conscience. What have I done and failed to do when it comes to shaping the public discourse around events in the life of the church? When have I put clicks ahead of substance? When have I failed to highlight the plight of migrants, the poor, the victims of war, because they aren’t topics in vogue?
These are not new questions or challenges. On this day in 1962, the Second Vatican Council began. Writing in the Dec. 1, 1962, issue of America magazine, editor in chief Thurston Davis, S.J., noted:
The Church is human as well as divine. Her Head is Christ, but her members are fallible, mortal, often opinionated men. Hence debate is to be expected in a Council. There will be, and there are already, elements of struggle in this one. These incidents should not be exaggerated, but they cannot be ignored. The general press is likely to spotlight them, since they are superficially newsworthy.
The same words could be written today (though we would have to add “opinionated women” given the historic nature of the make-up of this synod). The press, Catholic or otherwise, does have an important role to play, and it is not the same as the role of synod members, organizers or the pope. We can rightfully challenge what we see as overly restrictive rules around talking to the media. But, if we do intend to be a part of this synodal journey, we should also listen and make sure the Holy Spirit is guiding our work, too.