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GetReligion Pooh-bah Terry Mattingly is of the opinion that when the pope takes a trip, the mainstream media only care about its impact on “real life in the real world,” and so play a game he calls “spot the political sound bite.”

His case in point for Pope Francis’ initial venture abroad is the lede of Simon Romero’s Day One story in the New York Times, titled “With Modesty, Pope Francis Begins a Week in Brazil”:

Pope Francis arrived in Brazil on Monday for his first international trip as pontiff, treading carefully and in ascetic style in a nation where antigovernment protests have recently shaken a privileged political hierarchy, which faces withering criticism in the streets over claims of incompetence and abuse of power.

“Let me knock gently at this door,” the Argentine-born pope, 76, said in a brief address delivered entirely in Portuguese to his hosts, including President Dilma Rousseff and Sérgio Cabral, the governor of Rio de Janeiro. “I ask permission to come in and spend this week with you.”

What Mattingly is looking for, by way of unreal life in the unreal world I suppose, is something about the pope “restating ancient church teachings that have been reaffirmed through the ages.” As in Francis’ declaration: “Young people are the window through which the future enters the world, thus presenting us with great challenges.” Stop the presses!

Tmatt does approve of Romero’s reference to the demographic reality that the Catholic share of Brazil’s population has sunk dramatically over the last half-century, largely because of the rise of evangelicalism — a fact that Pew has succeeded in establishing as essential context for reporting on Francis’ trip. So far as I can tell, however, the new pope has given no indication — zero — that he’s on a mission to reclaim Brazil for Rome.

Whereas, by contrast, he has had lots to say about the poor and the suffering, and about what’s wrong with the powers and principalities of this world. It’s his siding with the least among us, in word and symbolic deed, that has so excited Brazilians (along with Catholics and non-Catholics all over the world) about him.

“What I am challenging,” pronounces tmatt, “is the assumption that readers in this day and age are automatically more interested in Brazilian politics than they are in what the leader of the world’s largest Christian flock had to say — even as he stood in front of state leaders — about the moral and spiritual lives of young people and their parents.”

Actually, it seems to me that what readers are interested in is whether this pope will really be able to carry through on his mission to turn the world’s attention to helping the poor. The protests in Brazil have been precisely about national political leaders living high on the hog and lavishing public spending on athletic tournaments rather than on the people.

“Brazilian politics” is, in short, emblematic of the big theme of Francis’ young papacy — a theme that, if I recall my history of Christianity, is an ancient church teaching that has been reaffirmed through the ages. Or to put it another way, the Times got the story right.

Categories: Ethics

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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