Years ago, as a college senior, Colleen Carroll Campbell was a bit of a disillusioned party girl. But a Christmas gift from her dad helped spark a faith journey that brought her to Rome this past March to cover Pope Francis’ election as an anchor for EWTN. Campbell, whose varied career has included everything from speechwriting for former President George W. Bush and writing books to uncovering corruption as an investigative reporter, spoke to Catholic Digest about the surprises of the papal election, her new TV show, and her hopes for her three young children.
You covered the conclave from Rome for EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network). On TV, we can see the smoke and hear the roar of the crowd as the new pope emerges. But what does the TV miss? Tell us what it’s like to experience those elusive moments in person.
Well, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a great honor. We were perched right on the roof of the Patristic Institute Augustinianum. The terrace overlooks St. Peter’s Square, and we could see the bells, we could see the balcony where Pope Francis emerged, and we could hear the crowd and see the flashbulbs from so many cameras. We got a very visceral sense of the excitement and energy in Rome when the entire Church and world were awaiting this new pope. It was a phenomenal experience as a journalist and as a Catholic—and even more so as a mother, because I was able to be there with my husband, John, and our three children.
What were some of the things you did as a family?
We were able to attend Pope Francis’ audience with journalists together. We had a front-row seat. We were joking that our three-year-old twins probably thought that seeing the pope was old-hat because they’d seen him about three or four times in one week. I know some of it they probably won’t remember, but I do think the grace of that experience for our whole family is something that will stay with us for a long time.
The election of Pope Francis came as a surprise to some. What was going through your mind when you heard the announcement?
Well, it was a surprise in many ways. At the same time, when you saw him emerge on that balcony, there was a real sense of poise. I saw a man who seemed very much at peace with the new role he was being thrust into. And his call to prayer: When that roaring crowd suddenly went silent and hundreds of thousands of people bowed their heads to pray, there was a real sense that this was the man for the moment. I think the Holy Spirit has surprises in store for us as a Church sometimes, and I think that can be a good and healthy thing.
What was the most meaningful moment for you during your coverage?
Well, obviously being able to announce to millions of EWTN viewers who the new pope was that night was quite meaningful, and being able to anchor the coverage through those historic moments was phenomenal.
As for my most memorable moment, it occurred when it was all over, just as I had concluded anchoring the Installation Mass on the Feast of St. Joseph, March 19, and we had just gone off the air. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and as those huge bells of St. Peter’s began to peal, I looked over that balcony and saw the swarms of pilgrims coming out of the basilica. I could see the cardinals, the bishops, and the sisters, and all the different colors and costumes of people from around the world. I could hear the singing and see some of the banners, and there was just a real sense of joy. And I was really touched in that moment that I had been given the grace to be part of all of it. It was a tangible reminder of what grandeur and beauty there is in our Faith, and how much there is to celebrate about being Catholic, especially in a time when we can get beleaguered and feel as if it’s all an uphill battle.
This summer you’re taking on a new role as anchor of EWTN News Nightly with Colleen Carroll Campbell, which will broadcast live from Capitol Hill. Tell us more about the project and what you hope to bring to viewers.
It’s going to be EWTN’s first-ever newscast. We hope to bring mainstream news and commentary to viewers across the English-speaking world five nights a week. I’m very excited about the team that’s being assembled and the mission of the show. Our goal is to be a show that helps viewers make sense of the world from a Catholic point of view.
As you describe in My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir (Random House/Image, 2012), there was a time when you struggled with living out your faith. Could you tell us a little about your faith journey?
Sure. I was raised in a devout Catholic home. But like a lot of young Catholics, I hit a point during my college years when my faith became very compartmentalized. I remember coming home after a long night out, looking around at the detritus of the party scene and thinking about my own life, which had become so much about material concerns—popularity, grades, success. I was realizing that following the world’s recipe for success had left me less happy and less liberated than I had ever been.
I stayed in that spot of relative confusion for about a year. Then, when I was home for Christmas break my senior year, my dad gave me a biography of St. Teresa of Ávila. I intended to toss it on the back of the bookshelf with all the rest of the religious books I didn’t have time to read, but I was bored and had nothing better to do. I opened the book and was immediately captivated. Here was a woman, essentially a recovering party girl herself, who had struggled for the better part of 40 years between her desire to seek worldly approval and pleasure and her desire to be intimate with Jesus and be holy. And I could recognize elements of that same struggle in my own life.
With Teresa, I saw what could happen in a woman’s life if she ever really took God and the quest for holiness seriously. It inspired me and launched me on the rest of that faith journey. Women saints began to be an important part of my life. One after another, I met them at crucial moments when I was in the midst of confusion or desolation, and they pointed me toward answers and peace.
One of those difficult moments was when you found out that your father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the book, you talk about how St. Thérèse of Lisieux helped you cope. Could you tell us more?
St. Thérèse didn’t appeal to me immediately. She seemed like a big goody-two-shoes. But I came across Dorothy Day’s little monograph called Therese, and from there I read Story of a Soul. What most struck me was that Thérèse’s father had struggled with dementia. I was discovering Thérèse on the heels of learning that my own father had been diagnosed with dementia, toward the end of my senior year. She really got how horrifying dementia is, and at the same time, as she watched her father begin to deal with forgetfulness, have bouts of weeping, and even for a period be confined to a mental institution, she saw him becoming increasingly conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Redemptive suffering is a fundamental Catholic teaching that my father had emphasized to me throughout my life. I was watching that with my father, and with Therese’s help, I could make much more sense of it. She came to be very important to me throughout his illness.
Aside from your work for EWTN and your spiritual books, your credits include investigative reporting and speechwriting for George W. Bush. What are one or two of the most meaningful secular projects you’ve worked on and why?
If I could wrap my secular newsroom experience into one experience, it’s that having that background has been very valuable. I think God has used it to prepare me for some of the things I’ve gone on to do in different realms. Certainly it’s helpful professional training, but also it’s given me an awareness of how the Church is often perceived. I think sometimes we tend to think of everything as “us versus them,” especially when looking at mainstream media outlets that seem—and often are—very hostile to the Church, but it’s important to remember there are human beings in those outlets. I’ve learned that a lot of times ignorance drives some of the faulty coverage. Also, in many cases, we as Catholics need to learn to tell our story better. Having been in both secular journalism and the Catholic media, it’s inspiring to bring my experiences from one into the other.
You and your husband have three children. What are some of your favorite ways to celebrate your faith as a family?
Obviously we do the expected Catholic things like going to Mass and saying a blessing before meals. The saints have become very important to our family’s spirituality. Our children all have patron saints in their names: we have a John Patrick, a Mary Rose Therese, and a Clara Colleen. We talk a lot about the saints, and we read about them. Today we visited the Poor Clare Monastery here in St. Louis; I brought the children so they could talk to the sisters through the grille and learn a little about St. Clare.
We pray together, too. It tends to be pretty informal, as my children are three, three, and one, but they definitely have the concept of turning to Jesus in times of need.
It’s beautiful to see how already at this age—or maybe especially at this age—they have that openness to the faith. I hope they always preserve that wonder and innocence, as well as the joy of our Catholic Faith. Because if we teach them all of the rules and we don’t impart a sense of the joy of a relationship with Jesus, we’ve missed the boat. That’s something we’re trying to emphasize in our own walk. At the end of the day, what it all comes down to is what we witness to our children.