About Bill Schmitt

Bill Schmitt is a long-time communications/media specialist with the University of Notre Dame. Prior to 2003, he was a journalist in New York and Washington, DC. You can find him on Linked In; there, he has left out the fact that he has always needed to receive and bestow mercy and now feels a summons to reflect on that more regularly. These thoughts are strictly his own.

This Just In … EWTN News Nightly

The biggest news in Catholic news right now is the debut of “EWTN News Nightly.” Thanks to Deacon Greg Kandra’s blog, you can see the Sept. 3 premiere and enjoy intelligent commentary about the telecast. Thanks to Lisa Hendey’s blog, written in advance of the debut, you can feel the kind of excitement that a number of news junkies have been experiencing about this potentially huge step forward in the New Evangelization.

What kind of news junkie would get excited about a show like this? Well, G.K. Chesterton, for one. Yes, he’s been deceased for decades, so we won’t see him blogging about “EWTN News Nightly.” But he was a journalist for whom an interest in the latest news was seamlessly integrated with an interest in the whole world–its past, present, and future–and how everything gained importance, or at least relevance, when looked at through a Catholic lens.

When everything is inherently noteworthy, and lifelong learning is an embrace of Christ the Teacher and the search for Truth, you don’t need state-of-the-art visuals or frenetic theme music or tantalizing story teasers to keep you watching. So “EWTN News Nightly,” which will be presented only weekly at first, has none of those things. It’s mature and well-spoken and a bit reflective–maybe so much so that it could use a bit more urgent dynamism. And anchor Colleen Carroll Campbell is a refreshing presence who radiates professionalism in her clear thinking and good questioning. Her approach toward her on-camera guests is right and rare: They must increase, and I must decrease.

This is just the beginning for this bold EWTN experiment. It will be worth watching future episodes and praying for the success of the project. The New Evangelization needs this kind of regular mass-media testimony that the Catholic faith is relevant to the world, and vice versa. This intelligent, faith-filled anchor and her team will remind people that the news need not be a cheapened commodity or a subjective product of personal, relativist perspective. Journalism, at its best, is a way of journaling about the human journey. This journey helps us keep growing, and this program is likely to keep growing, too.

Poetweets on a Notre Dame Theme

Have you heard of poetweets? They’re short bursts of verse that use 140 characters–the length of a tweet.  Similar to haiku being limited to 17 syllables. Thanks to the author of this Prezi description of poetweets.  This relatively new art form, as commented upon at Cafebabel, has already caught on in New York City, where there’s an annual contest.

So is it time for Notre Dame to inspire poetweets? I try my hand at introducing the concept on Twitter @wschmitt and #poetweet. If you like the idea, please retweet me!


World Youth Day: “A Positive Outlook on Reality”

One of the wonderful commentaries Pope Francis offered during the World Youth Day events in Brazil last week was his prescription of three attitudes that would help today’s young people build “a more just, united, and fraternal world.” Those three attitudes are hope, an ability to be surprised, and joy.

It struck me that this is a wonderful prescription for young people and for institutions serving and forming those young people. The Catholic Church and Catholic universities would be two such institutions.

In speaking of hope, Pope Francis urged, “Let us maintain a positive outlook on reality.” A negative outlook, which is so easy to pick up today from popular culture, politics, and the media, makes it more likely that young people will turn to the alternative “gods” provided by society, such as money, success, power, and pleasure. Young people need to remember that “God has the upper hand” in this world, and He will never allow us to be overcome by our difficulties, the Pope pointed out.

The texture of his remarks became even richer as he talked about the need to allow God to surprise us. “Let us trust God,” he prescribed. This is something Pope Francis does instinctively, for all the world to see. Trust is certainly hard to come by today, and sometimes it seems an authentic sense of surprise, or a willingness to be surprised, is also elusive. In our popular culture, we strain for surprise by wanting things to be more edgy and more extreme. I’ve heard our culture described as a “whatever” culture, where we seem bored by almost everything reality can offer us.

