Sideshow (noun) 1. a minor show or exhibition, as at a circus.
--Random House Dictionary
It was the Pope meets People magazine, papal politics versus the paparazzi, religion mashed up with reality TV, a weird religious sideshow and the whole world and many of us ate it all up. Is that white smoke or black smoke billowing from the chimney? Which Cardinal has the best shot at the top spot and do you want to make a bet on that? Hey did you hear Cardinal Sean O’Malley might be the next Pope? No really, I read it in the Boston Globe gossip pages. And what about the shiny red shoes? What’s the deal with those?
You’d have to have lived under a rock these past few weeks to be unaware that the Holy Roman Catholic Church has a new leader, Pope Francis, who now heads a religious body of 1.2 billion members, 17.5 percent of the world’s population. He oversees the oldest continuing religious institution in the world, almost 2,000 years and counting. This is a big deal and yet, Frances’ election played out on TV, in newspapers, the radio, on the Internet and in the wider world at times more like “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Idol”, than the serious and real work of religious faith.
So folks on Facebook furiously updated their statuses to handicap the latest developments. Network anchors jockeyed for face time from Saint Peter’s Square. LIVE FROM THE VATICAN—it’s The Today Show! The assembled crowd held up hundreds of eerily glowing cell phone cameras in the darkness, each person hoping to get a snapshot of the heir of Saint Peter the moment he stepped out on the balcony. I WAS THERE—HI MOM!
It felt like a sideshow and that’s not a judgment upon or the fault of the Catholic Church. That’s just how religion and religious people are now far too often portrayed, seen and stereotyped in the culture. Religion is now a sideshow, a circus even at times. With scandals just waiting to be uncovered. SECRET VATICAN PAPERS LEAKED TO THE PRESS. Racy headlines waiting to be written: MINISTER ACCUSED OF MISCONDUCT. The hypocrisy of an institution or leader waiting to be unveiled: BISHOP RESIGNS. All of it is fodder for an unrelenting 24/7 media machine, which feeds not on reporting the good or the noble or the positive which religious faith aspires to, but instead lives to report the bad, the weird, the wacky, the radicals, the sensational and the outliers of religion.
So to far too many, the Muslim is perpetually a real or potential terrorist. The Christian is always a self righteous holier than thou type. The clergyperson is one who preys on the innocent. The Church is a place which seeks only to line its own pockets and maintain its worldly power. Yes institutions of faith do contain such people and motives, but most often these are in the minority, exceptions, aberrations, not the rule.
Instead this is what millions of folks of sincere and authentic religious faith did while all the eyes of the world were focused upon the Vatican for an overheated week or two. People of religious faith taught tens of thousands of kids in inner city faith based schools which have stayed while so many others have abandoned the neighborhood. They fed thousands of homeless folks hot meals and provided them with warm beds in a world which cares little for the poor anymore. They built hundreds of Habitat for Humanity homes in partnership with people who dream of a simple, decent place to live. They were nurses and doctors in far away poverty stricken lands and at downtown hospitals filled to capacity with uninsured patients. They went to millions of worship services at churches and synagogues and mosques and temples, seeking a better system of values to live by, and to teach their kids about too.
Folks of faith, every day, make a world of difference in a world that cries out for healing, compassion, peace and hope. But you’d never know that by visiting Facebook or the Huffington Post or watching CNN or Fox News, or picking up the Boston Globe. So congratulations and kudos to the media and culture on the whole papal extravaganza. You got your story.
Yet lost and overlooked was the real story of faith. I just pray that would make page one.