Knight: St. Francis, 'patron of a harrowed tribe'

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Years ago, not long after my wife and I were sacramentally married in the Catholic Church after awesome Cursillo weekend experiences, I chose St. Francis de Sales as my Confirmation saint.

A patron saint of journalists, De Sales was an advocate, priest and reporter, and 410 years ago this month he sent a report to the Pope prefaced with the comment that the situation in his diocese in Switzerland was important, so the correspondence was as conscientious and faithful a report about what was happening there as he could write.

De Sales took such pains, he said, because otherwise someone could see "as truth what was false and as false what was true."

Besides writing hundreds of reports and pamphlets and some of the most enduring literature about Christianity, including "Introduction to the Devout Life," De Sales is credited with writing more than 17,000 letters to everyday readers as well as clergy.

His output makes today's journalists meeting daily deadlines – or even the never-ending 21st century nonstop online variety – seem like slothful slackers.

De Sales' energy and output are humbling, but his approach also can be daunting to contemporary practitioners. Nevertheless, his existence can be comforting to "ink-stained wretches" trying to do good work, whether The Peorian or a print publication, a broadcast or a blog.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "Journalists have an obligation to serve the truth," also conceding that "the means of social communication (especially the mass media) can give rise to a certain passivity among users, making them less than vigilant consumers."

It's difficult not to comment about Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and their ilk. It's more difficult – and more rewarding – to be vigilant, fair, and accurate – and tell a good story.

Help is always welcomed, of course.

This summer, Pope Francis helped reassure journalists that the church (well, at least the Holy Father) has an appreciation for – and expectations about – the press. Speaking to a group of Jesuit journalists, the pontiff reminded the reporters that they must "be uncompromising against the hypocrisies which result from the closed, the sick heart," adding, "Your task is to gather and express the expectations, the desires, the joys and the dramas of our time."

Wow.

A previous Pope, Pius XI, in 1923 canonized De Sales (1567-1622), whose writings included lines such as "the body is poisoned through the mouth, even so is the heart through the ear."

(And eyes, it could be argued, ever since photography, movies and television, and the Internet emerged.)

Bottom line: Speak the truth with charity.

Indeed, centuries after De Sales wrote his appeals to Swiss and French residents in his diocese, dominated by Calvinists, and decades after Pius recognized De Sales' sainthood, Pope Francis stressed that journalism goes beyond exposing hypocrisy, saying that the main task of journalists "is not to build walls but bridges" and to establish dialogue with everyone.

If that seems a challenge, if not a burden, consider the experiences of another patron saint of journalists (we need all the help we can get), Maximilian Kolbe. After forming an organization devoted to St. Mary in the last century – the Knight of the Immaculata – the Franciscan friar produced a magazine that reached a circulation of 1 million by 1939. Two years later, the Nazis' Gestapo arrested him. Kolbe eventually was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, where he was forced into slave labor and tortured. He died when he volunteered to take the place of a condemned prisoner, Francis Gajowniczek, who survived, lived to be 95, and was present when Pope John Paul II canonized Kolbe in 1980.

"No one in the world can change truth," Kolbe wrote. "What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it."

(Interestingly, the first point in the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics is "Seek the truth and report it fully.")

On the other hand – the lighter side – there's this "Prayer to St. Francis de Sales," supposedly discovered by a Shropshire, England, parish priest sympathetic to newspapermen, and published in the Journal of the British Institute of Journalists and also in Editor & Publisher magazine in the United States:

"St. Francis, dear patron of a harrowed tribe, grant us thy protection. Bestow on us, thy servants, a little more of thy critical spirit, and a little less on our readers. Confer on our subscribers the grace of condescension in overlooking our faults and the grace of promptitude in paying our bills.

"Make them less partial to compliments, more callous to rebuke, less critical to misprints," it continues. "Give us brave thoughts, beautiful thoughts, so that we, thy children, may have the courage to write as we think, and our readers the docility to think as we write.

"Then shall we, thy faithful servants, resting on thy protection, fight thy battles with joyful hearts, drive the wolf from the door, the devil from the fold, and meet thee in everlasting peace. Amen."

About the Author
Bill Knight recently retired after a couple decades teaching journalism at Western Illinois University. Now, you might find him strolling through the streets of Elmwood with his wife and fellow writer, Terry Bibo, along with their son, Opie, and his beloved collie, Lassie.* *Actually this last bit isn’t true. Not to mention the fact that our writer got “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Lassie & Timmy” mixed up.