The mouse that roared was actually a gentle dove!
One thing for sure about our present Holy Father is that he commands the attention of the media. And, we might add, respect. That is not an easy task in the face of the reputation of the fifth estate who we often refer to as the "false prophets" of today. They've taken their pot-shots at the Pope and the Catholic Church, but so have the radical modernists within the Church! Ever since John Paul II's visit to Denver for World Youth Day in August 1993 there has been a new-found admiration and esteem for this aging and holy pontiff from the press in the United States. In fact, truth be known, the American media is much kinder to this Polish Pope than the European media which sometimes can be very, very cruel. Cultural feuds and grudges over the centuries have contributed to this - either because he's a Slavic Vicar of Christ or non-Italian or too influential in non-Catholic affairs of state. Whatever the reasons, the European reporters can be vicious in their innuendos and barbs. But Pope John Paul is no dummy. He knows you catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar and therefore he's planned a brillian coup by staging the Religion and Media 2000+ Conference at the Vatican which recently concluded. The special gathering at the invite of the Holy See was a stroke of genius. It allowed these journalists, broadcasters and religion representatives from major dailies and stations to see the inner workings of the Vatican - still a mystery to so many. More than anyone in the history of the Popes, our present Holy Father is truly PR savvy. Where else are you going to get the hardcrusted New York executives for the major networks, many of them Jewish, to clutch Rosaries in the hot midday sun of St. Peter's Square waiting for "Il Papa"? One of the high executives remarked that it was like the electricity of a much-anticipated sporting event except all were cheering for the same team - in this case - "rooting for the same guy here." And "this guy" - better known as the Pope - was rooting for them; that they would better understand the importance of clarity and accurateness in reporting religious issues. He was not out to convert them to Catholicism, but to convert them to a deeper respect for Catholicism as well as other faiths. They were there to get religion; not the conversion to any particular denomination, but to understand and effect better religion coverage in the American media. There they were broadcast executives from ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and even FOX, from Mutual Radio to National Public Radio, and every major daily from The New York Times to the Chicago Tribune, from The Atlanta Constitution to The San Diego Union-Tribune, from the Boston Globe to the Dallas Morning News. They were all there, executives, religious editors and writers, and selected clergy from various denominations all wowed by the pomp and pageantry, the awe and mystique, the old and the new of this tiny principality known as - Vatican City - the epicenter for nearly one billion Catholics the world over!
Guiding the agenda for these media moguls, working press corps, and religious affiliates was Archbishop John Foley, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. The down-to-earth common sense approach and ease with which this former Philadelphia bishop communicates with the media makes him a crowd favorite with the press immediately. We're not absolutely sure, but if you took a straw poll among those in attendance who they would rather deal with - Archbishop Foley or Mike McCurry, chief media relations director for the White House, we would suspect it would be the former in a landslide! Archbishop Foley is no stranger to journalism, having attended the most prestigious journalism school in the country - Columbia University's School of Journalism and then serving as editor of the Philadelphia archdiocesan paper The Catholic Standard and Times for fourteen years until being appointed on April 5, 1984 as president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. This Council was first formed on an experimental basis by Pope Pius XII back in 1948 and during the fifties reorganized at least three times. It was Pope John XXIII who granted it a permanent commission on February 22, 1959, taking it out of the experimental phase and it was fully established as a Pontifical Council on June 28, 1988 and has been headed by the capable bishop from the city of brotherly love during this entire time. The whole purpose of this special council is to disseminate to the media the message of salvation and human progress in this quest so that it can be accurately conveyed to the masses through the proper channels - either the pulpit or the podium of broadcast and print.
During this four-day conference there were numerous conversions. We're not talking of the spiritual phenomena genre, but rather the conversion of heart among many of the participants to do the right thing when it comes to reporting. This can do nothing but help. And yet, there is an ulterior motive to the media's methods for right now God-related books are the in thing with many spiritual themed books on the best seller list. Recent polls also indicate that over 120 million Americans believe God is of utmost importance in their lives. With those kind of numbers the media can do nothing less than sit up, take note and strive to correct former faux pas that left them looking beleaguered in the past over their lack of expertise in religious matters. Many admitted as much including the publisher and chairman of The Miami Herald, who confessed that "Most of us do a profoundly inadequate job of covering matters of faith." One of the topics covered was demographics in which the editor of Portland's The Oregonian remarked, "Newspapers know the ethnic and gender demographics of their community, but I wonder if they know enough about their religious affiliation." Most left the conference with a new resolve to search this "new demographic" and vowed to provide better, more comprehensive coverage which could have a domino effect on turning public opinion back in favor of the media. God knows they can't drop any further in esteem.
We hope and pray this is a beginning that will snowball to a new understanding as we welcome the new millennium. One thing we hope the media realizes is that when they are reporting on a Catholic story, Notre Dame's Richard McBride and media darling Andrew Greeley are not the end-all experts and they need to search out reliable Catholic sources who have a bead on the truths of the doctrines, dogmas and teachings of Holy Mother Church. And so, as they left after hearing powerful talks by Cardinal William Keeler and Cardinal Francis Arinze who many are prognosticating could be the first African pope, there was a new spirit fostered among the group that we hope, like the Apostles of old, will be carried back and carried out.
There is an axiom that goes "Out of small acorns mighty oaks grow." From this tiniest of acorn states - the Papal State of Vatican City - the seeds have been planted, thanks to this first conference of its kind - held in the seat of Christianity - the eternal city bathed in religious history where the roots were first planted and blossomed from there. The events and results of this conference remind us of the early 1960 movie "The Mouse that Roared" made famous by the late Peter Sellers in which, as a bumbling foil for the smallest nation in Europe, his leaders announce war on the United States to gain financial aid. We make the comparison in that the mighty are brought to their knees because of wrong information, ignorance and pride. Such, it seems, was the case last week in Rome when the mighty media were brought to their collective knees by the gentle prod of truth and compassion from the Pope and his representative bishops and cardinals who spoke to the group. Here were the mightiest giants of the manipulating press listening attentively to the Pope - head of the smallest country in the universe - and they were there not to report, but to improve the scope of fairness and accuracy in their reporting. You might say, it was a parallel to Seller's classic comedy except the media cats had turned to purring, gentle kittens and, thanks to the Holy See's efforts and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the mouse that roared was actually a gentle dove!