Adventures in Interviewing

Today I finished up work on an article I’ve been preparing for Our Sunday Visitor, which marks the 800th anniversary of St. Francis receiving approval from the Pope for the new order he had founded. Quite a wonderful moment to give thanks, if you consider the enormous impact that Francis and his followers have made on Christian spirituality, theology, liturgy, charity, and the pursuit of social justice these past eight centuries!giotto20-20dream_of_innocent_iii1

It was in 1209 that a raggedy-looking Francis, accompanied by some less-than-impressive-looking companions, appeared before Pope Innocent III, asking for papal approval. The Pope might not even have received the filthy man, but for the dream he had recently had – the Lateran Basilica (Christendom’s mother church, and then the headquarters of the Pope) tipping dangerously to one side, about to fall, except for a man holding it up firmly against his shoulder. The Pope recognized Francis as the man from his dream, received him, and did approve of his new community.  (The image here is the great artist Giotto’s rendering of the dream.)

But all that, and more, is in the article, which will be appearing in OSV soon enough. I had an interesting time doing the research for the piece.

For one, I was fortunate enough to come upon Dr. Susan Pitchford, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Dr. Pitchford is a Third Order Franciscan and the author of Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone. Oh, and she’s Anglican.

No, she’s not an Anglican who decided to elbow her way into a Catholic order. The order itself is Anglican. I had to embarrassedly admit that I had no idea there was an Anglican Franciscan order (or, for that matter, any other orders within the Anglican Church).

Anyway, she was fascinating to talk to, offering far more insightful observations about St. Francis and what it means to take him as a teacher and guide to Christian living than I could ever fit into the 1,400 words assigned to me. I haven’t read her book (yet), but if my conversation with her is any indication, it’s worth a look.

On the other hand, there was my encounter with a Franciscan priest whose anonymity I’ll protect. Looking for a good resource, I was perusing the homepage of one of the prominent Franciscan provinces here in the United States. And on their list of contacts, he was identified as the Director of Communications. The guy whose job description includes talking to the press about Franciscan stuff.  Just the type of person I needed.

I dialed his office.

He answered: “Yeah?”

Had I dialed wrong, I wondered. “Um … is this Father [Name]?”

“Oh, yes.” Caught off guard. “That’s me.”

“Oh good.” I introduced myself and said I was preparing an article for OSV on the 800th anniversary of Francis founding the order.

“Okay, hold on juuuuuuust one second.” Pause. “Alright. Let me just close this up.” Pause.  “Favorites. Click that. Close that.” More pause, then more pause.

“Father, if there’s a better time I could call—“

“Oh, no no! What can I do for you?”

I told him again that I was preparing an article on the 800th anniversary of Francis founding the order.

“Oh, sure. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t there. But I can give you the names of a couple of guys who were.”

Wow!  He really is good at communications!  Actually, he obviously thought I was talking about the big meeting in Assisi and Rome last week.

“Um, no, Father—“

“I couldn’t make it.”

“No, Father, I’m talking about the founding of the order. Eight hundred years ago.”

“Oh! I see. Well, all of the information is available on the website.” He gave me the web address.

“Well, actually Father, I’m familiar with the history. I was hoping to get a few helpful insights about the importance and meaning of it all.”  (Quotes!  I needed interesting quotes for the article!  You quote a person, not a website.  And the Director of Communications should “get” that!)

“Oh, okay.”

“Could I ask you a few questions?”

“Sure.”

“Great.” I usually start off with an easy one, get them warmed up. “Well, there was that moment when Francis was sitting in the church of San Damiano, and the crucifix spoke to him, ‘Rebuild my church.’ Could you tell me a little bit about the significance of that for Francis?”

“Um.” Big pause. “I’ll tell you what. I’m not really good at giving information off the cuff. Would you mind if you give me some time to think about this, and then I’ll call you back?”

“Oh, sure, Father, absolutely.” He asked for my number, and I gave it. Of the list of questions I actually had in front of me, I chose two other simple ones (obviously I couldn’t read the list out so he could think about them all) and mentioned them.

“Sure. I’ll call you right back. I promise.”

I never heard from him again. The Director of, you know, Communications.

Fortunately, I ended up getting in contact with Fr. Dominic Monti – through Jocelyn Thomas, the very helpful and professional Director of Communications of the Holy Name Province. Fr. Dominic is the author of the recent book Francis and His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Friars. Despite the fact that Fr. Dominic was out of town and in meetings all day, Ms. Thomas put me in touch with him and he cheerfully spoke to me for twenty minutes while waiting for a train at the end of a long day. He offered some very important information that I hadn’t yet come across.

I truly did enjoy preparing the article. Many thanks to Dr. Pitchford, Ms. Thomas, Fr. Dominic, and that other guy, the Director of, you know, Communications.

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