In a commentary about trends in journalism published in “Editor and Publisher” magazine a couple of decades ago, I quipped that “reality is being cancelled due to lack of interest.” The Freedom Forum, a journalism think tank, honored me by quoting me in its desk calendar for journalists the next year; I guess this cautionary note resonated with them. I do think our culture’s pursuit of alternative realities (video games, etc.) is a big part of the reason for the sharp decline of the market for serious journalism. The coverage of reality would strike people as more interesting if the reporters themselves were looking for genuine surprises–that is, facts and ideas that are not part of the conventional narrative. Titillation, outrage, and schadenfreude too often supplant healthy curiosity and surprise in the media today.

Just as hope can prompt us to look for God’s surprises, finding those surprises can lead us to joy, according to the Pope’s three-step prescription. Joy is another commodity often missing from our culture. Hauntingly, the words that come together in the term schadenfreude are German for “the joy of damage.” That’s a false joy! Without true joy and awe and a sense of great possibilities, we may not have enough energy to imagine, create, renew, and pursue a more just world where all other people can share the joy we’re experiencing.

Chesterton said (something like) this: The world has no shortage of wonders, but it does suffer from a shortage of wonder. I’ve heard it said that wonder should be everywhere on a college campus, where there are constantly new things to be learned, new people with whom to brainstorm, new mental, emotional, and spiritual connections to be made. Too often, cynicism or escapism or thrills of the moment substitute for joy…on college campuses and everywhere.

So I find this prescription from Pope Francis to be quite thought-provoking. All Christians and all New Evangelizers who care about our world and our future need to cultivate hope, surprise, and joy so as to energize young people, or even just to get their attention! I must do more thinking about how the institutional Church can embody this prescription better. How could a university embody it? Well, a big emphasis on world-class, interdisciplinary research, reflecting a mission to make a difference in the world and tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges, would help to generate hope; it would spring from a faith in that God who “has the upper hand” and wants the best for His beloved creatures. Research and an enthusiastic embrace of teaching and learning across a vast array of subject areas would foster a sense of surprise, and a vibrant spiritual life on campus would help the community of students and faculty to be attentive to the unseen, respectful of mystery, and ready for wonder. Also, a touch of sports, perhaps with a winning football team that was known as persistent and unpredictable–and, please God, capable of going all the way–would also help to generate joy.

All of these ingredients together could go far in enabling the next generation to pursue a more just, united, and fraternal world. That’s just one possible model for such an empowering campus. But it’s a microcosm worthy of exploration by those who welcome the Pope’s prescription for a positive outlook on reality.

God’s in the details — and the patriotic songs

I was blessed to start out this 4th of July with Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, a Mass celebrated by Bishop Kevin Rhoades to mark the end of the Fortnight for Freedom. Especially in light of the Bishop’s remarks about the need for America to respect religious liberty, it was a powerful after-Mass meditation to think about God’s presence in the patriotic songs we sing on days like today.

I knew about America the Beautiful, Battle Hymn of the Republic, God Bless America, etc., but the hymnal in the pew also contained The Star Spangled Banner, and this one surprised me. Most Americans only know the first stanza, if that. Did you know that the stanza that was third in the hymnal–and fourth in the Wikipedia article about the anthem–is another powerful statement of gratitude to God? Here it is, as provided by Wikipedia:

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave![12]

GK Chesterton once said that he pitied the atheist who was thankful but had no one to thank. Many expressions of our patriotism are seamlessly connected to religious values. As long as we sing these songs about America, we’ll be remembering and reaffirming the values of past generations who saw a connection between the blessings of this country and the One who blesses.

Gateway Episodes: This Concept Opens Up Some Possibilities

Thank you, Abby Ohlheiser, whose post in the June 25 Slate introduced me to the concept of “gateway episodes.” Abby mused on how a TV series, perhaps a now-cancelled series that one always wanted to sample  and still can catch up on via DVD sets or online archives, may have produced one episode that serves as the perfect introduction to the essence of the series–its characters and characteristics. Check out the gateway episode, and you then can determine whether you want to experience more.

