The media and a cheeky little grumble

Who wanted to be in rainy Rome anyway?
Who wanted to be in rainy Rome anyway?

Regular readers will have noticed that I haven’t been posting over the past few weeks, even though there has been no shortage of material. The main reason for this has been the time that I spend writing (usually evenings) has been taken up with vast amounts of reading around the conclave process, its history and the background of the various papabili in preparation for any media appearances which may crop up. Catholic Voices has really come into its own during these momentous weeks, many of the speakers have done a tremendous job in terms of informing the media and general public and one thing that I have noticed from my contributions, is that the attitude of the media certainly seems to have softened and become a lot less hostile and more open to a reasoned Catholic viewpoint, although there are occasions when one finds oneself addressing the same old canards again and again.

Whilst there will always be the same detractors, the one thing that should be borne in mind, is that despite the excellent and rigorous training and preparation for what it is like to be in the hot seat, there is no substitute for experience. The more media appearances you do, the more confident, relaxed and skilled you become at the whole process, so those who vociferously complain in the various coms boxes really need to bear this in mind before they let rip. I can certainly see an improvement and marked contrasts between my recent interviews and those of a year ago. It isn’t always easy being subject to scrupulous, superficial and often ignorant scrutiny when one has a microphone or camera trained on you. In most of these situations, nuance or an in-depth detailed theological discussion is impossible. Very often, such recently on the Big Questions, it’s superficial scattergun apologetics, bouncing from one neuralgic issue to the next, to the next, with no time for considered thoughtful answers. The opening shot of an interview I did yesterday was “well you obviously follow Catholic teaching on contraception then, you’ve got 4 children”. It then went down the usual rabbit holes and on reflection, I can see how at times I missed my chance to refocus the interview on the Pope, but it’s pretty difficult to concentrate when one is being poked in the eye with a sharp stick. But on another occasion, God Willing, I’ll be able to handle that better, having learnt.

I did an interview the other morning for Radio Merseyside, having woken up for the early morning interview chock full of cold and lurgy. It proved our saying, you are never as good or as bad as you think you are (I thought it was absolutely terrible), but judging by the stat counter on my blog, I’d obviously confused the listener by using the word pallium, without explaining what this was. Several people arrived here having asked google about “Caroline Farrow’s pallium”. I then received some friendly advice about not using specific liturgical terminology. ‘The problem is’, they explained, ‘that nobody knows what a pallium is. They probably spent the rest of the interview highly distracted wondering what a pallium was, how big is it, did he mean to leave it there and did he ever get it back. What happened to it? Is it like something out of Dr Who’. Which is fair comment and goes to show that for certain audiences, detailed complex theological or philosophical concepts are going to go way over people’s heads and prove counterproductive. But by the time I’d done 11 back-to-back interviews for local radio the other Sunday, I think I’d pretty much got the issues down pat and nailed, the only difficulty being attempting to make the same sentiments sound fresh after 2 and a half hours of non stop opining. As long as one can relax and enjoy the interview and realise that the presenter actually wants to find you winsome, a bit of jocularity goes down a lot better than jargon-heavy hectoring and might actually motivate people to find out more.

We’re in the realms of cloud cluckoo land if we think a short slot on local radio should aim to deliver the thunderbolt that sends the listeners rushing to their nearest confessional, certainly the common theme in both my journey of faith and those that Catholic converts have shared with me is not necessarily one incident but whole series of interlocking events that looked at as a whole, formed a path leading to the truth. A compelling media appearance can certainly play a part in that, but a 3 minute slot is not going to have the same effect as an hour’s talk or presentation by a great Christian or Catholic apologist.

The last few weeks have been something of a roller-coaster for us all. We’ve barely had time to come to terms with the resignation surrounding our beloved Pope Benedict, before getting into the swing of the conclave and the speculation surrounding his successor. On a personal note, like many of my colleagues, I’ve been rushed off my feet preparing for interviews, which not only takes it toll in terms of time but also emotional energy as well as, for someone like me, logistics. It’s not especially easy to arrange childcare at short notice when one’s husband is miles away at seminary and family needs to come first. I was really disappointed to have to turn down Sky News on the day of Benedict’s final general audience, but Robin had his official formal interview and feedback for the diaconate, which was infinitely more important. And let’s face it, doing the big media stuff is always fun and challenging, even if nerve-wracking, although one really needs to be on guard for spiritual vanity, which is one of the consequences of this kind of work and a trap which I really do have to work very hard not to fall into. If readers could continue to pray not only for me, but for all of us who try to speak for our faith in whatever medium, it would be hugely appreciated. We always make sure that we have a prayer chain of folk praying for us before we go on air and in the final moments before the camera switches on, I always clear my mind and pray.

But now onto the grumble and observation. Last week, I had word that the BBC were looking to fly me out to Rome to be a part of their coverage for the conclave. To say that I was beyond excited is something of an understatement. Robin and I agreed that if it were possible, given that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, that we should do whatever we could to make it happen, hence I had a week of rushing about like a headless chicken, and a precise timetable of chores, involving making sure that two of the children could stay with their grandparents, clothes were meticulously laundered into handy piles, favourite cuddlies and books stockpiled and packed, along with bibs, beakers and all the various paraphanalia to ensure that life was as easy as possible both for them and my parents at the other end. A rota of other parents were enlisted to pick up the eldest from school and various favours called in, whilst in the middle of the week I made an eight hour journey to Peterborough and back to procure a passport to enable me to take the baby, as well as beginning to acclimatise her to taking a bottle of formula milk, in case the passport did not arrive in time and/or to make life easier whilst out there.

In between all the dashing about, I waited and there was nothing. No confirmation of what was happening or response to an email asking whether the trip was still on. As is their prerogative and their right, the BBC decided to change their line-up and were too preoccupied to respond. That’s fair enough really, it’s entirely up to them who they wished to cover the event and my childcare and personal arrangements are irrelevant and none of their concern. This kind of thing happens all the time – we need to be ego free, prepared to be dropped at a moment’s notice, but it was more than a little frustrating having to put in place a complicated contingency plan should I suddenly be asked to get on a flight at moment’s notice. Of course I could always have said no from the outset, but the BBC had asked specifically for a woman and the other candidates were already indisposed. Naturally I wanted to go, if at all possible. But it wasn’t to be.

Then to add salt into my wounds, the phone rang on Wednesday night, between the appearance of the white smoke and Pope Francis on the balcony, asking whether or not I would be able to appear on Newsnight. Robin said fine, he’d put the kids to bed and I ran to jump in the shower, with BBC News playing on full volume on the radio. Having made myself look vaguely presentable, I then sat there for a few hours, having spoken to the producer of the show, trying to stop the children from smearing sticky fingers and spilling milk all over my only clean suit, waiting for him to phone back and confirm that a car was on its way, having pressed on him that one needed to come quickly if it was going to get me from Brighton to London in time. All the while trying to compose myself as well as some cogent thoughts about our new pontiff. At 9pm, an hour before I was supposed to be at the studio, no car had come, so I rang the show, only to discover that they had decided to drop me in favour of two priests and had forgotten to ring me back and tell me.

So all dressed up, tons of adrenlin and nowhere to go. Which happens, it’s incredibly frustrating, part and parcel of life and every single Catholic Voice will have a similar story about being dropped at the last minute, it’s not the first time it has happened, it won’t be the last and is all part of being ego free, but nonetheless I was feeling a little antsy and fed up yesterday, having invested a great deal of time and emotional energy. It is disappointing when that happens, especially when one has built oneself up. So another thing to remember next time one sees anyone on television or on radio. We’re all members of the laity, we’re not full-time professional media commentators, we’ve all got lives and families of our own and we do this work gladly out of love for the church and though we undoubtedly enjoy what we do and strive to do well, it does entail sacrifice, and this week was something of a double-whammy in terms of building up expectation and adrenalin, only to come crashing back down again. I obviously need to take a leaf out of our new pontiff’s book in terms of humility.

So moaning aside, and yes this is admittedly a minor personal grumble although I am sufficiently recovered and able to take disappointment in my stride, what I find most interesting about this, is that the BBC, who are usually preoccupied with diversity and representation and who repeatedly question the Catholic Church in terms of whether or not it represents women, have on two occasions in its recent coverage, ignored the opportunity to represent the viewpoint of an ordinary faithful Catholic woman in the church, in favour of men. I’m loath to draw any conclusions about political agendas, sometimes these things just happen without reason, but I can’t help but wonder whether or not a dissenting or ‘liberal’ Catholic woman would have made a more compelling narrative? I think it’s why they were keen to interview me over the celibacy controversy and found that they didn’t quite get what they were bargaining for.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Catholic TV station EWTN had Colleen Campbell doing an excellent job covering events. Whereas the UK media’s coverage was predominantly male-dominated. In some ways that doesn’t bother me, I’m not one for shortlists, it should be whoever is best able to do the job, regardless of gender and certainly in the case of Newsnight, Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith was his usual erudite and charming self. But next time the BBC wishes to berate the Catholic Church over its representation and treatment of women, it perhaps ought to look at the predominant gender of who it chose to represent the faithful in their coverage of the past few weeks.

