One of the first things I learned as a trainee journalist years ago was about “green ink” letters. These were letters from people with Very Strong Opinions who Fixated upon Certain Priorities, often concerning conspiracy theories. They were filed in the wastepaper basket.
That was at a local weekly newspaper, and the number of green-ink correspondents was relatively small. It was later, working for the Catholic press, that I really got to know them in depth. By then, it was not just individual epistles, but printed newsletters and little booklets. Invariably there was a lack of any editing, so paragraphs often became unruly, rambling polemics. Capital letters were used lavishly. The authors were fixated on the troubles in the Church, in the liturgy, in the presentation of Catholic teachings, and in the confusion and debate that had arisen following the Second Vatican Council.
The arrival of widespread and cheap photocopying was a boon to these people, and the turmoil in the Church of the 1970s was what drove them. They were upset, muddled, hurt — and very, very angry. I was young and shared their anger over ugly ditties replacing decent Church music and silly nonsense parroted in place of sound Catholic teaching. But I quickly learned that some of these people were on a different planet. They weren’t completely daft, of course; in fact, they were probably fairly normal, holding down jobs and raising families — but, in their spare time, they ranted about plots and freemasons, conspiracies and more.
Some went completely over the top. And some are still there, ranting away on the Internet. If photocopying produced newsletters, the Internet has opened up absolutely limitless opportunities. Here they all are: the enthusiasts for the Impostor Pope — the “You Could Tell It Wasn’t Really Paul VI because of His Ear Lobes” argument; the ones who have an obsessive hatred for World Youth Day; those who believe that No One Has Really Told the Truth about Fatima.
These last are in a league of their own: They seem to have a particular hatred of Blessed John Paul II, because he authorized the unveiling of the Third Secret, but it wasn’t what they wanted. They were angry and disappointed, because they were convinced that it would all be more dreadful, with revelations about ghastly things to come. Instead, it became clear that it was more tender, beautiful, and mysterious than we had thought, because the loving care of the most holy Virgin intervened to prevent murder and showed us that evil need not triumph.
And that’s the point, you see. The reality of God and His mercy, His care for His Church, and His love of humanity is what really matters.
One of the strongest messages that emerged from the life of the great John Paul was just this: Plots and counter-plots, political manipulation of all sorts, and wickedness on a large scale, not excluding the vile deeds of the KGB and their linked thugs across Eastern Europe, could not triumph over the Church and the successor of St. Peter. Blessed John Paul had a heart that rested with God and a soul that strived to be pure: It was these things that enabled God to work His purposes with and through him. As pope, priest, and man of prayer, he was wholly at the service of the Church, and Mary looked after him with motherly concern. You can’t beat that. You can’t break it, and you can’t destroy it.
John Paul had a great mind and a great heart: He was a wonderful communicator of the Christian faith, a fine teacher, an inspiring leader. But there was an essential simplicity about him — and, incidentally, about his successor, too — because he knew that if we sincerely seek to do God’s will, and we put our best efforts and prayer into that, then we can have faith through whatever the future holds. Goodness isn’t as complicated as evil and can triumph in all sorts of ways.
The Church did not merely survive those often chaotic years after the Second Vatican Council: She went on with her triumphant mission, winning souls for Christ. To the young people who teemed into Rome for Blessed John Paul’s funeral — and those who followed them just recently for his beatification — the Church is not a place of chaos but of joy and hope. For them, things like World Youth Day, the new lay movements, the new evangelization, the revival of love of the rosary — complete with the Luminous Mysteries — the rediscovery of beauty in the liturgy, are part of Church life.
And keep watching: In the next few years, you’ll hear young voices raised in Latin chant, as well as in hymns old and new, and see young nuns and priests busy about God’s work wearing habits of the new religious orders, and many more World Youth Days and linked local events, with a new generation hurrying along to take part in what for them has become simply part of the Church’s great tradition.
It can be tempting to spend some time trawling the Internet and following up some of the odder fringe theories. But it’s an indulgence that should be resisted. It is not good for the soul, and it’s not good for the Church. The Church’s mission is served by doing what is large and noble and God-centered — and there is plenty that needs doing.
So what’s a Catholic journalist to do? Continue writing sanely. Recognize when a correspondent’s ink is green, even when it’s in a combox. Continue to seek the good, the true, and the beautiful — and to write about it.