Catholic journalist gets ‘kick’ out of working with Pope Francis

With an office just steps from St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Catholic journalist Cindy Wooden can write and “tweet” about the pope’s events by watching a closed-circuit live feed.

As Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, Wooden also accompanies the pope on such adventures as flights aboard the papal airplane, and she is part of the Vatican reporters’ pool rotation for visits of heads of state.

She was there when Pope John Paul II died and for his funeral and was close enough to smell the white smoke at the election of Pope Francis himself.

“Working in such close proximity with Pope Francis, I think I understand him,” Wooden said in an interview with The Visitor. “I’m delighted by him. But even more, he says things that are like a kick in the rear. He’ll say things like, ‘Get your act together. Be more compassionate. Be more Christian. Spend more time in prayer. Read your Bible.’ I feel like the pope is always challenging me to be a better Christian.”

Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau chief, and Joshua McElwee, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, talk to Pope Francis about their book, “A Pope Francis Lexicon,” during a flight to Colombia Sept. 6, 2017. The book contains 54 essays by cardinals, bishops, theologians, women and men religious and professional writers. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

Wooden was thrilled to be asked to work on a new book, “A Pope Francis Lexicon,” released just in time for the fifth anniversary of his election to the papacy on March 13, 2013. The book includes 54 essays from various writers, ranging in age from 20-something to 70-something, according to Wooden, who co-edited the book with Joshua McElwee, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

“The idea for the book came from an Italian publisher, who did two volumes called ‘Il Vocabolario di Papa Francesco’ — the ‘Vocabulary of Pope Francis,’” Wooden said. “They had Italian journalists writing about different words that the pope uses. Liturgical Press [in Collegeville]bought the rights to the book.”

In December 2016, Liturgical Press approached McElwee and Wooden, asking them to edit the new book.

“We were to choose the words, choose the writers,” Wooden said. “We began the project thinking that we would translate and use some of the essays in the Italian book, but when we started dreaming of who we would like to contribute to our volume, we came up with so many names that in the end, we didn’t actually use any of the Italian material. It was amazing.”

Wooden said for her, the most fun was getting to know the contributors and waiting for the surprise of each essay to appear in her inbox.

“We tried very hard to get a variety of voices — men and women, young and old, laypeople, writers, theologians from a wide variety of backgrounds. There are at least two people from every continent. And these people are not explaining the pope or theologizing about the pope, they’re reflecting on what he says. Their reflections are kind of incarnated — how, in their lives, this is what it means for them.”

Wooden said a lot of thought went into each word as well as each author. For example, she said, it was important to have a Jesuit write about discernment.

“When the pope talks about discernment, he’s talking about a specific process of prayer in the Ignatian tradition. And so the essay on discernment goes step by step and gives examples, so that you understand that the pope is not just talking about making a choice,” she explained.

“Or Father Michael Perry, head of the Franciscans worldwide, did a piece where Ignatian and Franciscan spirituality overlap. I never knew that St. Ignatius of Loyola was fascinated with St. Francis of Assisi,” Wooden said. “And the focus on the incarnation, of God entering into our world. The implications of that for Jesuits and Franciscans are both very concrete … but they share this sense that, as the Jesuits say, looking for God in everyday life, and seeing how God is at work in the world. And so it’s very cool to see Father Perry reflecting on how a Jesuit has been such a Franciscan pope.”

Though Wooden says she’s read each essay at least a dozen times, she can’t pick a favorite.

“My favorite essay changes all the time. I think the essay on mercy is beautiful. It’s the longest essay in the book, which makes sense because it’s so key to the pontificate. The essay on encounter, which is another key context in the pontificate, is written by an Argentinian theologian. He’s very close to the pope.

“And then, I have a real admiration for Cardinal [Luis] Tagle of Manila, who wrote about tears. The pope talks a lot about praying for the gift of tears and how tears can wash your eyes, so that you really see other people and their suffering. Cardinal Tagle, in his essay, carries it a step further and talks about the tears of Jesus and what they helped Jesus see about a hurting humanity in need of salvation. I think it’s just stunning.”

Wooden has seen and shed her own share of tears in working so closely with the Holy Father. One thing she learned about herself while working on the book was how much it exhausts her to hear the “nasty comments on Twitter and the public attacks on the pope.”

“What I learned is that I was really missing the life-giving, joy-building reflections on how what the pope is saying is resonating with so many people,” she said.

“A lot of times if you just look at social media and the Catholic blogosphere you can get the idea that maybe the pope just isn’t really communicating with people. I think the book shows that on a very broad level, he is reaching people — [including] a grandfather talking about how wonderful it is to hear an affirmation of his current vocation, which is just to be with his grandkids. These things are important. That’s where our faith hits the road and gives life. I realized just how much I needed that.”

Wooden suggested the book could be read in small groups in parishes or schools. She hopes that those who pick up the book will find the same life-giving joy she found in its pages.

“I hope that readers will find that it feeds their faith and their faith imagination, that it gives them ideas for how they can be stronger missionary disciples and grow closer to God and closer to other people,” she said. “I hope they find that the essays are as beautiful as I thought they were. Josh and I did not write these pieces, so I can’t take that much credit for them and it also means that I can stand back and say they’re really, really good.”

About Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Visitor newspaper.

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