This morning was my “big moment”.
I woke up at 4:50AM and dragged my tired, exhortation-weary self into the shower to get ready to go on national television for the first time. I was invited to go on Fox & Friends — “the most-watched program on cable television between 6am – 9am ET” — to talk about Amoris Laetitia. I had a scheduled “hit” at 7:40AM, and they were sending a car for me at 6AM to take me to DC.
I got dressed. I had my coffee. I said my morning prayers. The car showed up early, the black Lincoln barely visible in the pre-dawn driveway of my rural home.
Almost as soon as we were underway, the car began having problems. I was trying to re-read the relevant sections of the exhortation, but the electrical system went on the fritz, lights turning on and off in the car, dashboard lights not working, the whole system clicking as it pulsed in and out. You would have thought, if you were sitting there with me, that the car was possessed. It was incredibly distracting. At one point, the driver tried to speed up on the interstate, only to have the electronic transmission refuse to shift gears. The engine revved way beyond where it should have been. I buckled my seatbelt.
“Are we going to make it there?” I asked.
The driver, Johri, who sounded as though he was from India, apologized to me.
“I’m sorry sir! This has never happened before. This car just had a new battery put in. I don’t know what’s happening.”
I looked out the foggy window at the gathering light.
“I’m going to talk about religion today,” I said. “About the pope’s new document about marriage. Sometimes, when I talk about certain topics, strange things happen. My computer won’t work, even though it’s new, or if I’m podcasting, the audio I’m recording is slowed down, or something. I don’t know what you believe in, but there’s a force that really doesn’t like it when I do certain things.”
I told him a little bit about spiritual warfare, and how certain topics I attempt to engage in seem to cause…technological glitches. He said he believed me, since he had never had any problems with the car. He asked me about the specifics of my appearance on the show. I told him. He agreed with me on the importance of family. Of marriage. We made it to DC, and he wished me good luck.
“I’m going to go into the shop to have this checked out,” he assured me. “Text me when you leave the building.”
The studio was right across the street from the U.S. Capitol. I traversed the plaza in the morning drizzle, then made my through the revolving door to the front desk and received my security badge. I buzzed in on the intercom. An intern whose name I didn’t catch told me she would meet me on the 5th floor. As the elevator opened, there she was, wearing yoga pants and an oversized shirt. Thick glasses magnified eyelashes heavy-laden with mascara.
“You look comfortable.” I observed.
“Yeah,” she responded. “I worked the overnight shift. One of the benefits is wearing comfortable clothes.”
She showed me to the green room. The makeup lady was in there, but nobody else. She looked tired. We had almost an hour until air time.
I sat down and tried, once again, to go through Amoris Laetitia. I knew the questions I would be asked were going to be broad. Two different Fox News broadcasts were blaring in the background. I found the remote and turned them down. I opened my sparkling mineral water, and it sprayed all over my shirt and tie.
I hope that has time to dry, I thought.
How do you answer a question like, “Is this a good thing for the Church?” How do you explain to a mostly non-Catholic audience what spiritual problems something like this introduces? How do you explain to viewers of a network focused mostly on politics the eternal ramifications of re-defining sin?
I made notes and more notes. I was tired and feeling the caffeine. I said a prayer to the Holy Spirit several times, each time realizing that I got distracted before I finished as my attention turned back to the exhortation on my kindle.
I just couldn’t settle on the right talking points. I was worried I was going to freeze up, or forget the question, like I had done on the phone last night with the producer. How did I explain this in such a short amount of time? How could I give a succinct summary of a document nobody has even finished reading?
At 7:27, the makeup lady called me in. I gave up on prep, and just kept praying. I sat in her chair and let her cover my blazer with a smock.
“Close.” She said. I realized she meant my eyes. I followed her instructions and shut my eyes, and her sponge, smelling faintly feminine from whatever she was powdering me with, danced across my face, followed by something similar with a brush.
Another young lady came to get me. “We’re in Studio 2,” She said matter-of-factly, as if that meant something. She led me through a bullpen, then left, then right, then down a hallway. She opened a door into what looked like not much more than a storage closet. There was a chair, a footstool, a small computer, an audio board, a camera, a couple of monitors, three big diffused lights, and a green screen. The parts of the room not directly in front of the lights were in total darkness. I sat in the chair, and she moved quickly, clipping a lavalier mic to my lapel and slipping an earpiece into my right ear.
“Do you want the monitors on or off?” She asked. “We need you to look into the camera.” I looked at the two small screens, where I now appeared before a bank of important looking monitors that were not actually behind me in the room. They were below the camera and to the left, and I knew I’d wind up looking at them during filming unintentionally. “Turn them off.” I said. She did, and then left the room.
