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Francis Effect Redux?

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States was striking not so much for its impact among Catholics, for whom Francis is the leader of their Church, but for its impact among non-Catholics, who were widely moved by both the Pope’s pastoral message and his humble style.

The media widely and enthusiastically covered his visit and his message but with the public’s short attention span in a 24-hour news cycle, during an election year one would think that the Pope might fade from view. Yet while he has returned to Rome, Pope Francis surprisingly continues to occupy media interest, including in the rarified media space of The New York Times.

I have found a recent series of stories featuring Pope Francis and the Church to be fascinating and possibly unprecedented, at least for many years, maybe since Vatican II.

First, a couple weeks ago New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a column entitled, “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” It focused on the recent Bishop’s Synod on the Family, and in particular on the debate within the Catholic Church about whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive communion without having their first marriage annulled.  This column provoked a surprisingly powerful response, not least among professional theologians.

On October 26th, on the website Daily Theology, over a hundred leading theologians from universities all across North America, including Notre Dame, Boston College, Villanova and Georgetown, signed a letter critical of Douthat’s column.  The brief letter said:

To the editor of the New York Times

On Sunday, October 18, the Times published Ross Douthat’s piece “The Plot to Change Catholicism.” Aside from the fact that Mr. Douthat has no professional qualifications for writing on the subject, the problem with his article and other recent statements is his view of Catholicism as unapologetically subject to a politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is. Moreover, accusing other members of the Catholic church of heresy, sometimes subtly, sometimes openly, is serious business that can have serious consequences for those so accused. This is not what we expect of the New York Times.

The letter got widespread coverage in the press and Douthat responded in another column in the Times with, “Letter to the Catholic Academy,” in which he explains his objectives to “My dear professors!”:

I hope we can agree that current controversies in Roman Catholicism cry out for explanation. And not only for Catholics: The world is fascinated – as it should be – by Pope Francis’ efforts to reshape our church. But the main parties in the church’s controversies have incentives to downplay the stakes. Conservative Catholics don’t want to concede that disruptive change is even possible. Liberal Catholics don’t want to admit that the pope might be leading the church into a crisis.

So in my columns, I’ve tried to cut through those obfuscations toward what seems like basic truth. There really is a high-stakes division, at the highest levels of the church…

While the controversy over divorce and communion is certainly deeply meaningful for the many divorced and remarried Catholics and even for their Catholic family and friends, it is very much an “inside baseball” kind of controversy, with the theological subtleties confusing to non-theologians and probably boring to non-Catholics. Why would the wider world care about these controversies in the Roman Catholic Church?  Why does the establishment’s most prestigious print media outlet devote precious column inches to such minutia?

Certainly much of the interest comes back to Pope Francis, whom the world finds compelling and fascinating. He is more accessible and engaging than the scholarly Benedict, with the personal warmth of John Paul, while delivering a generous, human and inclusive Gospel message.  But there is also a surprising interest in Francis’ “efforts to reshape our church,” as Douthat notes.  Some non-trivial part of the non-Catholic world seems to have a stake in matters that would seem far removed from their lives.  Maybe these internal controversies matter because the wider public, finding this Pope’s compassionate message especially compelling, want or need his moral authority to extend to the Church hierarchy as a ratification of Francis’ Gospel message.

Regardless of the exact nature of the interest, the Catholic Church and its leader, in some small way, are influencing the moral conversation in the world. On the one hand, that’s not surprising for an institution that has shaped morality profoundly for more than two millennia.  On the other hand, it’s very surprising in a secular 21st century where at least overt religious interest and practice are on the wane in the West and the same Catholic Church continues to suffer from a self-inflicted moral crises around sexual abuse.  For the Church to have regained some moral authority so soon after the widespread and deserved public shaming over clergy sexual abuse is surely surprising to even its most supportive followers and is an obvious tribute to the personal appeal of Pope Francis, whose influence may be only beginning.

Interesting times indeed.

By |November 10th, 2015|Categories: History|0 Comments

The Francis Effect

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

Photo: jeophotos via Flickr

I had the pleasure and thrill to be in Washington DC representing Saint John’s University during the Pope’s visit. It was certainly a singular privilege and honor to be with Abbot John to present an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library of Congress in honor of Pope Francis’s first visit to America. That event at the Capitol will be unforgettable, yet what was equally memorable was the atmosphere in Washington during our two day visit.

There was something about the Pope’s presence that affected people in the city and made my visit strikingly different than any previous trip to Washington.

