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Journalism’s Higher Calling

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Journalists may not get a lot of love these days, at least not like that being shown in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts through a unique ritual that’s becoming an annual tradition.

On Feb. 25, Christ Church Cathedral in Springfield hosted its third annual Blessing of Journalists. About 50 worshipers turned out for the Tuesday noontime service at which the work of reporters, editors, and producers was celebrated as essential to liberty and democracy.

Many who gathered were priests, staff, and laypeople from congregations in the diocese. Organizers said fewer than ten of those in the pews were journalists, including this reporter, who was among others on assignment to cover the event.

But administering in-person blessings wasn’t the entire reason for the event. The larger goal was to encourage all in the profession, especially those who might have been demoralized in recent years to hear President Donald Trump speak of journalists as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of “fake news.”

“We just felt that they were under attack,” said Western Massachusetts Bishop Douglas Fisher. “Just as Jesus would go to people who were under attack, we felt that we needed to go there. They were being called ‘fake news’ and ‘enemies of the people.’ We just felt we needed to celebrate what they do.”

By the time all was finished, the press corps had been nudged also to think about its higher calling to “use communication as an instrument for building, not destroying.” And local church leaders confided hope that some of their good will toward the news media might somehow, someday be requited.

“I’m part of a denomination that’s not often sought out for comments by media because we’re much more bland – we don’t have outrageous statements,” said Lutheran pastor Erik Karas of Christ Trinity Church, an Episcopal-Lutheran congregation in Sheffield, Mass. “My hope, way beneath the other hopes [for the event], is that connections can be made here where a different picture of the faith community can be presented to the world.”

Speakers underscored how reporting is often dangerous, particularly when the powerful come under unwanted scrutiny and decide to lash back. Attendees were reminded that scores of journalists have been targets of violence after shining spotlights on corruption and organized crime. The Committee to Protect Journalists has tallied 1,919 murders of journalists worldwide since 1992.

As the liturgy unfolded, special attention went to journalists who’ve had high profile clashes with the Trump administration. Those named during prayers included Mary Louise Kelly, a National Public Radio host who made headlines after her January interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led to an angry public rebuke from him. Also lifted up by name was Jim Acosta, a CNN White House correspondent who sued after the White House revoked his press credential in 2018.

“We remember especially those who are pressured by their government,” said the Rev. Victoria Ix as she led prayers of the people, “those who are threatened and silenced, those who are put in harm’s way by their work, and those who have lost their lives throughout the world reporting on the news. In your mercy…”

“Hear our prayer,” the congregation said.

As part of the annual tradition, a journalist was honored with the Bishop’s Award. This year’s prize went to Wayne Phaneuf, retired editor of the Springfield Republican newspaper, where he’d held various editorial positions for almost 50 years.

Phaneuf said “it’s huge” for him to be honored by the church at a time when journalistic resources have shrunken to about one-eighth of what they’d been in the heyday of his career. He explained that the greatest threat ‑ one that’s hollowing out newsrooms ‑ is coming not from government but from disruption of the industry’s business model.

As big tech companies draw advertising away from traditional news outlets, journalism operations have been forced to shrink. Newsroom employment plunged 25 percent from 114,000 jobs in 2008 to 86,000 in 2018, according to a Pew Research Center report (https://pewrsr.ch/2ITDfuG). Newspapers suffered the steepest losses as the number of newsroom jobs wizened from 71,000 to 38,000.

“One of the things that’s really killed journalism is Google and Facebook because they took away the ability to make money,” Phaneuf said. “Frankly the Trump impact [on journalism] is nowhere near the impact of Google and Facebook… But nobody ever says anything about that because we all suck up to these people.”

For the church, the Blessing of Journalists takes a familiar motif and gives it a new twist. While Episcopal clergy have convened public events to bless everything from household pets to fishing vessels, Fisher said he’s not aware of any other dioceses or congregations that have blessed journalists in particular.

This burgeoning tradition was launched in February 2018 as a way to honor the February feast of Episcopal saint Frederick Douglass, a 19th-century African Methodist Episcopal clergyman and editor of the pro-abolition journal, The North Star. Encouraging today’s journalists marks a way to honor Douglass’ legacy, Fisher said.

The order of worship was designed to span a spectrum of sacred, secular, and interfaith voices. Speakers and readers included a Muslim attorney, a Lutheran pastor and a Springfield city councilor. Texts were drawn from the Hebrew Bible and the United States Constitution, as well as writings by founding father Thomas Jefferson and former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

From this chorus came a unified message of encouragement for the work of reporting news. But in the process, reporters and the church alike received exhortations to do better, including in their relationships with each other.

After the service, Fisher underscored that church leaders don’t need to shun reporters or assume they’re going to be antagonistic toward the church. Reporters want to tell powerful stories, he noted, and the church has many to share about lives changed for the better.

“I’m not leery of the press at all,” Fisher said. “I consider the press someone who amplifies our stories.”

As reporters heard an uncommonly friendly message aimed in their direction, they also heard a call to be their best ‑ and to use their power for the betterment of humanity. One reading, excerpted from Pope Francis’ address to the Foreign Press Association in May 2019, reinforced how the church might view journalism as a vehicle for advancing God’s purposes.

“Work according to truth and justice,” said the pontiff’s message to the FPA, “so that communication is truly an instrument for building, not destroying; for meeting, not for clashing … for giving a voice to those who have no voice.”

Before all received a benediction sending them back to their newsrooms and congregations, the journalists were given words to pray aloud while all others listened.

“May the power which is ours, for good or ill,” the press corps prayed, “always be used with honesty and courage, with respect and integrity, so that when all here has been written, said and done, we may, unashamed, meet God face to face.” And alongside the rank and file of the church, those who report the news sang a hymn. “Lord, Make Us Servants of Your Peace.”

“Where there is hate, may we sow love,” they sang. “Where there is hurt, may we forgive; where there is strife, may we make one.”


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