I was left there, sitting on that chair, staring into the pitch-black maw of a teleprompter-mounted camera, alone. The lights were bright, but cold. LED. The hosts bantered in my ear, then someone asked me over my earpiece to count to five so they could get an audio level check. I did. “How do you pronounce your last name?” they asked. I told them. More banter. Both the audio engineer and the studio feed coming through one little earbud. I watched as a big green LCD clock ticked down. I was supposed to go on at 7:40, they told me, but it was 7:43. I waited patiently, trying to remind myself to sit up straight. I practiced smiling, since my face felt stiff. I moved my tongue and said a few theater phrases I had learned back in high school to loosen up. The audio feed cut off as they went to commercial. I was left in silence. I knew the camera shot was only head and shoulders, so I grabbed my Combat Rosary and just held on tight to the crucifix. Kept thinking about Him. Kept asking Him to help me say what He wanted me to say.
“Hey Steve, this is Jeff in New York, can you hear me?” His voice came suddenly, and his name wasn’t Jeff. I don’t remember what it was.
“Yes. I can hear you.” I said.
“Great.” he said. “You’ll be on in just a minute.”
I waited again.
“Well, groundbreaking document out of the Vatican yesterday as Pope Francis releases his new paper on family, entitled, The Joy of Love…” the host’s voice came suddenly. It wasn’t Tucker Carlson. His voice I knew. It was the blonde woman. I didn’t catch her name.
“I want to jump right into The Joy of Love here, alright, Steve, I’ll start with you first.” My grip on the crucifix tightened. “How is this gonna change the Church…?”
The rest was a blur.
You may have noticed the smirk on my face when Monsignor Kieran started lecturing me about the orthodoxy of Cardinal Schönborn. He couldn’t have known that I had just written an article about how far from orthodoxy Schönborn actually is, and how his conservative credibility — derived from his job editing the Catechism — was being used to sell Amoris Laetitia to Catholics who didn’t know his real thoughts on cohabitation, adultery, and homosexual relationships. When it came to the subject of mercy, I said that it presupposes repentance. The Monsignor interrupted me, saying that Mercy is a gift freely given. (Cardinal Sarah says he’s wrong. Still, he even tried to back this up later on Twitter, misquoting the Catechism to bolster his point.)
You can see my amusement in the video. I only remember thinking, “Just wait until I tell you what Cardinal Schönborn really thinks.” But then the segment was over, after just three minutes. I was told that it would be five minutes long. I was told it wouldn’t be a debate. Neither thing turned out to be true.
Meanwhile, in the studio, they were done with me, and already teasing the next segment. I found myself sitting in that strangely clinical room, alone, with wires hooked to my jacket, waiting for the young woman to come back and tell me to go.
She never did.
So after five or ten minutes, most of it spent on my phone looking at comments from people who had just watched the interview, I finally just reached behind my neck and unhooked everything. I got up, left the room, and noticed the “on air” sign was still on. Oh well. One of the correspondents I had just seen on segment walked by me in the hallway, and we exchanged brief pleasantries. She looked so pretty on the air, but as she rounded the corner I noticed how unnervingly thin she was. I continued to wander around until I found my way out. At last, I saw the young woman who had taken me into the studio. I came over to her and said, “So, I just decided to go…” And she was completely nonplussed, “Oh, ok, that’s fine.” She apparently never had any intention of following up.
I felt strangely…used. They had gotten what they needed from me, and I was on my own. I wonder if they would have cared if I had taken their mic.
I texted Johri and told him I was on my way. As I made it to the lobby, I felt a surge of relief. The whole experience was weird, rushed, kind of phony, and entirely mechanistic. The News is a thing that must be done right now, and everything is just fodder for the beast. And the minute a segment is over, it’s forgotten, and the wheels grind on.
Johri was very kind to me as I got in. He asked me how everything went. I told him about it, then I asked about the car.
“No,” he said, “they tested it, they drove it, nothing is wrong. They can’t find anything.”
“You won’t have any problems as you drive me home. ” I said. “I already did what they didn’t want me to do.”
As we pulled up to my house, he turned to me and said, “May God bless you, and protect you from all demons and all evil.” He sounded deeply sincere. I thanked him and handed him a business card.
“You should check out our website. If you ever have any more weird experiences and want to talk about it, I’m here.”
I had an idea on my way home, so I went in and downstairs to my office. I grabbed a couple of desk lamps and some parchment paper, and set up my own little studio lighting rig. I got my microphone and my HD webcam, and decided to finish saying what I wanted to say. Only this time, no time constraints, no buzzing nerves, no interrupting priest. Just me, the camera, and my thoughts.
It’s a long video at 40 minutes. Consider it a video podcast. I don’t expect you to watch it, but I think you might just like it. Even if you don’t, it felt good to say it. Sometimes, you just have to tell the rest of the story: