Have a Little Fun With the Pope’s Visit But Don’t Overdo It and Get Fired

By Jack Limpert

9-21-15-pope-francis-visit-to-dc-memorabili-and-souvenirs2Some of the feature coverage of the visit of Pope Francis has struck me as maybe too irreverent—but that probably comes from seeing a fellow editor get fired for publishing an irreverent piece about a Cardinal a few days before a Pope died.

In the mid 70s I was a relative beginner at The Washingtonian and had met a bright guy who was editing Boston magazine. We were about to have a meeting of city magazine editors when the Pope died. In the issue of Boston that had just come out, a piece made satirical fun of the Cardinal of Boston. Local TV showed the Cardinal at Logan Airport about to take off to Rome to select a new Pope. By the time the Cardinal landed, the editor was out of a job. Enough Catholics were angry at the magazine’s making fun of the Cardinal that the magazine’s owner didn’t hesitate.

And there had been an earlier incident. In my first year as a newspaper editor, I was working in Warren, Michigan, a suburb just north of Detroit. I had become a newspaper editor after working at UPI and to help me learn how to put out a newspaper I hired a retired Detroit News editor, John McManus. It was 1964, and John was in his late 60s.

The newspaper had a story about a local Catholic church and it was critical of a popular priest in a smart-ass kind of way. John looked at it and said, “Let me give you some advice. Don’t piss off the Catholics or the Jews.” (That was 50 years ago—the list would be longer today.) What he didn’t like was the style of the piece. John would have been okay with a critical piece on a Catholic priest as long the piece had substance and the writer wasn’t trying to show off. The story got rewritten.

So when I saw stories last week about the visit of Pope Francis and how they could make the Popemobile more fun or why you should buy a Pope bubblehead or where to enjoy a “Sweet Baby Jesus” cocktail or throw a rooftop Pope party, little alarm bells went off. Watch it, you’re out on thin ice.

To test out my concern, I asked two devout Catholics—one a young woman, the other an older man—if they agreed that media coverage of Pope Francis ought not get too cute. The young woman:

“As a Jesuit Catholic—pretty progressive—my thinking may not be in line with more traditional Catholics on this point. But I think a lot of us who have been disappointed by past popes and church policy are revitalized by Francis. We’re just happy that mainstream media have been, for the most part, highlighting how he’s moving the church in a better direction. So coverage of him—even if a little irreverent—is still viewed as a way to democratize him. He seems like an approachable pope, and we don’t mind him being treated as a personality. Again, some more conservative Catholics may think differently.”

The older man, Mark Tuohey, a prominent lawyer: “I hope that writers humanize Francis as he touches our hearts—and our world—as a man for others seeking the common good. Humor, even a touch irreverent, can provide narrative to democratize and humanize a religious leader who is also a true world celebrity.”

And then here’s journalist Lisa DePaulo on Facebook: “So, as much as I love and adore my pal Fr. James Martin, SJ, can I just say, Ay yi yi to all these rules for journalists during the Pope visit? (Wait, is ‘Pope visit’ ok?) Such as: (and this is verbatim from Fr. Jim) To all media: Other good words at Mass: Host not wafer. Hymn not song. Chalice not glass. Chasuble not poncho. Stole not scarf.

“Gimme a fucking break! (Oops.) Of course, I also once had a 30-minute argument with someone who was mad because I didn’t capitalize the M in Mass. What say you, fellow journalists? Are the Catholics getting a little, uh, uppity?”

I’m with the young woman who says that it’s okay to be a little irreverent but more traditional Catholics may differ. So for journalists, democratize and humanize Pope Francis, but don’t overdo it.


  1. Comedian Argus Hamilton, Sept. 22 column

    “TV pundit Ann Coulter ripped the GOP debate candidates in a tweet Friday for what she called playing to the Jews. The L.A. coroner called it a clear case of career suicide. Two years ago a false rumor went around Beverly Hills that Mel Gibson died, and everyone agreed it was a good career move.”

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