It is exciting that Pope Francis is coming to the United States.  His plane will land in Washington, D.C. in less than three weeks.

But in some way, he has already arrived!  Just this Monday, ABC TV conducted an exclusive virtual tour with Pope Francis in which he met on live television with people in parts of the USA that he will not be visiting!  Thanks to the miracle of the modern media, we will be able to view the special interview on 20/20 this Friday (September 4) beginning at 10 p.m. (Eastern Time).

In a wonderful “town meeting” setting, Pope Francis interacted with congregants from a parish in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, right on the border of Mexico; with individuals in a shelter in Los Angeles; and with students from a Cristo Rey School in Chicago.  I viewed the promotional piece that touchingly shows Pope Francis talking with a young teen who has overcome challenges in life and loves to sing.  In a moving moment, our Holy Father speaks directly to her in English with the humble request, “Will you please sing for me?”  Then he adds:  “Have courage.”  Despite her emotions at the moment, the young lady treats us all to a beautiful song.   

This virtual tour provides the opportunity to see interactions that might not take place during the five-day tour in mid-September.  It also allows Pope Francis to experience the breadth of our great nation and the richness of the people and cultures that make us great.  He is such an attentive listener and one who thrives on dialogue.  This interview will give us a personal preview of what will come later this month.

This coverage is only the beginning. Stand by for what will likely measure up to be great coverage from all aspects of media.  I was invited to join a panel of bishops last Friday in Philadelphia.  The setting was an all-day program at the annual conference of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), which was devoted completely to Pope Francis and his trip.  In the panel in which I took part, I was able to reflect on some of the themes of his historic visit. I also prepared a special piece for L’Osservatore Romano – the official newspaper of the Holy See – that will be published next week.  I hope to share the piece with you in my next column.  In the meantime, I participated in an interview with Vatican Radio; see my blog here for a link to this interview. 

I was very impressed by the interest of media at the RNA panel discussion.  The participation was at a high pitch, and there were many fine presenters during the program, including many of the biographers of Pope Francis who came with all the expertise that they had gained in writing his bios.  I learned a great deal, but I was most struck by the eagerness of the media representatives to be well informed.  Taking a full day to deepen their understanding was a generous act on the part of the participants.  Virtually all the major newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations who have dedicated religious news reporters were present.   

Obviously we live in an age of sound bites.  We lead hectic lives, but it is our own fault for reading only the headlines or glancing at the news hurriedly.  These days bode well for us as we get excited about Pope Francis’ visit, and I pray and encourage all to take advantage of the news reports and, even better, read and view the full stories.  

This inattention to substantive news coverage can be seen in a recent poll that the Public Religion Research Institute survey conducted, revealing that among more than 1,300 Americans polled, 52% said they have not heard anything about the pontiff’s upcoming visit next month.  Catholics polled fared better at 69%.   

When I was asked by the Vatican Radio interviewer about this, I quickly answered that I am not surprised that we Americans know more about the NFL football schedule than the Pope.  However, given the virtual tour aired Friday and the preparedness of the media reporters, watch that percentage rise.

What an honor for us to welcome Pope Francis for his first historic visit!




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