Promotional advertisements leading up to it noted that, “For some experiences, there are no words.” Nonetheless, it was the challenge of almost 4,000 journalists from all over the world to put words, sounds and images to their coverage of what proved to be one of the largest events ever held in Canada.
Many have remarked that media treatment of World Youth Day in Toronto was generally positive and fair in nature. The opportunity to have Catholicism and Christianity thrust into the media spotlight – and for almost a whole straight week, to boot – was an exciting one. The CBC, for its part, did reasonably well in its live coverage of events, with anchor Peter Mansbridge and roving reporters including Alison Smith onsite at various events throughout the week.
Some Catholics expressed chagrin at the CBC’s choices of somewhat liberal Jesuit historian Father Jacques Monet and liberal Notre Dame Sister Susan Kidd as Mansbridge’s co-commentators. Critics also noted that the pair were distinguishable by their failure to wear clothing prominently identifying them as a priest and religious sister, respectively.
The CBC’s coverage became more problematic when it came to reviews and coverage on news programs such as The National. In those instances, disproportionately large amounts of attention were given to the “alternative” (some called it heretical or anti-Catholic) Challenge the Church conference at a small Anglican church in downtown Toronto. The Toronto Sun’s Mike Strobel noted that there were more media personnel than participants at this event.
Challenge the Church garnered several feature pieces on CBC, which included requisite interviews with ubiquitous “Catholic” dissident Joanna Manning and a self-styled woman “priest.” Elsewhere, the CBC devoted much attention to Catholic-related controversies, including the much-ballyhooed sex abuse scandals and residential school abuses.
In fact, the CBC seemed to be so enamoured with the alternative-dissident-controversial elements, that it highlighted a link to its coverage of Challenge the Church on the homepage of its website (cbc.ca) for several days after World Youth Day, while a similar link for the legitimate World Youth Day was nowhere to be seen.
The state of affairs prompted Catholic Civil Rights League president Thomas Langan to remark that, “It is rather a pity that the CBC cannot control its anti-Catholic tendencies for a mere week. The mothercorp has drudged up a group of anti-Catholics and dissidents who have broken fundamentally from the Church, though they pretend to stay, to cause mischief. CBC does not offer equal time or even the courtesy of rebuttal to faithful Catholics attending World Youth Day. The critics’ exaggerations remain unanswered.”
More positive and sympathetic coverage was provided on the Christian Crossroads Television System, while Vision TV and CFMT multi-cultural television also ran footage.
It was a mixed bag as far as print media were concerned. The National Post, although now owned by the liberally oriented Asper family, generally exhibited the kind of fairness that characterized its ownership under Conrad Black. The highlights of its coverage were the columns of newly ordained Father Raymond J. de Souza, who provided insightful and informative daily commentaries on the week’s events, while addressing some the issues raised by the CBC and dissidents in a capable manner.
But de Souza, happy to say, wasn’t alone. The Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee, in a column entitled, “Let’s face it: The Pope really is great,” noted that Pope John Paul II “is quite simply the greatest man alive.” This was heady stuff, coming from a secular journalist.
Rex Murphy, the CBC commentator also writing in the Globe and Mail, opined that, “Religion’s death is greatly exaggerated,” and went on to add that World Youth Day “is a rebuke to the idea that religion – mainstream, mainline religion – is a dormant or moribund presence in the lives of Western people.”
The presence of 800,000 people at the event’s closing mass – despite rainfall and thunderstorms – must have been a strong testament to that.
“It was so moving all week to watch thousands of young people making an unabashed public demonstration of their faith,” observed the Toronto Sun’s Christina Blizzard. “Why? Because the Pope calls them to do so. It’s why the Catholic Church has a future.”
Still, there were the Aidan Johnsons of the world. Johnson – who has been sponsored for a prestigious journalistic sponsorship by none other than notorious MP Svend Robinson – in a “prayer for World Youth Day” in the Toronto Star called for “a World Youth Day at which responsible young Catholics have sex with people they love and are open to building lasting relationships with.”
Judging by the numbers of pilgrims who threw into the garbage condoms they were handed by Challenge the Church types, it appears Johnson’s prayer went unheard.
Anyway, you can’t win ’em all. At least, World Youth Day – exceptions notwithstanding – generated more positive, Christian-oriented news coverage than has been seen in these environs in a long time. And that’s something to celebrate.
Now, after the stages have been disassembled and the pilgrims have long since departed for home and their everyday lives, there rises the question of whether we will return to business as usual. Will we allow media to resume marginalizing faith issues and people of religious persuasion, as they did for so long prior to World Youth Day?