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…

Beyond Benedict

papal seal

I think that I’m in agreement with Fr Ray’s conceit that our outgoing Pope has left us a legacy of concepts, as follows:

  • the idea that there is a correct and incorrect interpretation of Vatican II,

  • he has gone along way to reconciling the Church’s present to its past, Summorum Pontificum is an important part of this

  • he has gone along to dismantling the political notions of left and right, liberal and conservative (the media hasn’t caught on to this yet) and restoring the notion of Catholic orthodoxy.

  • he has re-presented the idea that Pope is the Bishop of Rome – certainly first amongst equals – (I’ll explore this at a later stage but I think this important).

  • that “Unity” in terms of ecumenism is about looking to those who share (substantially) the catholic faith – hence Ordinariates and looking towards the Orthodox

It’s certainly true that Joseph Ratzinger has done much to reinforce the concept that biblical Christianity does not fit neatly into the left/right praxis of Western democracy, which is why whilst few media commentators have been ignorant enough to label him as a right-wing or Republican type, neither have they picked up on many of his speeches which have a distinctly left-wing bent. This speech on selfish economic models and the value of the family farm was never widely disseminated for example, and neither was his concept of the ecology of mankind, reclaiming territory from the Greens, ever explored nor were his environmentally friendly credentials ever acknowledged or welcomed by the Green party, only being belatedly dredged up by the Guardian who were trying to find something positive to say to balance out their one-sided coverage of the papal resignation which would fit in with their agenda. It begs the question as to when the watermelons are going to cotton on to the environmental effects of their contraceptive comfort blanket.

But Fr Ray, is correct in his identification that Benedict, like his predecessor, has left us a variety of concepts which now need practical application. In both John Paul II and Benedict XVI we have had two towering intellectual giants, two great teaching popes who were both members and architects of the Second Vatican Council, who both understood what the reforms were supposed to achieve, watched their misapplication with dismay and who both unpicked, communicated and attempted to sow the seeds of the genuine spirit and renewal of the church that Vatican II was supposed to engender. Both John Paul II and Benedict left behind great gifts to the church in terms of their theological and academic writings – notably John Paul II’s theology of the body, which will continue to be studied and relevant for many generations to come, and Joseph Ratzinger’s vast body of literary contributions, apostolic letters and speeches out of which it is difficult to chose any of being of most merit, so consistently high is the quality, but my money is on Deus Caritus Est and his biographies of Jesus, which was groundbreaking in that a Pope made complex theological concepts and the historicity of the gospels accessible to the general public for the first time in modern history.

So what next? Is the Pope one of the last intellectuals and is this really such a bad thing? It’s fair to say that whoever is chosen, they are hardly going to be a dullard in the cerebral stakes, given that canon law proscribes that all bishops must either have a doctorate or a licentiate (i.e. a lesser degree than a doctorate but a qualification that enables them to teach in seminaries). The unfortunately titled piece on Catholic Light, (Does the Pope have an S.T.D) gives a comprehensive summary of cardinals’ degrees.

But all Catholics need to be wary of the cult of the intellect, which can lead us astray in terms of admiring people or wishing to elevate them on the basis of intellect alone. Whilst it is vital that those in positions of leadership must have a thorough formation, I don’t think we can discount candidates on the basis that they don’t possess the extraordinary intellectual abilities and gifts of the previous two popes, which were unique and rare gifts. How many people can really count themselves in the same intellectual league as Karol Wojtyla or Joseph Ratzinger? St Peter wasn’t to be found earnestly studying the laws in minute detail in the synagogue though I think we can safely assume that he knew them well. Being an intellectual powerhouse is no guarantee of spiritual greatness or a burning and passionate desire to spread the good news and safely lead the flock. Being in possession of a great intellect must be tempered with a corresponding humility otherwise the gift takes on a destructive nature. Give me the humble priest who tends to the sick, who feeds the hungry and homeless, comforts the distressed, fights for the oppressed and walks with the outcast as opposed to the remote bookish intellect any day. Some of the most inspirational Catholics in my daily life are not those with the highfaluting terminology, but those who witness simply through their daily lives and everyday words of wisdom and encouragement.

We have been incredibly fortunate in that we’ve had two popes who have bequeathed us so much in terms of intellectual wisdom and insight, my feeling is that it’s now time to pause, take stock, we have to digest and now apply the messages and teachings of our two previous Popes. I think we need some intellectual breathing space, in which we can begin to absorb and apply what we have learnt.

The new pope, whoever it might be, needs to hopefully have something of the showmanship of Karol Wojtyla intermingled with the thoughtfulness and radicalism of Pope Benedict XVI. He must continue to reform the Vatican in terms of how it communicates with the outside world, the Pope’s twitter account has been an excellent start as has the engagement with Catholic bloggers and the redesign of the Vatican portal but these are cosmetic changes, there needs to be a concerted attempt to ensure that it uses the new tools at its disposal for the New Evangelisation. The new pontiff must also possess the courage and vision to be able to give the Curia a red-slippered kick up the backside, it would appear that it needs root and branch reform to bring its admin processes into the twenty-first century and it’s staff need to be brought into line – there should be no time for petty factionalisms and jealousy. Though whoever is appointed will undoubtedly possess intellect, it will not need to be the defining quality of this new papacy. We need, for want of a better word, an applicator and enforcer, someone who will widely disseminate, reinforce and apply the work of the past pontificates.

It’s a shame that due to the nature of global politics that we are unlikely to see Cardinal Dolan (although never say never, the frontrunners in a conclave almost never emerge as the successor), the world is not ready for an American pope and it is unlikely that we will see one for as long as the USA remains as a (albeit declining) global superpower – it would not be good to have a Vatican that Americans could claim as being theirs. Besides which America needs Cardinal Dolan, though no-one will be more delighted than me if I am proven wrong in a few weeks time and I am in sympathy with Fr Lucie-Smith, nationality should not disbar an otherwise ideal candidate. I’m nurturing outrageous secret fantasies, given that the Pope doesn’t technically need to be from among the college of Cardinals, about how wonderful it would be if the Holy Spirit were to whisper the Word on Fire amongst the cardinals in the conclave. Or what if our new Bishop of Portsmouth or Shrewsbury were to have the fastest promotion in ecclesial history?!

At this moment in time, regardless of whether or not he is our last pope (the evidence would indicate otherwise), the successor of Peter does undoubtedly need to feed his flock during a period of transition and flux, which is seeing an end to a society based upon Christian values and ideals. Now is a time to put the words and the intellect of others into action.