Day after day, Kevin Knight scans news and commentary pages looking for items that will interest Catholics and others who visit his New Advent website.
With its plain white background, stark graphics and columns of headlines, the site looks something like the powerful, secular Drudge Report. But New Advent focuses on church life and doctrine, not celebrity scandals and political horse races.
Knight does appreciate the occasional zinger. Still, he has learned to be extra careful when April 1 approaches. After all, the Chair of St. Peter is occupied by a pope whose off-the-cuff remarks often puzzle the faithful. Oh, and Donald Trump is president of the United States.
"Yes, it has gotten harder to tell satire and hoaxes from the real thing," noted Knight. "It's getting more necessary to be explicit when linking to some stories -- especially when they deal with Pope Francis. … In the past two years, I've deliberately avoided linking to April Fools' stories for this very reason."
All savvy news consumers need to do to see what Knight is taking about is open an online search program and enter various religious terms and then the phrase "not the Onion," referring to The Onion, a secular satire site.
Take this headline, for example: "Muslim Schoolgirl Sent Home Because Her Skirt Was Too Long." That story is real.
Or how about this? "Pope Francis to make Martin Luther a Saint on October 31." That jest ran on April 1 on the "Liturgy: Service and Gratitude" site.
Consider this headline: "Jesuits to Admit Women to the Society." That's an old April 1 gag, but it went back into circulation this year. However, another headline rather like it -- "Head Jesuit Calling for Women's Ordination?" -- ran atop an editorial commenting on a real speech last month. The question mark at the end saved the day.
This year, English professor Tony Esolen of Providence College served up this dry, sarcastic commentary on decades of worship trends: "The chief of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy has announced the discovery of an ancient pronoun, 'he,' to take the place of 'the One' who does this and 'the One' who does that." Traditionalist Catholics will savor that joke.
Here is a recent item from the current pope's crowded file: "Pope Francis Warns Catholics This Not Good Time to Bother God." The copy underneath opened like this: "Saying it was probably a good idea to give Him some space for the next little while, Pope Francis warned Catholic worshippers this week that now is not the best time to bother God, sources confirmed."
As it turns out, that "story" actually came from The Onion. But, considering the stream of strange news reports that follow colorful statements by Pope Francis, readers who bumped into that headline in a random Internet search probably looked twice.
Ditto for a dry April 1 commentary by Father Dwight Longenecker -- a former Anglican who is now a Catholic priest -- that ran with this headline: "Pope Francis Joins Anglicans."
One wonders: What does the word "joins" mean in this context?
"When I see something like that, now, I immediately have to look for the transcript to see what Francis really said," noted S.C. Naoum, who runs The Eye of the Tiber, a satirical Catholic news site. "This pope can't say the word 'the' without someone thinking that he has said something wild. … Of course, sometimes Pope Francis says things that are rather wild -- so you have to check."
The sheer volume of this year's April Fools' Day blitz by Catholic writers -- professional and otherwise -- caught Naoum by surprise. It's one thing to know that the power of social media is changing how people live, think and laugh, he said. It's something else to realize that many Catholics and other believers are still struggling to distinguish between rapidly changing facts and "laugh to keep from crying" fiction.
Thus, Naoum decided to remain silent on April Fools' Day.
"How do you satirize satire? How do you write satire when the real world has raised the bar so high?", he asked. "This year, I seriously considered writing a straight news article about something serious, just to see if Catholics would notice that I had written an anti-satirical satire of satire."