Saturday, September 26, 2015

Why MSNBC Has the Best Coverage of the Pope's Visit

Chris Matthews: Philly Catholic
If you are a thinking person interested in Catholic history, Philadelphia history, religion and politics, or American religious history generally you need to be watching the MSNBC's coverage of the visit of Pope Francis.  It is both entertaining and informative, but most importantly it has some intellectual teeth to it.

Unfortunately, MSNBC's coverage of the Pope ended today at 3:00pm so the station can cover the Global Citizen Festival in New York City. Does MSNBC really think that Beyonce, Coldplay, Pearl Jam, and Ed Sheeran will get better ratings than Papa Francisco?

I have been watching a lot of Pope coverage this week and I have not yet seen anything better than MSNBC's 9am to 1pm coverage of the Pope's arrival in Philadelphia and the mass he conducted this morning at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and Paul.  (Although Brian Williams has also been excellent--it is good to have him back).

Chris Matthews, who anchored the coverage, seemed like he was on a caffeine rush all morning (even more than usual).  A native of Philadelphia and a product of the city's Catholic culture, Matthews could not have been happier covering this event.  He told family stories, discussed Catholic history in the city, and asked his guests and on-set experts some very thoughtful questions.  Some of it was nostalgia for a Catholic Philadelphia that no longer exists, but I can't think of a better person to lead us through this major event.

Matthews still needs to learn not to cut people off in mid-sentence, but the stuff he wanted to talk about was important.  Over the course of his four hours on the air Matthews led discussions about same-sex marriage and Catholic social teaching, the history of anti-Catholicism in the city, religious freedom and William Penn, and Catholic education.  He moved freely from expert to expert, soliciting comments and insights and peppering the conversation with his own knowledge of Catholicism. Matthews is a devout Catholic, an amateur historian, and one of America's great political junkies.

This morning Matthews was joined by Kathy Sprows Cummings, the Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame and the woman I have dubbed the "Doris Kearns Goodwin of U.S. Catholic history."  Sprows Cummings has been doing a great job all week, but she really came to life when teamed-up with Matthews. She is a product of the Philadelphia Catholic school system and can talk Philly Catholicism with the best of them.  My favorite moment was when Sprows Cummings mentioned that she, like Matthews, also attended a
Jesuit college (Matthews went to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts).  "You went to a Jesuit school? Really? Which one?" Matthews asked (I am paraphrasing).  "University of Scranton," Sprows Cummings replied.  Matthews was thrilled and it seemed like a moment of Catholic bonding between the two of them.

Sprows Cummings is a historian of gender and American Catholic women religious.  Her passion for the place of women in the church was evident when she talked about Katherine Drexel, perhaps Philadelphia's most celebrated American Catholic. (She suggested putting Saint Katherine on the ten dollar bill!).  Sprows Cummings was the perfect counterpoint to Matthew's hyper-Catholic masculinity.

Finally, the MSNBC coverage included Catholic writer, pundit, and theologian George Weigel, The progressive-minded MSNBC deserves kudos for keeping Weigel on board (he has worked with NBC's Catholic coverage for several years) since he represents a very conservative--theological, political, and economic--wing of the Catholic Church in the United States.  My favorite moment was when Weigel urged Catholics to respond to the Pope's visit by praying ten minutes a day, reading the Bible daily, and visiting church on Sunday and during the week.  Matthews responded by saying that he wholeheartedly agreed with Weigel, although he did not want to go into the details about his spiritual life on the air.  Sprows Cummings chimed in with her own love of Jesuit spiritual practices. It was clear that they were all observer-participants this week.

Matthews, Sprows Cummings, and Weigel were supplemented by several other very thoughtful experts, including Los Angeles bishop Robert BarronMathew Schmalz, a theologian at the College of the Holy Cross, and LaSalle University president Colleen Hanycz.

I gave up on MSNBC several years ago when all the hosts started singing one politically-charged tune. MSNBC's papal coverage has brought me back--at least for now.