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“How did a history teacher get to be on TV?”

This question came from a fifth grader following a presentation I gave at my parish’s school on my experience providing commentary for NBC and MSNBC during Pope Francis’ trip to the United States in September. It was a great question, and one I have pondered myself since February 2013, when Pope Benedict resigned and I first got a request to appear on the air.

Soon after Benedict’s momentous announcement, NBC correspondent Anne Thompson (ND ’79) was looking for scholars to offer commentary. Recognizing that many of the existing commentators were men, she wanted to add a female scholar to the mix. A mutual friend, Sheila O’Brien, suggested she contact me. I had done a little television during the Vatican’s investigation of U.S. Catholic sisters—in fact, that was how I met Sheila—but I wasn’t associated with either the left or the right, which is what Anne wanted. And so it began.

I did a few taped segments for NBC Nightly News after Benedict’s resignation, and, in what I thought was the grand finale, NBC asked me to appear on the network’s live coverage of the post-white-smoke announcement from the Vatican. I’ll never forget heading over to WNDU with printed copies of John Allen’s papabili profiles. Thank goodness I had them in alphabetical order, because “Bergoglio” was right on top. I was able to sneak a quick peek before speaking about him; otherwise, I am not sure what I would have had to say about the new pope.

I remember leaving the studio that day and thinking, “Well, this sure has been fun. But now it’s over.” Of course I was wrong. Pope Francis, I like to say, has been good for business.

Over the last two years I continued to tape occasional segments from South Bend, and in 2014 I flew to New York to comment on the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII from the studios at 30 Rock. When NBC asked me  to return for the Pope’s visit, I eagerly agreed. It was a thrill to have a front row seat for the historic event. But best of all was having the chance to enlarge my history classroom.

Most Americans, Catholic included, have no idea how anomalous the wild enthusiasm about Pope Francis’ visit is in the sweep of our nation’s history. It wasn’t all that long ago that the prospect of a visit from a papal representative—let alone the pope himself—sparked riots and fueled suspicions that the pope had designs on the American republic. Readers of this newsletter, who are well aware of this history, no doubt felt the same emotions I did while seeing Pope Francis at the White House, the Capitol, and Independence Hall— iconic American spaces where Catholics, not to mention their spiritual leader, were not welcome until recently.

For many who made the pilgrimage to Philadelphia, New York, or Washington, the prospect of interacting with fellow pilgrims was as exciting as the possibility of seeing the pope. I understand the feeling. I never got very close to Pope Francis, but I had plenty of remarkable encounters: with the great historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, as we waited on the roof of 30 Rock for Pope Francis to arrive at St. Patrick’s; with Laura McCrystal, a former student who now writes for the Philadelphia Inquirer, as we arrived at Philadelphia’s media staging area at 5 a.m.; with Stephanie, a woman who lost her brother on 9/11, when we were both at Ground Zero to tape an interview.

Of course I relished my encounters with Cushwa friends. In New York I visited with Patrick Hayes and Stephen Koeth, CSC, and in Philadelphia I waved to Tom Rzeznik and Charles Strauss from the media risers as we watched Pope Francis arrive for the closing Mass. I celebrated with Barb Lockwood, former Cushwa senior administrative assistant, and our friend Kay Reimbold, as well as Angie Appleby Purcell from Notre Dame’s Alumni Association and Tami Schmitz from Campus Ministry, all of whom made the pilgrimage to Philadelphia.

I want to close with a word of thanks to the newest member of the Cushwa Center family, Pete Hlabse, who joined Cushwa as our administrative coordinator just as the media frenzy over the Pope’s visit was beginning. Pete handled it all with aplomb, helping me prepare talking points, fielding email requests, and getting the word out about my appearances, which seemed to change minute-by-minute. Thanks, Pete, for making it easier for a history teacher to be on TV—and welcome!

—Kathleen Sprows Cummings


This column appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter