The year that felt like a lifetime: What were the biggest stories of 2020?
The year began with Pope Francis slapping the hand of a pilgrim who grabbed him and would not let go as he tried to walk through St. Peter’s Square on New Year’s Eve. The human reaction of the pope is what passed as viral news, worthy of spirited debate, in early January. We had no idea what we were in for.
Here at America, as at pretty much every news outlet in the United States, the year 2020 was dominated by three huge, intersecting stories, each of them with repercussions for the church.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had so many dimensions—from its disproportionately deadly impact on essential workers and marginalized communities to the effects of quarantines and social distancing on our faith lives—that we are still scrambling to report on it after nine months. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 renewed widespread anger and sadness over systemic racism as well as the church’s complicity in racial injustice over the years. And a nasty presidential election seemed to end with more partisanship and division than ever in the United States, along with intense disagreement over the moral obligations of Catholics in participating in civic life.
What follows is a month-by-month summary of the stories that most engaged our readers over the past 12 months.
DECEMBER 2019: Last year’s Advent season seems like a childhood memory. The most popular story on our website was Joseph McAuley’s dissection of the charming film about Benedict XVI and then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, “‘The Two Popes’: What’s fact and what’s fiction?” (Sorry, but “it is doubtful [Benedict] would spend time watching sporting events on television.”) Our readers also enjoyed John W. Miller’s feature story on Spencer Brewery, a Trappist beer maker, and Isabel Senechal’s rundown of the worst (religious) Christmas songs of all time.
JANUARY: That papal hand slap served as our inauspicious introduction to 2020. As Kevin Clarke wrote in his analysis, “what the unhappy encounter had to say about the ‘real’ Pope Francis—revealed finally as a sour hypocrite or merely an actual human being who can be startled into anger—remained hotly disputed on social media.” Close behind in reader popularity was Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell’s report on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s request to be removed as co-author of a book by Cardinal Robert Sarah arguing against the ordination of married men.
FEBRUARY: The two most widely read pieces concerned revelations about sexual misconduct by Jean Vanier, the charismatic founder of a global movement serving adults with disabilities who died in 2019: our report by Michael O’Loughlin and Colleen Dulle’s essay “How can I reconcile the good and evil of Jean Vanier?” Readers also took to a diverse trio of long-form stories: “How can Catholic colleges welcome the L.G.B.T. person?” by James Martin, S.J.; Sonja Livingston’s search for American versions of the pre-Lenten Polish pastry called paczki (a traditional way “to use up stores of sugar and lard”); and James T. Keane’s true-crime story “The Great Maryknoll Post Office Robbery of 1964.”
MARCH: The coronavirus, not yet commonly known as Covid-19, hit the United States with devastating effects beginning in March. Kerry Weber’s “A Coronavirus Prayer,” and its translations into five other languages, was America’s most popular content, not only of the month, but the entire year. Readers showed great interest in the responses to the global pandemic by Pope Francis, including his “Urbi et Orbi” blessing that likened the pandemic to “an unexpected, turbulent storm” and his guidance on the granting of absolution to those quarantined by Covid-19. Also popular this month: “I am a scientist working to stop coronavirus. We should cancel all Masses.”
APRIL: Almost all of the most popular content of the month involved Covid-19, including an account of life in the pandemic hotspot of Milan, written by Patrick Gilger, S.J., and Gregory Hillis’s advice on handling social isolation from the Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Pope Francis continued to make news, not only by comforting the faithful but also by using an Easter address to advocate for a “universal basic wage.”
MAY: The third month of All Things Covid included Mr. O’Loughlin’s interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (“To keep churches safe, use masks, limit singing and wait to resume Communion”); and David Dark’s essay about the economic injustices laid bare by the pandemic (“We are living in an apocalypse”).
JUNE: After more than a week of anti-racism protests across the country—following the killing of Mr. Floyd—President Trump visited the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, and our most-read story of the month concerned then-Archbishop (and now Cardinal) Wilton Gregory’s condemnation of the president’s use of a Catholic shrine for political purposes. Other widely read stories included “An open letter to my fellow white Americans,” by our editor-in-chief Matt Malone, S.J. (“You and I are a part of this problem, whether we like it or not, whether we chose it or not, whether we know it or not.”); and Olga Segura’s “How can Catholics help lead the fight against racism?” (“Many black and brown Catholics are turning to the church for solace, only to find, at worst, silence, and at best, a delayed response.”)