Midwesterners often comment on their interactions with easterners when they travel to the Atlantic seaboard for work or pleasure. In my experience, the comments are mostly about Bostonians and New Yorkers, but Washingtonians are not immune from these mildly critical characterizations. The general observation is that metropolitan areas in the middle Atlantic and northeastern states feel significantly less friendly than Midwestern cities, even the biggest Midwest city of Chicago.

One must, of course, be careful about generalizations, but having lived for close to a decade in the Boston area, I find these observation to be largely on target. While personally friendly and engaging in more intimate settings, my experience with easterners in public is that they tend to be cool, focused on their own business and, while not overtly rude, certainly not particularly friendly and more than capable of looking out for their own interests.

It was against this backdrop that my two days in Washington DC were so striking.

Three experiences:

  1. Abbot John, Rob Culligan and I got up early on Wednesday to go to the White House where President Obama was welcoming the Pope. There were thousands of people waiting to be admitted to the South Lawn of the White House. Despite long lines, not terribly well run security, and a long, crowded wait once you got to the South Lawn, I did not witness a single tense or unpleasant encounter. In fact, people were offering each other advice about the fastest way to get through security. I also heard more than one person tell their neighbor in the crowd, “I’m not even Catholic, but I love this Pope.” The atmosphere was festive, and it was both an historic and gorgeous day, so maybe the aura of civility was not such a surprise, but there were a lot of people operating in very close quarters.
  2. The gorgeous weather and significant traffic made it very conducive to walking during my two days in Washington. In my various forays around the city I was amazed to have strangers on the street greet me and even occasionally offer unsolicited help with directions when I would pause at an intersection and appear perplexed. In my experience, you rarely get unsolicited greetings in big metro areas on the East Coast. People have their guards up against unwanted solicitations or panhandlers and therefore typically even avoid eye contact. But the social rules seemed noticeably different to me during those two days. Certainly not everyone greeted me as I passed them, but it felt a lot more like Minneapolis (or even Collegeville!) than I had ever experienced before in Washington (or Boston or New York), with two exceptions noted below.
  3. On Thursday morning, as Abbot John and I walked toward the Library of Congress, an African-American woman driving some kind of delivery van stopped in the middle of the block and rolled down her window. She called out to Abbot John, who was looking clerical in his robe and Abbot’s Cross, “Did you see the Pope yesterday?” Abbot John explained that we have been on the lawn of the White House and saw the Pope from afar. Undeterred, she asked enthusiastically, “What did he say?” Abbot John quickly gave her a very abridged version of the Pope’s comments about compassion and love, as drivers were waiting behind her in the street, though without honking or showing any overt signs of impatience. After the brief recounting, she exclaimed, “Thanks. That is great. Have a wonderful day!” Not your typical Washington exchange.

I had experienced similar social interactions in East Coast areas twice before.

When I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, residents in the area were extremely friendly and engaging when the Red Sox were making a playoff run in 1986 and ultimately made it to the World Series (where they famously lost to the Mets). Everyone felt like your aunt or your brother-in-law as they delighted in the Sox’s success. Camaraderie around a sports team’s success is not uncommon, but it noticeably took the chill off social relations in Beantown for a few weeks that fall.

I was in New York City a couple months after 9/11. The city felt different than I had ever experienced it before or since. The best way to describe the experience is that people were being gentle, even tender with on another. New Yorkers (and we) were still suffering together.

Though the interactions were similar, the cause and tenor were different. In Boston it was a kind of superficial fun – we were all sports fans together. In New York it was a somber wake, as we mourned. In Washington the feeling was delight, joy and hope. People seemed surprised to be so moved by this Pope. In an era of political, racial, religious, or economic divides, we seem to be delighted by the unabashed goodness and sincerity of this man, especially so because maybe we were not sure we could still feel this way.

These are, of course, only my observations – anecdotes, as it were. I have no illusions that the Pope’s visit will permanently change social interactions in Washington (or New York or Philadelphia), and it is much easier to talk about the Gospel message than to put it into public policy, where real resources and inevitable trade offs are required.

But for a couple days we seemed to be able to put aside our differences and celebrate a message of hope and compassion. If we were able to do so for a couple of days, that suggests we may also be able to do it for a longer period.

