Analysis: ABC's hour with Francis was not exactly journalism, but TV has never seen anything like it before
Have you ever seen anything like this before?
That question kept coming to mind as I sat watching the extraordinary appearance of Pope Francis Friday night on ABC’s “20/20.”
No pontiff had ever sat down for television cameras like this; none had ever taken questions from an audience in this manner, via live satellite; none had ever engaged the faithful in such a simple, direct, utterly disarming manner, and to such powerful effect. Throughout the hour, again and again many who stood to ask questions, or watched from their seats at three separate locations around the country, were overcome by tears. You sensed this wasn’t just because of the emotion of the moment. It was also the realization that they were part of history.
Borrowing elements from talk shows and C-Span town hall meetings—with brief human interest profiles tossed in for good measure—the program managed to avoid feeling overly familiar for one simple reason: it was the pope! This just wasn’t something you see every day.
The result was riveting, heart-stirring television.
That’s not to say it was great journalism. It wasn’t. Whether by chance or by design, the questions were mild and the tone was, frankly, adoring. David Muir was raised a Catholic and you could sense he was awestruck at being in the presence of the pope and actually engaging him (in seemingly fluent Spanish) in chit-chat. The reporters and audience at the three locations— students from the “Cristo Rey” Jesuit High School; a center for homeless in Los Angeles; and members of Sacred Heart parish in McAllen, Texas—couldn’t stop beaming. They were enthralled, and understandably so.
But throughout the hour was no mention of the sex abuse crisis, contraception, gay marriage, women’s ordination, the priest shortage or the dwindling number of Catholics in American pews. Instead, the pontiff spoke poignantly and passionately, as a pastor to his flock, about the necessity of courage, and the need for love, hope, and prayer. In one of the most improbable but thoughtful exchanges, he even talked about soccer.
That occurred when a 19-year-old named Ricardo Ortiz brought up problems with poverty and immigration; Ricardo himself, it was explained, had to take care of his family after his father became sick. Ricardo was later denied a scholarship because he was not a U.S. citizen.
The pope’s response:
I look to Jesus on the Cross,” he said “and discover the silence of God. The first silence of God is on the Cross of Jesus. The greatest injustice history and God was silent. That said, I’m going to be more concrete in the response on other levels, but don’t forget that God speaks to us with words, with gestures and with silences. And what you ask me is only understood in the silence of God, and the silence of God is only understood by looking at the Cross.
He went on:
We are all responsible for everyone, and to help ourselves in the way that each one can. … Speaking in soccer terms, I would say that the match is played between friendship in society and enmity in society. Each one has to make a choice in his or her heart, and we have to help that choice to be made in the heart.
Reading over the transcript of that response, I’m struck by another compelling aspect of this program: You just don’t hear people talk like that on American network TV.
You don’t turn on a major TV network and hear talk of God’s silence, Christ’s crucifixion, human moral struggles and the agony of the Cross. (In another sequence, the pope warmly praised a single mother for not having an abortion and for deciding, instead, to bring her children into the world. When was the last time that idea was brought up without any criticism or smackdown on network TV?) To hear these topics and others presented so straightforwardly on television, without a trace of cynicism or skepticism is rare. (And that it happened on ABC—which gave the world the gay-centric “Modern Family,” the transgender documentary series “Becoming Us” and the upcoming anti-Catholic “The Real O’Neals”—is downright incredible.)
This leads me to think something else is at work here—something unexpected and, just maybe, something miraculous. This surprising pope from Latin America has not only jolted the Church; he has made possible a media moment without precedent. As I tweeted Friday: ”#AudienceWithPope may be the most positive presentation of Catholicism on American television ever. Wow.”
The closest comparison might be Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” on PBS or “Life is Worth Living” with Fulton Sheen over 60 years ago, but in my lifetime, on a major American broadcast network, there’s never been anything like this.
Of course, the same could be said of this pope, whose easy manner, scuffed shoes, warm smile and welcoming message have touched people of all faiths around the globe in unexpected ways.
The “20/20” broadcast Friday made clear: we haven’t seen anything like this before.
And I suspect the astonishments are just beginning. This is only the opening act.
Pope Francis arrives in the United States on September 22.
As they say in television: stay tuned.
Deacon Greg Kandra wrote for CBSNews for over two decades. He is a Permanent Deacon of the Diocese of Brooklyn, and blogs at The Deacons Bench, at Patheos.com.