Still it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry and an additional Lenten penance. I’m now due for a bit of a rest, unless anyone fancies subbing me a quick flight out in time for the inaugural Mass…

A Tale of Two Francis

Viva Papa!
Viva Papa!

Here is the full unedited version of a piece I wrote for Mercatornet on our new Holy Father.

The world’s Catholics are reeling with the shock election of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new successor to Peter, even the most seasoned Vaticanistas were not predicting that the runner-up to Ratzinger in the 2005 Conclave was a serious contender, his age and his Jesuit background both seemed to count against him.

Surprise swiftly melted into joy, excitement, anticipation and gratitude upon confirmation that age is clearly no barrier to innovation for the former Cardinal, as signified by his choice of name – the first Pope Francis in almost 2,000 years of Church history.

The name Francis is an indicator as to the future direction of a papacy which will have the themes of simplicity, humility, discipline, reform, rebirth and outreach at its heart. Not only do we have the first ever Pope from Latin America, but in Pope Francis we have something of a two-for-the-price of one, with a fusion of two major religious orders, whose founders both heralded a period of Church renewal and reform. Bergoglio could well prove to be a man for all seasons, combining the spiritual discipline of St Ignatius of Loyola with the humility and simplicity of St Francis of Assisi.

One of the defining qualities of the Jesuit order is that they don’t mess around and always mean business – something that could prove very useful for a Pope for whom reform of the Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucratic arm, is high on the agenda. The recent Vatileaks brouhaha was a symptom of the internecine factionalism that currently besets and hinders this small, but essential part of the Church from running in as efficient a manner as possible. A Pope who could be both governor and enforcer was one of the prerequisite criteria and a key theme emerging from the General Congregations, the meetings that preceded the Conclave. A religious order with a reputation for getting down to business , sorting wheat from the chaff seems to be exactly what the doctor ordered, and those who might doubt whether or not he possess the passion to bang heads together, ought to remember his scorching attack on clericalism, just six months ago in September 2012, when he denounced priests who refused to baptise the babies born outside marriage, as being guilty of “rigorous and hypocritical clericalism”. Pope Francis has no time for what he deems “the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church”.

All of which augurs well, as does his track record of swiftly appointing loyal bishops to troubled dioceses – the Catholic church is not a top-down organisation and depends upon good local governance. Rapid deployment of strong faithful intelligent bishops is key to rooting out decay and planting the seeds of the future.

John Allen, the veteran Vatican observer, has wondered whether or not Bergoglio’s lack of solid experience inside the Vatican itself would prove an obstacle, but an outsider with an Ignatian passion for rigorous discipline and an agenda for change, wholly untainted by insider corruption or personal interests, is ideally placed to implement the much needed root and branch reform. Pope Francis has previous form when it comes to taking action. He rose to prominence following his appointment as the provincial of the Jesuit order in Argentina in 1973, and unlike other Church leaders refused to back the country’s military dictatorship. He held firm against the rising tide of liberation theology sweeping Latin America, discouraging priests from political activism and insisted that Jesuits continued to staff the parishes and chaplaincies where they were needed instead of forming communities. Bergoglio’s insistence on obedience and stamping out of heterodoxy and dissent won him some local enemies, but indicates a desire to get things done, and is a trait that will stand him in good stead when it comes to continuing to root out what the Emeritus Pope Benedict described as the filth of the child abuse scandals, that have rocked the Church in recent years. There can be no doubt that Pope Francis will continue to act with an iron fist when it comes to sorting out sexual transgressions and there will be no room for cover-up. His struggle against the military government of Argentina together with the rise of liberal theology prefigures the battle against the pervasive rise of moral relativism in an increasingly secular West. “After a battle” he reportedly said, “you have to act firmly”.

The previous two pontiffs can be characterized as theological powerhouses, whose teaching was reinforced by a vast canon of personal writings and both of whom could be studied as philosophers and theologians in their own right. Following thirty-five years of academic reflection, many have felt that now is the time for some intellectual breathing space, to give the faithful time to digest and apply what we have been taught by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who unpacked and applied the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Whilst Pope Francis is no intellectual slouch – he trained as a chemist, before joining the priesthood, he has an undisguised passion for literature having taught the subject at University level alongside psychology, philosophy and theology and in true Jesuit tradition has encouraged priests to exercise their cerebral and artistic gifts, few people can pack the cerebral punch of Carol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.

Bergolio’s election is nonetheless a manifestation of the growing desire to see a different style of papacy, one that teaches and leads through its actions as well as words. It can be no surprise that a Cardinal noted for his humility and love of the poor has chosen St Francis of Assisi, the man who reformed the church through simplicity, as his namesake. Of humble origin, born of an Italian immigrant railway worker, Jorge Bergoglio has eschewed all trappings of office, avoiding media interviews and urging people not to spend money on plane tickets to Rome to celebrate his election to the Cardinalate in 2001, but instead to give the money to the poor. Instead of living in a lavish episcopal mansion in Buenos Aires, he chose instead to live in a small apartment where he cooked his own meals, did his own housework and took the bus around town visiting the poor, rather than a chauffeur driven limousine. True to form, following his election to the papacy, he chose to take the bus back to the hotel instead of using the Holy Father’s car, to spend one final night with the cardinals and emerged suitcases in hand in the hotel lobby, to pay his own bill.

In an era that is reaping the consequences of globalisation and the ravages of a rampant unchecked capitalism, the Christian message of concern for the poor and of social injustice is of paramount import. In Francis, we have a Pope who embodies the compassion of Christ, whether that be by kissing the feet of AIDS victims, or rolling up his sleeves and going out and ministering to the poor, accompanied by a rhetoric that denounces the failures of neo-liberalism.

One of the frustrating aspects of the papacy of the Pope Emeritus was that his constant critiques of an economy based on individualistic greed and mind-blowing masterclasses on natural law and reason were subsumed and ignored by a media only interested in sexual ethics and scandal. Pope Benedict’s problem was not that he was by any means ineffective, it is thanks to him that the Catholic Church now sets the gold standard in terms of child protection issue, but that self-promotion was not his forte and the Vatican failed to communicate the extensive measures that had been taken and neither did they initially understand the nature of a rolling global 24/7 media. At times it appeared that the Vatican press office consisted of an elderly telegraph machine and answerphone, allowing, in the words of Mark Twain, a lie to travel half way around the world, whilst the truth was still putting its shoes on.

The willingness to engage with the media could potentially pose one of the few problems for this naturally modest yet deeply spiritual man. Yet from the moment that the world caught of a glimpse of the new Pope it was clear, that whilst not possessing the natural charisma or showmanship of John Paul II, his prayerful nature demonstrated by breaking with tradition and asking the crowd to pray for him, before giving the customary blessing, this simplicity will be precisely how he will win hearts and minds in the New Evangelisation. Pope Francis is a man whose actions will demonstrate that he is all substance over what will be a very humble style.

Pope Francis has something for everyone, a seamless garment- a man who straddles all aspects of a diverse church, a man who holds the concepts of social justice as close to his heart as issues surrounding the unborn, the elderly and the protection of the nuclear family. His first papal blessing was given to a pregnant woman who happened to have got up early to pray at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where he too had gone to pray before the Roman image of the Mother of God. Pope Francis, will be a pope of the people, leading the way forward by example in prayer and in a lifestyle of simple humility.

Whilst there is some concern amongst traditionalists in terms of liturgical preferences, there is no reason to believe that he will be openly hostile to the reforms of Summorum Pontificorum – frankly he has bigger fish to fry and is too canny to alienate a significant proportion of the world’s faithful. Although yesterday’s Mass may have caused some facepalming amongst those delighted in Pope Benedict’s liturgical reform of the reform (‘Holy Father I love you already, but what’s with the polyester and freestanding altar’ said one friend), whilst Pope Francis may see a temporary return to practices that some may have hoped were on the decline, I think we have to remember that if he wishes to face the people, or changes the Benedictine altar set-up, it’s simply because he wants the people to see Christ – it is with good heart and intent, not because he has some secret liturgical agenda.

Though 76 and with only one lung, Pope Francis still has plenty of life to breathe into the Church, combining the evangelical zeal of St Francis Xavier, with the reforming simplicity good works and love of the poor of St Francis of Assisi. Whilst the Church may not be in ruins, this holy man from the South may be just the breath of fresh air that it needs. Jesuit decision-maker and political negotiator melded with poor mendicant friar will sow the seeds for a twenty-first century Catholic revival, in a world grown jaded and weary with the selfish excesses of consumerism. Catholics will need to start putting their money where their mouths are.

Pope Francis on an Argentinian tube
Snapped unaware on the Tube