Between Newsroom and Sanctuary
The first thing you should know is that I don’t hug trees. I don’t collect money to save whales. I don’t drive a Volvo. I hate tofu. I don’t attend Upper West Side cocktail parties or drink white wine. And I don’t gather in somebody’s basement in the dead of night with other members of my coven to discuss how we can dredge up more dirt on Pius XII. Really. I don’t do any of that. And, believe it or not, I’m a journalist. Not only that, I work in network television.
Surprised? There’s more.
I’m also a devout Catholic, in the third year of my candidacy for the permanent diaconate. In between working with people like Dan Rather, Lesley Stahl and Charlie Rose, I serve as a lector and acolyte at daily Mass, and as a catechist in my parish adult initiation program. I pray the Liturgy of the Hours and find time to write term papers on papal encyclicals.
And in 2007, God willing, I will become an ordained member of the Catholic clergy.
Go ahead. Sit down. I understand. Many people find it a bit bewildering.
My friends and family have become accustomed to my schizophrenic lifestraddling two dramatically different worlds, torn between the secular and the sacred, the screech of the news cycle and the hush of the psalms. (A few of my more astrologically inclined friends might say it’s because I’m a Gemini - the split personality of twins, you know.) And I’ve gradually grown used to the dropped jaw and the blinking look when someone, anyone, finds out about my Other Life.
When people around the office learn about my studies, they usually just offer a bemused smile - thinking, perhaps, "Funny, he doesn’t look like a Jesus freak." My classmates in the diaconate program - more inclined, I think, to marvel at the mysterious handiwork of God - accept me, mercifully, as a benign freak of nature. Either way, I guess I’m a freak.
Or am I?
I admit that on Ash Wednesday I’m one of the few people in the office with ashes on my forehead. But people don’t look at me strangely. The most common comment I’ve heard is: Oh? Ash Wednesday? Already?
And I’m probably the only network news producer with a tiny statue of St. Gregory on my desk. (He’s holding a notebook and a quill, writing. I have no doubt he is up against a deadline.)
A few people have done a double take when they see the Latin words that scroll across my office computer’s screen saver: Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit.
"What does that mean?" they ask.
Bidden or not bidden, God will be present.
Oh. Right. And they point out my office window. Gee, is that an accident on the West Side Highway?
Though they might want to change the subject now and then, no one I know in the news business scoffs at my faith, or dismisses it. Most are quite respectful. The executive producer of 60 Minutes even sent a supportive letter of recommendation to the diocese before I began my diaconate formation.
Media critics on the right might be surprised to learn that a large number of people in my business are churchgoing Christians. Though my boss was baptized Catholic, he was raised an Episcopalian, and he’s active in his local church. He asks me every year what I’m giving up for Lent. (This year, his daughter, who is making her confirmation, was pushing for him to give up cigars. I think that went into arbitration.)
Meanwhile, the producer in the office next door to mine has been guiding her young son through the sacraments. He’s getting ready for his first Communion and reconciliation, and it’s not uncommon for his mother to storm into my office on Monday, seething about the latest outrage perpetrated by his religious ed teacher on Sunday. It takes a Catholic to know a Catholic.
The fact is, there are a lot of us here in the media world: Catholics who may be devoted, or who may be indifferent, but who nonetheless are part of that billion-plus flock who are trying to understand, or unscramble, this most profound and complicated of faiths.
A few conservative Catholics find that hard to swallow; they are convinced we in the media are out to get them.
I have been excoriated by the Catholic League, which branded one line I wrote in a profile of Madonna and her young daughtera portrait of Madonna and childas anti-Catholic. Others pointed to an hour that we produced called The Church in Crisis and labeled it unfair and agenda-driven, even though it included an extensive and respectful interview with Bishop Wilton Gregory. The hour went on to win an Emmy Award.
In my diaconate life, most of my classmates find the work I do out in the real world to be unusual and a little exotic. A few may raise their eyebrows and wonder if I’m a closet heretic isn’t CBS a hothouse for liberals? - but we rarely talk about our careers. Our formation is focused on our lives of faith and our continuing discernment.
Life at the office rarely comes up during the Liturgy of the Hours.
Meanwhile, some of the people in my parish are startled to learn what I do, and where I work. "Wow," one of the men on the parish council remarked; what an opportunity for ministry! Well, yes, I suppose. But I try not to wear my vocation on my sleeve, though I do wear a tiny fish pin on my lapel. I’m not interested in proselytizing - at least not in the traditional sense.
I think that part of my ministry, and perhaps my future work as a deacon, might be continuing to stand astride two such disparate worlds: to be a living example and, somehow, a contradiction. Cynics in the news business - yes, there are a few - may get to know me and discover that devout Christians aren’t necessarily Bible-thumping fundamentalists who handle snakes. And those who have drifted from the Catholic faith and get to know me might be curious to hear what has been going on since they left. They might even find a compelling reason to return.
And, on the other side of the life, maybe Catholics who encounter me in the church parking lot, or at the supermarket, or at parish suppers, might ponder the startling possibility that not all journalists are out to get the church. Most of us do what we can, as well as we can, often imperfectly. But we aren’t swinging our hunting nets to try to snare any particular belief or ideology; usually, we just want to capture that rare and elusive bird, Truth.
Sometimes our aim is off, and we end up covered in feathers and bird droppings. But the hunt, at least, goes on.
And so does my weird, bow-legged existence: one foot in the sanctuary, the other in the newsroom. I don’t know that I’ll ever completely reconcile my two lives. I don’t know that I should. But I hope and pray that maybe being a devoted Catholic will make me a more devoted journalistand maybe make for better journalism. (I’ve already noticed that my studies on the church and social justice have given me an appetite for telling different kinds of stories. The last thing I would want to work on these days is a profile of Madonna.)
Then there is this: perhaps having a foothold in a skeptical, but searching profession will help me serve a church with an increasingly skeptical, but searching flock.
If nothing else, after I am ordained it should make for some interesting homilies.