Indeed, you could become “hooked” on the series, which calls to mind the darker predecessor term, “gateway drug,” as applied to marijuana. I prefer a more positive interpretation, and use, of the “gateway” concept. Robert Frost popularized the idea that “good fences make good neighbors.” In these days when a lot of metaphorical fences are being built, we need to celebrate gateways that break through walls and traps into broader thinking and brighter possibilities.

Now I’ve started thinking about “gateway episodes” as they apply to TV series I’ve loved, but I’m gladly going forth from there to ask questions relevant to my work and my faith: Might it be a good communications/marketing strategy for an organization to seek out and highlight a story that serves as a “gateway episode,” a great entry point and introduction that compels first-time visitors to come back to learn more about the organization? If you had to pick a “gateway episode” in the history of Notre Dame, what would it be? Is the typical Fighting Irish football weekend a gateway episode into Notre Dame’s past, present, and future? Does the Catholic Church need to identify and publicize “gateway episodes” in its history or present-day story that draw people close enough to understand some basics, to become intrigued by some mysteries, and to pursue deeper knowledge of the institution–and of the Risen Christ?

Does every human life’s story have a gateway episode? In an age when our popular culture often seeks out and spotlights personal episodes of embarrassment or accusal or superficiality for the purpose of entertainment or schadenfreude, do we as communicators or journalists, or brothers and sisters in Christ, owe it to others to seek out gateway episodes in people’s lives–rather than episodes that build fences? Does every individual’s spiritual journey toward God have a gateway episode? Is God always in the business of creating and opening gateways that open up possibilities for closer relationships?

These are big questions that I hope to come back to over time. Right now, I’ll begin my practice of the concept by asking smaller questions that are nevertheless fun. What was the best gateway episode for the classic “Star Trek” series? It turns out that this conversation has already taken place online. And I love the first answer I saw at this site–namely, the great episode titled “City on the Edge of Forever.” No pun intended, the correspondent advises us, realizing that the episode is about a mysterious alien gateway that allows the Enterprise officers to go back in time to a profound setting of love, friendship, and adventure. This was indeed Star Trek at its best. Perhaps seeking out such gateways is a wonderful way to approach storytelling and celebrate intrinsic, positive possibilities.

The Priesthood, Education, and ACE

The connection between the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and religious vocations is very real, partly because the connection between education and the priesthood is very real.

We’ve seen the ACE connection a lot recently. During Lent, it was my privilege to talk with Tony Hollowell, an ACE graudate who is studying in Rome to be a priest for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. He eloquently discussed how the embrace of vocational discernment in ACE supported him on his path toward a priestly vocation. His journey allowed him to be present in St. Peter’s Square when Pope Francis emerged on the balcony for the first time, and Tony was interviewed on national Catholic radio the next morning describing that memorable experience.

More recently, our ACE newsblog carried the report of two new ordinations of men who had served as ACE teachers. Congratulations to Fr. Luke Marquard and Fr. Andrew Nelson!

Then there’s the example of Father Timothy Klosterman, a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He was ordained in 2008, and he’s joining ACE’s Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program now to prepare to serve as a principal or other leader in Catholic schools. You can read his story in a May 31 posting from the archdiocesan newspaper, The Tidings. (Scroll down to see his story as part two of the article.) Father Timothy served first as a lay teacher. Now a priest, serving as a chaplain in a Catholic high school, he continues to find joy in the call to teach and to reach young people with the message that God is calling all of them into service.

Of course, most of those striving to sustain, strengthen and transform Catholic schools through ACE are laypeople throughout their whole lives. But the amazing experience of service through teaching obviously prompts some men and women to consider the even higher levels of commitment called priesthood or consecrated life . A new report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, titled “The Class of 2013: Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood,” reports that fully 18% of the men ordained as priests in 2013 previously held full-time jobs as educators.