By |September 28th, 2015|Categories: History|0 Comments

PR Heaven

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Above (from left to right) are the participants in the presentation the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library of Congress, Abbot Klassen; Chairman of Joint Committee on the Library Sen. Roy Blunt,; Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington; Pope Francis; Speaker of the House John Boehner; Saint John’s University President Dr. Michael Hemesath; and GHR Foundation CEO Amy Rauenhorst Goldman. 
Photo: GHR Foundation

You can probably count on two hands the schools that do not have to worry about their brand and name recognition: Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton–maybe it would only take one hand. Every other college or university in the country spends significant time and treasure promoting their brand and name recognition (and the aforementioned schools surely do as well).

Schools naturally care about their reputation with prospective students and parents. They also strive to maintain the goodwill and loyalty of their alumni. And finally, the general public’s opinion of schools (and higher education in general) can matter for funding if it’s a public university, but perceptions can also matter for public policy and legislative reasons for every institution.

Schools generally consider their media presence in three distinct, though often overlapping, markets.

The local market is actually the easiest to manage. The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University get very generous and helpful media coverage from St. Cloud area media, and The St. Cloud Times particular. I’m sure St. Mary’s University gets similar support from the Winona press and the College of Saint Scholastica from the Duluth media. There is a natural and built-in constituency in the hometown area of any college or university.

At the state level, things get a little more complicated for smaller institutions. The University of Minnesota obviously attracts interest from all over the state, but smaller institutions with smaller student bodies and fewer alumni are not always an interest across the whole state. Given the geography of Minnesota, with much of the media focused in the Twin Cities, every institution of higher education except the U is competing with each other for limited media coverage. Saint John’s has done reasonably well in the state market with our strong athletic brand, many loyal and successful alums and long history, but there is still a limit in the interest in Saint John’s related stories. And, truth be told, we face challenges in competing with the much larger and Twin Cities-based University of St. Thomas. But with personalities like John Gagliardi, alumni like Sen. Dave Durenberger and Rep. Mark Kennedy, as well as faculty like Louis Johnston, Annette Atkins and Nick Hayes, I think it is safe to say we punch well above our weight in the state media market.

At the national level, it is virtually impossible for small institutions to influence their media opportunities. Even the very top-ranked liberal arts colleges that everyone in academia recognize as national have almost no national media presence. Outside of the rarified world of higher education, places like Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore are little known, despite having produced influential alumni for decades.

To get national media attention as a small educational institution usually requires luck. Saint John’s has been lucky in recent years as our alumnus Denis McDonough has served as the Chief of Staff for President Obama, often putting him in the national eye. Though, interestingly, in this case, part of the attraction to Denis’s story is that he played football for John Gagliardi. I suspect that many people, when asked about Denis’s background, are more likely to remember he played for the winningest coach in college football history rather than the fact that he graduated from SJU. But we will take that!

All of these observations about media are simply to preface what an incredible week this is for Saint John’s University in the national media–how the stars have aligned in a way that is unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon.

First, as any sentient American knows, Pope Francis is making his first visit to America this week. As of this posting, he is in Washington DC and will soon go on to Philadelphia and New York. Saint John’s University has had the exceptional opportunity to be associated with this visit through The Saint John’s Bible project. Through the extraordinary generosity of the GHR Foundation, Saint John’s presented an Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Library of Congress, and therefore the American people, in honor of the Pope’s historic visit. Abbot John Klassen and I were privileged to be part of the presentation ceremony in which the Pope, House Majority Leader John Boehner and the Head of the Library of Congress Dr. James Billington, among others, were present. This media exposure – and association with possibly the most popular man on the planet – should give Saint John’s unprecedented national exposure.

Second, forty-eight hours later we will get to showcase another exceptional part of the Saint John’s story. ESPN Sports Center will be broadcasting live from Clemens Stadium from 6:00 to 8:00 on Saturday morning prior to the Johnnie-Tommie football game. In another unprecedented national media opportunity, Saint John’s will be representing not only itself but all of Division III athletics, as ESPN Sports Center On the Road has never visited a Division III institution before. This manna from media heaven was made possible in part through the hard work of a number of alumni, but a Gustavus alumnus and Augsburg alumnus also played a significant role in generously helping to bring this opportunity to Collegeville. Being Benedictine to our MIAC rivals should be its own reward, but in this case it has brought us national media exposure, too!

Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez once said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” I certainly think SJU community members and our alums should strive to be good, as our Benedictine heritage teaches, but this is a week where we have been lucky as well. Very lucky. And we will take it.

Every day is a good day to be a Johnnie (or a friend of Johnnies), but I hope our many alumni and friends are enjoying this sweet week in Saint John’s University’s history as much as I am.