The Media, the Pope and a Christ-Haunted World

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Media, the Pope and a Christ-Haunted World

Habemus Papum! We have a pope! And the media has been all tingly about it for weeks. Some of the coverage has been good, some utterly clueless.

I’ve heard more than expert switch from being commentator to being catechist when responding to a reporter who didn’t know enough about the most basic Christian doctrines to formulate a coherent question.

David Bentley Hart noted in the April 2013 issue of First Things, “A local television reporter announced, solemn-faced that with Benedict’s resignation, ‘local Catholics don’t even know who they’ll be praying to this Easter.’” Hmmm. My guess is that they’ll be praying to the Triune God, just as they do every Easter. Sigh.

Given the cluelessness, why the fascination with the pope? Why all the attention showered on an institution most cultural elites write off as out of touch, out of step, anti-sex, and destined for the trash heap? When France or Israel or India elect a new president, we don’t see this kind of coverage. When the National Council of Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals meet, few if any press bother showing up. Why were there over six thousand journalists swarming all over St. Peter’s Square the past few weeks?

Someone suggested that since Twitter and the blogosphere have been obsessed with the popes (this all began when Pope Emeritus Benedict resigned), the mainstream media had no choice. That’s a practical answer, but if it’s true (which I doubt) it only pushes the question back one level: Why the interest on Twitter and blogs?

I suspect the primary reason has more to do with our collective memory.

What novelist Flannery O’Connor said about the South applies to our entire country and the rest of the Western world. O’Connor wrote, “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”

You have probably noticed that the United States as a whole is something less than Christ-centered. Even if we once were “a Christian nation” — whatever that means — we’re not today. But we are Christ-haunted.

Standing across Fifth Avenue from Rockefeller Center, next to Saks Fifth Avenue, at the heart of one of the most secular cities in the world is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Two blocks uptown is St. Thomas Church and two more blocks more is Fifth Avenue Presbyterian. New York, as irreligious as it is, is full of churches. There and in other city centers, along interstates, in neighborhoods, on suburban campuses, and tucked into office parks, even casual observers are haunted with the memory of Christ, the Christian past, and the Christian present.

Bookstores feature “Christianity” shelves. Newspapers have “Religion” sections — tiny and insignificant, but they have them. And Christmas, Mardi Gras, Good Friday, Easter, and St. Patrick’s Day dot our calendars even if their meaning has been obscured or lost.

Even detractors bent on attacking Christianity are haunted. The so-called “new atheists” can’t help but define themselves as over and against religious people — Christians in particular.

Changes in the Vatican and thus in the worldwide Catholic Church conjure up all sorts of memories and feelings — particularly among those who were raised going to church and have abandoned their faith. They can’t help but be drawn into the story whether they love it or hate it. Christ haunts them and, from time to time, bangs on the walls and ceiling demanding attention.

The pope along with every other Christian has a responsibility to help Jesus bang, getting the attention of a frightened and jaded world and having an answer to the question, “What’s all the racket?” The racket is the Good News. The racket is Jesus, not William F. Buckley, “standing athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’”

Human beings, made in the image of God, are by their nature religious. Every human heart, whether that heart acknowledges it or suppresses it, knows the truth expressed by St. Augustine centuries ago: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Pope Francis I has been a hot news topic and may continue to be in these early months of his pontificate. And you don’t have to be Catholic to ask friends, family, neighbors or coworkers, “So, what do you think of the new pope?” In a Christ-haunted country, the answers may surprise you. And after listening to what they say, you could begin a seasonally appropriate conversation about life, death, and resurrection that helps draw a restless, haunted friend to rest in the arms of Love.