Right after Christmas I received an email from Peter Smith, the religion editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. We had corresponded by email last summer, when he was pursuing a story idea about the Diocese of Pittsburgh's "On Mission for the Church Alive" reorganization. But he never wrote the story, and obviously he never used my comments. I had never met the man.
In the midst of the email interview Peter learned that I was pastor of four parishes. (We have a couple of priests who pastor three parishes, and one who pastors one parish with four churches.) In his email Peter wanted to do a "one day in the life of a pastor who has four parishes" story. I was flattered, but wondered, where are the pitfalls.
So I consulted with some folks. My staff thought it was OK. My two associates thought I was crazy to open myself up to a reporter, but were good sports and were willing to go along with it. A couple of friends thought it was a great idea. But one friend, an attorney, said, "No way!" She was afraid of a "hack-job" article, and the writer saying things which made me, or our churches, look bad. She worried I would be misquoted, or taken out of context, or betray a parishioner confidence. She was doing what any good lawyer does, look at the "what's the worst thing that could happen."
I checked with the vicar general and the director of communications for the diocese. I told them, if they thought it wasn't a good idea, I would not go through with it. But they thought well of me, and said, go for it. They knew I had talked many times with reporters in the past. I hadn't put my foot in my mouth -- yet.
So I gave the reporter some available dates on my calendar, ones that included meetings with representatives of all four parishes--our pastoral councils, finance councils, and On Mission team. He picked last Tuesday, February 7, to come to New Castle. It turned out the day was mild, so I only had to wear a suit coat.
I had agreed to do a 10 am funeral Mass that day in St. Vitus Church. That's the church you see so well on page 8, with the large mural behind the altar. The rest of the day was, conversation with the reporter and photographer, Andrew Rush, from 11 to 12 (including a 5 minute video interview, available on-line), our priests lunch at 12 noon in the dining room of Mary Mother of Hope rectory, visiting a classroom in St. Vitus School from 1:30 to 2, time in the Adoration Chapel from 4 to 5, dinner with Peter Smith from 5 to 6:30, and the pastoral council meeting in the Marian Room underneath Mary Mother of Hope Church from 7 to 8:30. It was a usual day for me, but not a unique day.
The two of them, Andrew and Peter, followed me from 9 am to 9 pm. It was really weird being photographed at every turn by Andrew, but he was unobtrusive and only doing his job. Even when I went to the Adoration Chapel for my usual one hour time slot (4 to 5 pm every Tuesday), praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Andrew walked around me shooting. I personally think we Christians ought to take Jesus's words about praying literally. "Go into your inner room, close the door, and don't let anyone know you are praying." But while I sat or knelt in the chapel, I thought of Pope Francis, who is photographed every moment and at every turn, and still manages to pray in public.
Peter Smith turned out to be a sensitive soul, and a good listener. He told me the best part of his job is meeting different people. Over dinner ("You treated me to lunch, I'll let my publisher treat you for dinner") we talked politics, church politics and the job of being a religion writer. I told him I had to commend the Post-Gazette for having a "religion beat." Ann Rodgers served that beat so well for more than 25 years. (Now Ann works for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.) Peter took over for Ann three years ago. Both Peter and Andrew are Presbyterian, but both were knowledgeable about our Catholic church and its ways.
When the article appeared yesterday, I was flabbergasted that it was so long, and double flabbergasted that it appeared on the front page. But I am glad that I did it. It was no hack-job. The same friend who was worried about all the potential problems with such a story told me, after reading the article, "I think he really captured you, Frank. I was wrong to oppose doing it."
When I agreed to the day-long interview, in my mind I was not doing it to pad my ego. I believe that what we are doing here in New Castle is honorable Catholic ministry, and a positive story that is under-appreciated. I believed that good could come out of such a long interview. Through Peter's clear, accurate writing, and Andrew's illuminating pictures, I think my belief came true.
Since the story has appeared, I've gotten lots of emails and texts, all of them complimentary. I pass them on to Peter Smith, the writer. I am only a representative of so many unsung, hard-working priests and pastoral ministers. I never imagined that this would be such a long story, and that my picture -- and my bald spot -- would be on the front page, above the fold, of the Sunday edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I just hope through this story that people -- Catholics and others -- see better the good that we priests, parish staff and parishioners are doing in and through our parishes.