Missionaries of Charity

Not every Catholic story today is bad news. Here are two positive ones not to be overlooked

Not every Catholic story today is bad news. Here are two positive ones not to be overlooked

The Roman Catholic Church has taken it on the chin lately in nations across the globe. Some of its been richly deserved, as in Australia, Chile, Honduras and the United States, where high-level priestly sex-scandals, and cover-ups, have generated a flood of sadly similar stories.

Yesterday’s post by my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin is a great place to catch up with the latest surrounding ex-Washington archbishop, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the latest high-level American Catholic leader (or former leader) to be outed as a sexual predator. Julia also listed some steps that journalists can take to uncover more of this sordid tale.

Editors, and media consumers, love a juicy sex scandal regardless of who the culprit may be, so I’m sure some reporters -- my bets are on New York Times and Washington Post religion-desk staffers -- are doing just that.

Even the late Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, has prompted some bad press in India. It's not because of a sex scandal but the story is equally bad -- a sister and a staffer secretly selling babies born to women housed at one of the order’s shelters.

It all seems so horrific and terribly bad for the church, from the parish level up to the Vatican, that one wonders whether the church has truly poisoned its well. Where will this end? 

But do not despair, Catholic believers. You may think this an ironic turn on my part, but I’m actually here to praise the church, not bury it, so to speak — and if you’ll allow me to invert the Bard of Avon.

That’s because some of the stories critical of the church are government issue, and they’re of an entirely different sort. The church may be getting slammed in these stories, too. But it's not because of self-generated scandal bubbling up from within; it's for trying to do right.

I’m thinking of the Philippines and Nicaragua in particular. In both nations, the church is locked in fierce opposition to despotic rulers that are not shy about jailing or even physically eliminating their opponents. So it's dangerous for church leaders to be doing what they are.

I’ll say more on the situations in both those nations in a bit.

But first, what’s the journalistic lesson here?

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After all the debates, the 'saint of the gutters' was officially proclaimed St. Teresa of Kolkata

After all the debates, the 'saint of the gutters' was officially proclaimed St. Teresa of Kolkata

So Mother Teresa of Calcutta is now officially St. Teresa of Kolkata.

Most of the coverage of the canonization rites played the story straight, with the joy -- and tensions -- of the day included in hard-news reports. We can let the Associated Press report that will be read by the majority of American news consumers sum up the coverage.

Oh, and tensions during the rites?

My only real criticism of the solid AP report is found right up top, when a key fact about the event was separated from its cause. Read carefully:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Elevating the "saint of the gutters" to one of the Catholic Church's highest honors, Pope Francis on Sunday praised Mother Teresa for her radical dedication to society's outcasts and her courage in shaming world leaders for the "crimes of poverty they themselves created."
An estimated 120,000 people filled St. Peter's Square for the canonization ceremony, less than half the number who turned out for her 2003 beatification. It was nevertheless the highlight of Francis' Holy Year of Mercy and quite possibly one of the defining moments of his mercy-focused papacy.

Look at that second sentence. Why the smaller crowd for this ceremony? Has enthusiasm for the cause of the tiny Albanian nun declined in the past decade?

Actually, no. Much, much later in the report there is this crucial reference.

While big, the crowd attending the canonization wasn't even half of the 300,000 who turned out for Mother Teresa's 2003 beatification celebrated by an ailing St. John Paul II. The low turnout suggested that financial belt-tightening and security fears in the wake of Islamic extremist attacks in Europe may have kept pilgrims away.

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Film at 11? Is it news that ISIS might crucify kidnapped Salesian priest on Good Friday?

Film at 11? Is it news that ISIS might crucify kidnapped Salesian priest on Good Friday?

One of the hardest parts of being a reporter, on any beat, is trying to figure out what to do while you are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Let's say that a major event has taken place and that you have written that story. However, you just know that there will be other developments. Do you try to get ahead of it and write an advance story about what MIGHT happen, about the developments that you know the experts are already anticipating, if not investigating? Then again, if lots of scribes do that, it's possible that they will influence the story that they're covering.

This happens all the time in political coverage. Right now, major newsrooms are cranking out stories based on the whole "what will the candidates do next in an attempt to stop Donald Trump, etc., etc." line of thought. It's speculation mixed with blue-sky planning.

As you would imagine, I am thinking about a specific story now looming in the background, as the churches of the West move through Holy Week toward the bright liturgical grief of Good Friday. I am referring to that note that I added the other day, at the end of a post with this headline: "Did gunmen in Yemen kill the four Missionaries of Charity for any particular reason?"

The hook for the post was a comment by Pope Francis in which he wondered why journalists around the world were offering so little coverage of the deaths of these four nuns. I added:

So what's the bottom line at this point, in terms of the pope's lament about the news coverage? Have we reached the point where attacks of this kind are now normal and, well, not that big a deal? Did these news reports really need to be clear about who lived and who died in this case? Did the faith element -- the "martyr" detail -- matter in the original coverage of these killings or did it only become valid when the pope said so?
Just asking. And does anyone else fear that we may soon see the missing priest in an Islamic State video?

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Did gunmen in Yemen kill the four Missionaries of Charity for any particular reason?

Did gunmen in Yemen kill the four Missionaries of Charity for any particular reason?

So what would Pope Francis, stepping into a media-critic role for a moment, have to say about this BBC coverage of that slaughter at the retirement home in Yemen?

We don't know what he thinks about the BBC report in particular, but it is quite similar to the other mainstream news reports about this incident that I have seen. Please watch the BBC report (at the top of this post) or read this brief BBC summary, taken from the Internet.

The key question appears to be this: Did religion have anything to do with who died and who lived in this attack? To state the matter another way: Should these nuns be considered Christian "martyrs"? Here is the entire BBC summary:

Pope Francis has condemned a gun attack on a Catholic retirement home in southern Yemen which left 16 people dead.
Four nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, were among those killed.
Local officials in the port city of Aden are blaming the so-called Islamic State group, as David Campanale reports.

Actually, if you seek out the Catholic News Agency report about the attack you will find that Pope Francis did more than lament the attack itself. He is upset about the lack of coverage. Here is the top of the CNA story:

VATICAN CITY -- On Sunday Pope Francis lamented the world’s indifference to the recent killing of four Missionaries of Charity, calling them the ‘martyrs of today’ and asking that Bl. Mother Teresa intercede in bringing peace.

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Memories of Mother Teresa and a religious-freedom story worth watching in India

Memories of Mother Teresa and a religious-freedom story worth watching in India

One of the highlights of my journalism career came in 1982 in Bombay (now Mumbai) where I had the opportunity to conduct a news conference for Mother Teresa, the late Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun and current candidate for Roman Catholic sainthood. The occasion was a conference staged by the International Transpersonal Association. My wife, Ruth, and I handled the press and Mother Teresa was one of the star presenters, hence the news conference opportunity.

Her talk and media comments were boilerplate Mother Teresa. Love the unloved, love the unwanted, love the dying; love, love, love until you think you have no more love to give -- then force yourself to love even more, for that is the way of God.

The diminutive, stoop-shouldered nun repeated some variation of that formula endlessly, in her talk and in response to every question asked at her news conference, and I, for one, was impressed. So it came of something of a shock to me years later when she famously admitted -- despite her popular image of saintly devotion to the poorest of the poor and the global public's assumption that her faith gave her the strength to persevere -- that she suffered for years from a spiritual dryness that distanced her from feeling connected to her God.

I'm sure that long ago news conference was just another day on the job for Mother Teresa. For me, though, it was a day to remember.

Mother Teresa, however, was a controversial personality, despite all the charitable work done by her and the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity.

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