How does one explain this connection? In the case of ACE, I see a zeal for service and an atmosphere of discernment, nourished by intentional faith communities. There’s also the inherent kinship between education and the Church’s even broader call to evangelize.  Teachers and priests are called to make the Lord present to people, in perpetuity. The resurrected Jesus issues the mandate in Matthew 28:19-20, often summed up as the call to “go forth and teach.” He missions his followers: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Stay Tuned …

The Son Rise Morning Show, which is heard on more than 180 Catholic radio stations in the United States, is not being heard in South Bend, for the time being. Because of what might be called “technical difficulties” in leasing arrangements and relationships between various radio stakeholders, the EWTN radio signal is no longer being broadcast at 1580 on your AM dial — which as WHLY had the fortunate moniker of “Holy Radio.”

Efforts are under way to return and expand the Catholic radio presence in South Bend through the good work of Redeemer Radio, the Catholic radio station in Fort Wayne that has the strong support of Bishop Kevin Rhoades. I am involved in those efforts because I have been a lifelong fan of talk radio and a long-time friend of Catholic radio. My ACE and IEI communications experience affirms my fandom because the good folks at the Son Rise Morning Show have shown a consistent interest in the value that our ACE and IEI experts on Catholic schools can bring to their airwaves. We’ve had numerous ACE and IEI colleagues interviewed by host Brian Patrick. Indeed, Brian discovered that he and Father Joe Corpora were classmates in a Catholic grammar school in Ohio. Listen to one of the Father Joe interviews.

While we’re waiting for the return of Catholic radio to South Bend, there are a few things one can do. Of course, the EWTN feed (which is not the only Catholic broadcasting going on in the country … more on that in a future blog) can be heard live on the Internet at ewtn.com. An app called iHeartRadio has allowed me to pick up the broadcasts on my smart phone. And I must admit that I occasionally now listen to the surviving talk stations still broadcasting in South Bend — WSBT on the AM dial and the Michiana News Channel on the FM dial.

By the way, caught an interesting interview on MNC this weekend with Dennis Rushkoff, a media theorist whose new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, contains a lot of good food for thought. Catch him on his blog being interviewed on the Colbert Report!


Exploring Talent

I was delighted today to receive a book, The Little Book of Talent, as a gift from ACE. I know it will be valuable to study the phenomenon of talent, partly for my own ongoing personal development, partly for applications of the wisdom that I might find as a parent to my daughter Mary, and partly for the insight it will give me into the work that goes on at Notre Dame and ACE. So far, I have only browsed through the book, which is written by a Domer named Daniel Coyle, but I feel I can already recommend it as a thought-provoker. I love to be prodded to think about my 56 years of life in new ways, through different lenses. It’s the only way we writers can keep our content fresh, our imaginations lively, our audiences attended to.

Here’s one thing for all of us to remember. Coyle talks about developing talents through regular, repeated, intense practice of skills. Talent, he reminds us, is not just some God-given gift that we can magically make full use of. Talent is inspiration and perspiration. Writing should be done constantly–ideally, in generating content for an array of different media, on an array of different subjects, with various styles, on various deadlines, for various audiences. This is what builds the talent. I am blessed that this is the kind of writing I have gotten to do at ACE–and, for a full ten years, at Notre Dame.

Yep, this is a book that I’m going to do a lot reading in, thinking about, and building upon.


Knocking from the Inside

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. We Catholics immediately know this Gospel passage, and we picture Jesus requesting entry into our lives, into our hearts.

This is a wonderful image, especially with Easter on our minds. But Pope Francis has shed a new light on it by turning it around and prompting us to think about it as New Evangelists. Sometimes, he says, Jesus may be knocking from inside and asking to go forth from the Church, from our hearts, into the world through us.

Now that’s an even more compelling image–to be pondered by the Church, by the professional writer, by the Catholic educator, by all Catholics with roles in the public square. We are called to accept the Lord into a close personal relationship, but we are also sent–in the closing words of every Mass. We must go forth to give glory to the Lord through our lives.In a sense, we must be releasing Christ’s love into the world wherever we go.

This is a key mission of the Catholic school and a reason why so many graduates of these schools have gone forth to make excellent contributions, through the values they’ve learned, to the lives of their families, their communities, their Church, and the world. Thus, Catholic schools are a beautiful tool of evangelization, including the New Evangelization to disengaged Catholics.

