On January 24, the Catholic Church celebrates Saint Francis de Sales, the famous bishop of Geneva and patron saint of the Catholic press. But why is a priest who is best known for his spiritual advice considered a patron for those who work in the news?
Our human preoccupation with “the news” did not begin in the 1960s with television and Walter Cronkite, or even with radio news programs decades earlier. People have always wanted to know about the latest events from near and far, particularly about the rich, the famous, and the tragic.
For example, our Lord interrupted His sermon on one occasion (see Luke 12:54-13:10) to bring up a piece of news which was apparently common knowledge to His listeners. Eighteen people of the city of Siloam had died when a tower fell on them.1 Jesus asked his audience if they thought that those who had died were the worst sinners in the city of Jerusalem. While Jesus was clearly trying to direct people’s attention back from their horror over a news story to His central theme—the need for repentance—the incident points to our all-too-human preoccupation with news, news, and more news.
If that tragedy happened in today’s world, we would be able to instantly learn the names of the dead, watch a video of the tower falling, and donate to a GoFundMe campaign to rebuild it. That would assume, of course, that the deaths of a mere eighteen people would be considered sufficiently newsworthy for us to find out about it.
Fortunately, there are three saints celebrated in the month of January who can teach us (myself included) how to rein in any unhealthy tendencies in our consumption of the news.
One of the key dangers of our unending access to recent events is the fact that it tends to produce fear. When we are fed a constant diet of calamities from all over the world, it can seem as if those events are occurring on our own doorstep.
Sometimes the emotion of fear can be helpful, such as when it motivates us to respond quickly to a threat. But consuming a steady diet of disastrous news—particularly about events that we cannot control or change—leads to unhealthy fear. Fortunately, there is a Christian remedy, one which we see can see in the life of Saint Genevieve (422-500).
Genevieve, who is remembered on January 3 in the Church’s calendar, was a consecrated virgin living in Paris. She became famous through her miracles and prophecies, including her prediction that an enemy army would attack the city. When that prophecy was fulfilled, she encouraged the citizens to continue praying for God’s help during a lengthy siege. When the siege brought the residents close to starvation, Genevieve was apparently the only one not paralyzed by fear. Despite the danger, she organized and secretly led a group of volunteers out of the city, secured provisions, and returned with food for the inhabitants. Her leadership, wisdom, and courage saved the city of Paris. More precisely, her profound trust in God was stronger than fear and allowed her to be the means by which God saved the city.
The spectacle of the daily news also produces another common side effect: anger. Newsmakers capitalize on the fact that it is both easy and pleasurable to be angry with people who have harmed you or others, and the media feeds that anger for financial profit.
Saint Wulfstan (c. 1008-1095), whose feast day is January 20, was a priest, preacher, hermit, and bishop of Worchester, England. When William the Conqueror and his Norman army invaded and conquered England in 1066, Wulfstan was already a bishop. Although King William replaced most of the Saxon bishops with his own Norman bishops soon afterward, he allowed Wulfstan, for whatever reason, to remain a bishop.
The Anglo-Saxons of England did not appreciate or enjoy this change in government. When they complained to Wulfstan about the continued oppression they were experiencing at the hands of the Normans, Wulfstan did not reply with anger, justified though it might have been. Instead, he repeatedly reminded people that, “This is a scourge of God for our sins, which we must bear with patience.”2
When an outrageous event starts popping up all over our newsfeeds, it may be reasonable to feel anger at the injustice. But if God Himself is slow to anger,3 and if, as Saint James wrote, “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God,”4 how can it be right or helpful to continually feed that anger? Like Saint Wulfstan, we should be humble enough to recognize that we too have committed sins, sometimes resulting in unintended consequences outside our control. In the long run, we will be happier and holier if we can try to hope, as our Lord hoped on Good Friday, that those who commit serious sins really don’t know what they are doing.5
Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was not a newspaper reporter. But he is the patron of journalists because of the way in which he handled another problematic aspect of contemporary news: lies.
When Francis traveled to the Chablais region (areas in modern France and Switzerland) in 1594, he was a young, well-educated priest from a noble family. He had accepted this assignment from his bishop despite his father’s vehement warnings. Francis’ father was right about the danger; Francis narrowly survived assassination attempts and attacks by wolves during his time in the Chablais.
The Chablais was staunchly Protestant. Catholic teachings were ridiculed and vilified, and Catholics were threatened with violence and greatly outnumbered. Francis responded to the challenges of Protestant teaching by preaching and traveling throughout the district, sometimes sleeping in fields rather than endangering Catholics who might have offered him shelter. He also wrote pamphlets which carefully explained Catholic teachings and refuted common mischaracterizations of the faith.
Within a short time, many people in the Chablais had either returned to the Catholic faith or converted. How did Francis make so many converts? His personal virtues, including his gentleness, intelligence, and charity, certainly helped. But, most importantly, Francis was effective because he stuck to the truth. Rather than using ad hominem attacks, distortions, half-truths, or simply ridiculing his opponents, he worked hard to explain the truths of the Catholic faith in a persuasive and truthful manner.
Reading the news does not have to lead us to feeling sick with fear, boiling over with anger, or lampooning those who disagree with us. And we don’t have to completely ignore the news, although most of us would probably benefit from trying to cut back on the number of times we daily check our favorite news sources.
When we recognize that yet another dire prediction is causing us to feel afraid, that the latest controversial words of a public figure is leading to even more exasperation, or that our favorite news show is spending more time ridiculing other people than explaining the news, we can choose to stop. We can recognize our fear, and then prayerfully place the difficult situation in God’s hands. We can let go of the anger, and then ask God for the grace to love those with whom we disagree. We can always do our best to be reasonable and truthful, even with those who are unreasonable and untruthful.
That’s what the saints did because that, after all, is what our Lord did.
1 Because of the context, it is possible that these eighteen people were guilty of a crime, similar to the Galileans who were killed by Pontius Pilate and are described in Luke 13:1.
2 Herbert J. Thurston, S.J., and Donald Attwater, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Complete Edition, Volume I (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, 1956), 122.
3 There are ten passages in the Old Testament in which God is described as “slow to anger”. See, for example, Exo. 34:6, Ps. 86:15, and Prov. 19:11.
4 James 1:20
5 See Luke 23:34.
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