Pondering the Pontiff


David_Gibson_3Syracuse University sponsors lecture featuring journalist David Gibson

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

Close to 50 Syracuse University students and members of the general public gathered at SU’s E.S. Bird Library on April 1 to learn more about Pope Benedict XVI and what to expect from him during his upcoming April 15-20 visit to the U.S.

David Gibson, award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker and a convert to Catholicism, enlightened those in attendance at the event with his knowledge of Pope Benedict XVI.

The presentation, entitled “When Church is State: The Vatican, the Holy See and the United Nations,” was presented by the Religion & Media Minor of the Religion & Society Program at Syracuse University. The Religion & Media Minor is designed to encourage study of the interaction of religion with other aspects of public affairs, such as politics, diplomacy, law and business, on the basis of a broad understanding of various religious traditions.

R. Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of Religion & the Media and director of the Minor in Religion & Society Program, asked Gibson to speak at the event to enrich the community and the students in his American Religions and the News Media class. He knew that Gibson could give the students some background information on Pope Benedict and inspire them to think about how the news media might cover the pope.

Gibson’s book, The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World, was published in 2006 and is the first full-scale treatment of the Ratzinger papacy — how it happened, who he is, and what it means for the Catholic Church.

Gibson began his journalistic career as a walk-on sports editor and columnist at The International Courier, a small daily in Rome serving Italy’s English-language community. He then worked as a newscaster and writer at the English Programme at Vatican Radio, an entity he described as a cross between NPR and Armed Forces Radio for the pope. Gibson covered dozens of John Paul II’s overseas trips, including papal visits to Africa, Europe, Latin America and the U.S.

When Gibson returned to the U.S. In 1990, he covered the religion beat in his native New Jersey for two dailies. He worked first for The Record in Hackensack and then at The Star-Ledger in Newark, winning the nation’s top awards in religion writing at both places. In 1999 Gibson won the Supple Religion Writer of the Year contest, and in 2000 he was chosen as the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year.

Gibson is a longtime board member of the Religion Newswriters Association and he is a contributer to ReligionLink, a service of the Religion Newswriters Foundation.

Since 2003, Gibson has written independently, specializing in Catholicism, religion in contemporary America and early Christian history. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Boston Magazine, Commonweal, America, The New York Observer, Beliefnet and Religion News Service.

Gibson has produced documentaries on early Christianity for CNN and other networks and has traveled on assignment to numerous countries.

Gibson’s first book, The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism, was published in 2003 and deals with the church-wide crisis revealed by the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

Gibson lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and daughter and is working on a book about conversion and on several film and television projects.

Before introducing Gibson to those in attendance, Niebuhr stressed that papal visits to the U.S. are a rarity. This year’s impending papal visit will bring the total number of visits to seven. “This year’s visit is really going to be news,” said Niebuhr. “Pope Benedict XVI is such an unusual man and has such an extraordinary history. For those who are interested in the intersection of religion and media and politics and international relations, this visit will have it all.”

The lecture commenced with Niebuhr asking Gibson to explain who Pope Benedict XVI really is, why one knows so little about him and what he would be doing while visiting the U.S.

Gibson replied that Pope Benedict XVI, a fascinating intellectual, is the leader of one billion Catholics around the world and is a vitally important world leader. As he visits Washington, D.C, and New York City, his role as a spiritual leader will be very much on display.

“He’s a very quiet, sweet, almost introverted man,” said Gibson. “But he loves the clash of ideas. He can be provocative with the best of them, but always at a very academic level. He’s an academic, a theologian.”

Gibson told how for the 10 years before he was elected pope at the age of 78, he was begging John Paul II to let him go back to his beloved Bavaria so that he could write, lecture and finish up the theological projects that got waylaid when he was made a bishop back in 1977.

Gibson explained that Pope Benedict in his role as a cardinal he had a negative reputation as a theological hardliner. He was known as “God’s Rotweiller.”

Gibson said that Pope Benedict has been a disappointment to both the left and right, but that it is to his credit. The attributes of his personality explain his low profile. “That’s the reason he hasn’t traveled much and the reason he hasn’t been on the page of The New York Times as much,” said Gibson. “It’s a matter of principle with him. He wants to lower the profile of the person of the pope. As an older man, he is not as energetic as one who is younger. He realizes that his role is to serve as a symbol of unity and as a unifying force in the church. Benedict knows the pope is not there to be a hardliner. He’s been very open about wanting to make Christianity in the Catholic Church a positive option.”

Niebuhr then asked Gibson what major themes he thought would characterize the pope’s upcoming visit and if the media coverage would fall into the same pattern that was utilized when John Paul II visited the U.S.

Gibson replied that Pope Benedict wants to be very careful, with certain notable exceptions, of not being controversial. “He knows there’s a tripwire out there for Joseph Ratzinger — step over that tripwire, say anything that is controversial — the media will jump on that,” said Gibson. “He wants to project this positive quality — that the Catholic Church has something to propose that is positive to each of our lives. But he has to balance that because he also at the same time wants to shore up Catholic identity. He wants Catholics to be more Catholic. He’ll focus on offering that message.”

He’s also going to talk to Catholic education leaders to emphasize that they have to tow the line.

“He’ll talk a lot about the Eucharist,” said Gibson. “For him the liturgy is the height of worship and the meeting point with God.”

Gibson said the pope’s visit is a two-fold story. It’s a pastoral visit to the Catholics in the U.S., but it’s also a visit by the pope to the United Nations. “That is really the spur to this,” said Gibson. “He wants to use this global pulpit to bring a message to the world community about human rights. He’ll touch on the issues of abortion, birth control, gay marriage, homosexual sex, in addition to environment issues.”

Niehbur asked Gibson how he thought Pope Benedict would handle the issue of the Iraq War. Gibson replied that the pope would talk about the war in a diplomatic way when he meets with President George Bush.

Gibson’s presentation proved to be informative and humorous. “I found it very enlightening,” said SU senior Randy Marciniak. As a Religion and Society major and a parishioner at St. John’s in Port Byron, N.Y., Marciniak said he learned a lot about Pope Benedict.

SU senior Religion and English major Josh Snodgrass also found the presentation very informative. “I really like Gibson’s  perspectives,” said Snodgrass. “He offered some good criticisms.”   

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