Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gary Stern on "Why we called the pope an ‘enigma’" (and a response)

Via Tim Drake ( and Get Religion ("Pondering the Pope" March 25, 2008), Gary Stern responds to the criticism of his original post and the question of whether it's appropriate to describe Pope Benedict XVI as a "mystery man" and an "engima" (Blogging Religiously March 24, 2008):

The main point: When talking to Catholics over the last few months, it became clear to me that many people don’t know what to make of Pope Benedict. It’s not that they’re critical of him. Or overly supportive.

Most people don’t have the time or interest to following papal happenings closely in the Catholic press—what the pope is writing or saying. And this pope is not nearly as prone to the grand gesture as was John Paul II. You have to pay attention to get a sense of what he is about.

So I set out to write an introduction to Benedict’s first three years as pope for Catholics—and others—who haven’t really paid attention since his election in April 2005. I talked to a lot of really smart people who observe the pope closely and asked them to explain Benedict’s pontificate, so far, in as basic terms as possible.

I asked them: What would you tell someone who now wants to figure out what this pope is about?

I don’t think that the clear consensus—that Benedict remains a mystery to most—is in any way derogatory or critical of the pope. It may take years (or longer) for his teachings to seep down. Or his visit to the U.S. may inspire many people to sit up and pay attention sooner. We’ll see.

I do think there is some truth in Stern's observation that "people don’t have the time or interest to following papal happenings closely in the Catholic press [or] what the pope is writing or saying." How many Catholics make a point to read the Pope's encyclicals and homilies, or strive to understand and take to heart what he has to say?

By the same token, how many frequent the sacraments (confession as well as commmunion) and attend Mass on a regular basis?

Of course I think the answer is relative -- depending on the orthodoxy of one's particular parish / diocese, the strength of its catechical programs and schools, the public actions of its bishop(s) in affirming the teachings of the Church, the Catholic identity of one's own self and family.

Sadly, there is no denying that the temptations and pitfalls of our secular, superfluous and material culture run deep -- I'd suspect you wouldn't have to search long to find Catholics who would sooner quote the headlines of the daily tabloid and gossip rag, sports stats, which contestant got voted off American Idol, or the latest gaff from this or that presidential candidate -- than recall what the Pope had to say in his latest encyclical.

If there really is "a consensus that Benedict remains a mystery to most," this speaks more of the kind of people we are (not to mention our average attention span) than any particular deficiency on the part of the Holy Father.

* * *

To elaborate a little more on why I think Stern's original piece ( ) sparked the reaction it did -- as Colleen Campbell observed with regard to coverage of Benedict's papal youth rally in Brazil ("Papal youth appeal is about the message as well as the man " St. Louis Dispatch May 17, 2007), American and European newspaper journalists would "regularly quote only disgruntled teenagers in their reports," "include the "obligatory quote from a teenage critic who disagrees with Benedict about condom distribution or pre-marital sex," dismiss the popularity of the Pope with the claim that it was "merely his charisma, not not his message, that was the draw." (We are likely to hear this refrain in the coverage of the papal youth rally at Yonkers -- watch for it).

As Tim Drake noted recently as well, there are those among the press who appeal to the "WOCHA Mantra" (Women's Ordination, Contraception, Homosexuality, Abortion). Witness "Pope, ahead of U.S. trip, speaks of abortion, gays" Reuters, February 29, 2008; Cleveland Plain Dealer March 13, 2008. As we draw nearer to the arrival date, we can surely expect more and more articles emphasizing the distance between American Catholics and the stringent doctrinal stances of the Vatican.

And, as was amply demonstrated by the coverage of Benedict's Regensburg address in September 2006, there is a remarkable tendency of the press -- in its failure (laziness?) to grasp the substance of what Benedict is saying in any given text to simply "cherry pick" for that choice phrase or reference which is most inflammatory (i.e., will make the greatest headline).

Consequently, it comes as no suprise that an article proclaiming Benedict "still a mystery after three years", "a white-robed enigma to most Americans," together with the tired old comparison (that really, after 3 years into his pontificate, should be duly retired) between the "shy, scholarly" Benedict and the "charismatic rock star pope" that was John Paul II, are sure to cause a few Catholic bloggers to bristle.

* * *
But I also think there are also many signs that readily challenge the suggestion that Benedict's so-called "mysteriousness" constitutes a barrier between him and the laiety, that it may "take years (or longer) for his teachings to seep down," that Catholics have been unable to arrive at an appreciation and understanding of Benedict -- that they are in fact responding enthusiastically to his person and his pontificate:
  • According to a January 2008 Zenit News Service report, In the course of 2007, there have been almost 3 million faithful and pilgrims that have participated at public gatherings with Benedict XVI at the Vatican and at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. In addition:
    For the recitation of the Sunday Angelus, in the course of 2007, there were 1,450,000 persons who came to St. Peter’s Square -- 155,000 more than last year. There were 442,000 faithful who participated in the liturgical celebrations.

    Last April, a record-breaking 130,000 attended the Wednesday audiences, and 250,000 attended liturgical celebrations.

  • Last summer, Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani, head of economic affairs at the Holy See, said that the “remarkable increase” in both donations and numbers of pilgrims showed that there was “a symbiosis, a mutual sympathy between this Pope and Christian people everywhere" -- citing a “huge jump” in “Peter’s Pence”, the annual church collections given directly to the Pope to use for charity, from $60 million (£30 million) in 2005 to $102 million.

    The article went on to note record numbers attending Benedict's weekly audiences, a 20% rise in attendance in visits to St. Peter's, and similar increases to Catholic shrines in Assisi, Lourdes, Fatima in Portugal and Madonna di Guadalupe in Mexico. ("The Ratzinger Effect: more money, more pilgrims – and lots more Latin" Times July 7, 2007).

  • In October 2007, the Catholic News Service reported that Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth had sold 2 million copies worldwide According to the Catholic Book Publishers Association, it currently occupies third place in April 2008, supplanted by Our Sunday Visitor's Pope Benedict: Questions and Answers in first place (a collection of the Holy Father's spontaneous 'Q&A' sessions with children, clergy and young adults).

  • As Amy Welborn reminds us, when questioning Benedict's popularity, consider the facts:
    Talk to book publishers - start with the Vatican publishing house. Move on to the European publishers that are publishing him. Talk to Ignatius and Doubleday. What are their sales showing? (remember how I reported that the Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist sold over 200,000 copies its first week in an Italian edition? An Apostolic Exhortation for pete's sake?) ...

    What happens to the message after it's sent and received is another matter,and more difficult to evaluate. But if you want to report on the interest of Catholics (and others) in what their Pope is saying, you turn to the hard data you do have - which is audience numbers, website traffic and book sales.

All in all, not too shabby for a "white-robed enigma" and papal "mystery." ;-)

But permit me to close this post on a positive note, in commending Gary Stern again for helpign put together an amazing website -- The Journal-News /'s Benedict in America (the relation between their title and this blog purely coincidental).

Which is doing much in its own way to remove the shroud of "mystery" and bring its viewers closer to Benedict XVI.