Likewise, someone entrusted with the mission of communicating to the world as a writer must help send forth the Good News to others through well-chosen words of faith, hope, and charity. Gifted writers are not given the gift so that they might hoard it. Powerful words can be the instruments through which the Lord’s message bursts forth from our hearts and lovingly breaks through the barriers set up by the disengaged and the disheartened.

On this Easter, when the tomb of Jesus is found empty, it’s exciting to think of our Risen Lord using our vocations (in education, in communications, and in many other fields) to become a “doorbuster” to enter hearts and bring hope.

PS — If you like the kind of judo-flip that Pope Francis does with the image of Jesus knocking, you’ll appreciate the eye-opening explanation that ACE’s Father Joe Corpora  gives to the parable of the unjust judge. See the great six-minute video. Remember the parable about the widow pleading ceaselessly to the unjust judge until he gives her what she wants? Father Joe explains that it’s helpful to see ourselves as the unjust judge. As with Jesus knocking, the kingdom of heaven is persistently requesting that we — as individuals and as a world hungry for love, holiness, and justice — pay attention and humbly receive the gifts of grace persistently offered to us, so that we might find true peace.


Why This Blog is Called “Word”

Since the exciting election of Pope Francis, lots of people have been quoting the guidance attributed to St. Francis: Preach always, when necessary use words. By saying this, St. Francis would not have been deeming words unimportant. To the contrary, according to Catholic wisdom, we sometimes fast from things to show how important they are, to show that they should be valued and respected, not wasted or taken for granted.

That point is the perfect segue into my explaining the name of this blog, “Word.” It’s one of my favorite words–a word not to be taken lightly because it represents something properly valued by people, and by the Church in particular. Words have been rich in meaning to me from my grammar school days, instruments of learning and fun, vessels of potential power and influence, the common currency for building relationships and exercising one’s reason and faith.

Thanks to my father, himself a wordsmith, and to my Catholic school teachers, who took words seriously, I wound up building a career (I hope it was also receiving  a vocation), as a writer, trying to demonstrate good stewardship in the world of words. All of this made me want to give this blog the simple title, “Word.”

It’s my privilege to have written a book that is scheduled to be published by the University of Notre Dame, with the title, Words of Life. This phrase draws upon the “Word of Life” mural that has become better known as “Touchdown Jesus.” This is the mural on the front of the Hesburgh Library, whose upcoming 50th anniversary is the motivation of the book. John the Evangelist liked the word “word” and used it to describe Jesus Christ—the utterance of God the Father from all eternity, the truth and wisdom of God, allowing Jesus to say, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

This helps to make Christ the perfect teacher, and indeed the mural also symbolizes Notre Dame’s embrace of Christ the Teacher. It’s an embrace reflected in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), where I’m privileged to be on the communications staff.

“Word” has not lost its power of authority and validation. The Urban Dictionary tells us that the word can be used to say, “I’m telling the truth,” or “That’s the way it is,” or simply “Amen.” It can also mean confirmation or affirmation more generally, as in “Good idea,” or “That’s okay.” This “word” helps to build relationships of trust, and we need words like that. Such words refer to both the mind and heart—to faith and reason, you might say—and so they’re multi-dimensional just as people are. While precision is important in a communicator’s choices of words to convey a message, I’ve always thought that the Catholic Church encourages a dynamic and vibrant vocabulary—not just a legalistic, technical jargon like some institutions—because it likes evocative words.

There are times to unleash the power of words. The Church has made the decision that the Mass, in its new Roman Missal translation, is one place where an abundance of words and their elaborate nature generate a sense of overflowing love and praise and thanksgiving. I anticipate that Pope Francis will help to lead the way in showing people the other side of Church wisdom–seeing the need to leave some room for sparse language, indeed for silence, so that actions can speak louder and listening can take place. As with so many Catholic insights, in this case taken from an insight of the Hebrew Scriptures, to everything there is a season. Sometimes words should gush with excitement, and sometimes they are more authentic and powerful in small quantities. They are one of the key tools of the New Evangelization, and their effectiveness in telling truth and giving life will depend partly on our wise choices about their use.