JULY: Divisions within the church once again bubbled to the surface, and our most-read story was Mr. O’Connell’s report headlined “Cardinal Scola calls out Pope Francis’ critics: ‘The pope is the pope.’” But the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd continued to drive discussion, and an essay by Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, “How church teaching can help explain why ‘Black Lives Matter,’” was widely shared and commented upon. Also popular: Karen Park’s “Hi, my name is Karen. Embarrassed to meet you,” in which the author described coping with how her name “has come to mean an entitled, racist white woman.”
AUGUST: Again, the most popular America story addressed conflict in the church: Mike Lewis’s Faith in Focus essay “Pope Francis’ critics are dividing the church and families—including mine.” (“I have several friends who belong to Catholic book clubs where members will refuse to read anything by Pope Francis.”) But most of the other top stories were about the impending U.S. presidential election, including the Explainer “If Joe Biden wins, what does that mean for abortion policies?” and an analysis by Sam Sawyer, S.J., of how the political media covers pro-life issues (“mainstream coverage seems aimed to dismiss and discredit anything opposed to abortion”).
SEPTEMBER: Candid comments by Pope Francis often get our readers’ attention, so it was no surprise that his meeting with the parents of L.G.B.T. individuals (in which he said, “God loves your children as they are”) was the most popular story of the month. Below that, politics dominated the news. Our editorial “Donald Trump is a unique threat to the Constitution” generated more reader comments than almost anything we published this year, and there was much curiosity about Amy Coney Barrett, nominated to the Supreme Court after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died with only a few weeks left in the presidential campaign. In particular, Mr. O’Loughlin wrote an Explainer on People of Praise, the Catholic charismatic group that Ms. Barrett has belonged to.
OCTOBER: Could abortion opponents vote for Joe Biden and the unequivocally pro-choice Democratic Party? That was one of the most contentious questions of the 2020 election, and in the second most widely read story of the year, the actress and author Jeannie Gaffigan lamented that the abortion issue has “become an idol for some Catholics at the expense of everything else.” (See “My loved ones told me ‘real’ Catholics vote for Trump. Here’s my response.”) This got even more reader comments than our editorial, and not everyone agreed with Ms. Gaffigan. Oh, and October also saw the release of a new encyclical letter from Pope Francis, “Fratelli Tutti.” Among other things, explained Father Martin, the encyclical “closed the door” on the death penalty as permissible under church teaching.
NOVEMBER: Appropriately for 2020, the presidential election threatened to never end, with President Trump refusing to concede weeks after Mr. Biden’s victory became apparent. Our readers were most interested in Mr. Biden becoming only the second Catholic president in U.S. history, and Mr. O’Loughlin gave us a rundown on the president-elect’s faith. But our readers also looked to the rest of the world, showing great interest in correspondent Filipe Domingues’s report on the possible sainthood of Blessed Carlo Acutis, who has been called the “patron of the internet” for sharing stories of Eucharistic miracles online. (Acutis died in 2006, at the age of 15, of leukemia.) With Mr. Biden promising to generate less news than the current president, we can hope for a 2021 with fewer crises and more miracles.
Most popular America stories by month
Data cover the period from Dec. 1, 2019 to Nov. 30, 2020. Only stories original to America Media are counted; each story is counted for the month of its highest readership only. Monthly data is based on estimates of total time spent viewing each story by online readers. Some content is posted on the America Media website before it appears in print.
Most-viewed Vatican Dispatches
Most popular new America videos
2. 5 common questions about LGBT Catholic ministry, Jan. 28
3. Fr. Bryan Massingale: How the church can combat racism and white privilege (Behind the Story), June 5
4. Top 5 takeaways from the McCarrick Report, Nov. 11
5. Five Takeaways from ‘Fratelli Tutti,’ Oct. 4
Most popular new America podcast episodes
2. Church Meets World: A Coronavirus Prayer, March 13
5. Voting Catholic: How to vote Catholic, Oct. 9
Most popular original content overall
(measured by page views multiplied by time on page)
6. What Abraham Lincoln found reading the Book of Job amid civil war, Sergio Lopez, Nov. 3 (December 2020 issue)
From the archives
Most-viewed stories in 2020 from prior years
3. Why do Catholics make up a majority of the Supreme Court?, Allyson Escobar, July 19, 2018 (updated Oct. 27, 2020)
4. My ancestor owned 41 slaves. What do I owe their descendants?, John W. Miller, Nov. 28, 2018
7. A Scriptural look at Jesus' teachings on marriage and divorce (The Good Word column), John W. Martens, Nov. 6, 2015
10. “On Eagle’s Wings”: The simple origin of the song that makes the world cry, Colleen Dulle, Dec. 28, 2017 (updated Nov. 7, 2020)