How to cover a pope

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FILE - In this Wednesday, June 24, 2015 file photo, Philadelphia's Archbishop Charles Chaput, right, stands next to Pope Francis as they pose for a photo with a delegation from Philadelphia at the end of the pontiff's weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Pope Francis will be traveling to Philadelphia in September to attend the World Meeting of Families. Chaput, the meeting's host, is moving to limit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Roman Catholics as they try to lobby for a broader role in the event. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

The Religion Newswriters Association met in Philadelphia this weekend. I stuck my head in for part of it on Friday. On Saturday I was a panelist to talk about covering papal visits like the one Francis is making to Cuba and the U.S. in September.

I’m not sure I can do justice to my co-panelist’s remarks, since I was not taking detailed notes, but here I thought I’d share a summary of my own remarks.

I was invited to speak because I’ve covered three papal visits since becoming The Inquirer’s religion reporter in 1995, and because I’ll be traveling with Pope Francis on his planes, and with the media pool, during his travels next month.

So what I talked about is the ways in which media coverage has changed over the past 20 years, including my own.

My first papal visit, this by Pope John Paul II, came in October of 1995, just five months after becoming The Inquirer’s religion reporter. The prospect of covering something so big and solemn had daunted me as soon as I took over the beat. Just HOW do you write about these things, I wondered. And then the day came when JP’s Alitalia jet touched down at Newark Airport as I watched from the ground with the rest of the press pack. What to do? I just did what I always do: took out my notebook and started scribbling.

When I look back on that whole adventure now, I’m struck by two things: how plain-vanilla my reporting was, and how plain-vanilla these papal appearances were. Crowds would gather at Giants Stadium, Aqueduct Race Track, Central Park, and Oriole Stadium in Baltimore. And with as much grace and dignity and warmth as he could summon, John Paul would appear, celebrate Mass in the company of many bishops and cardinals, speak to the crowd, and withdraw.

In preparing for my RNA remarks I looked up only one of those stories, JP’s appearance at Aqueduct, and could only shake my head. It described the wind blowing his cassock, the weather, the fact that the race track was so muddy from overnight rains that they cancelled the popemobile circuit, and that the water fountains weren’t working, so people got bottled water instead. John Paul spoke on familiar themes about choosing life, and I interviewed several in the crowd who spoke of how touched they were to see him.

Hmmm.

I suspect the other stories were equally bland, and ask myself now what I could have done better, but frankly I don’t have an answer. Apart from the celebration of Mass, the reason-for-being of these papal appearances was… the papal appearance. The Catholic Church talks about a thing called the “theology of presence” that's supposed to help explain the why of these things, but looking back I am now of the opinion that John Paul’s public appearances were also intended as assertions of his authority and the authority of Rome. I failed to note it in my stories at the time, but at each venue the attending cardinals and host archbishops were required to read a public statement of loyalty – almost a medieval declaration of fealty – to John Paul. Looking back, these appearances – with John Paul seated on what can only be called thrones -- were even reminiscent of a Roman emperor touring his provinces.

Hey: You get to voice opinions in blogs.

When I asked our national editor, Ashley Halsey, how I’d done, he said something like, “Oh, we never pass judgment,” or “we don’t talk in those terms,” which I translated as a “meh.”

When John Paul headed to Cuba in January of 1998, however, I was determined to make my coverage deeper and broader. For weeks I read up on the modern history of Cuba, the Castro revolution, and the state of the Catholic Church therein. This also included multiple interviews with experts in advance of my departure.

Still, I was again apprehensive as the visit approached. I simply could not visualize what I’d be doing there, and so it all seemed a blank as I boarded my plane in Toronto for the flight to Havana. En route I even prayed for a small flameout in one of the engines so that we’d turn back and I would not embarrass myself. Well, my prayer was unheard, we landed, my translator and my driver were waiting for me, and soon I was headed for my hotel in tiny, Russian-made car called a Moskva. En route I pulled out my notebook and started taking notes on the palm trees, the old cars, the billboards, and within minutes the blank slate that had been Cuba was filling in, and even before arriving at my hotel, the splendid Melia Cohiba, I had a sense all would be well.

It was. I think the trip lasted eight days, and turned out to be some of the hardest work and most fun I’d had in my journalism career to date. The stories, as I read them now, had voice and sweep and authority, due in part to the presence of experts I’d spoken to in advance. But much of it also had to do with the historic nature of this, the first papal visit to Cuba, in the context of the long-standing U.S. embargo, the country’s deep poverty, hopes for a spiritual transformation, etc.

Two of my Cuba stories were part of my submission to the Religion Newswriters Association journalist contest known as the Religion Reporter of the Year, or John Templeton Award. I took first place.

So when Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Washington and New York 10 years later, I felt pretty confident that I was up to the job. Well, I was, I suppose. But guess what? It was, in all honesty, another plain vanilla visit. And so I described for readers his public appearances, the public masses, the adoring crowds, the homilies, how he leapt to his feet after Placido Domingo sang Panis Angelicum to him at Redskins Stadium, and that Chief Justice John Roberts and his family had arrived just minutes before the Mass began. That’s how it works, for the most part: you write about what happened. I would note, though, that the high point of Benedict’s visit came as a surprise, and behind closed doors: he met in private with several victims of clergy sex abuse, and it was quite powerful.

I had also learned by now how suffocating the security at the public events can be for journalists. If you’re not in the Vatican Accredited Media Pool that travels with him, you must report for security screening hours before the pope’s appearance, board a bus, and then sit in a press booth or cordoned-off area for hours with little to do and no access to the public. You’re a “Prisoner of the Vatican,” as we sometimes joked. (It will be like this for the thousands of media people coming to Philadelphia for papal visit, btw.)

So on the day that Benedict was to give an address at Catholic University of America in Washington, I decided I would NOT get on the bus, but stay in my hotel and watch it on TV instead. I was not being cynical or lazy; I was just fed up with the many wasted hours and isolation that these bus trips entailed. And boy, was I glad I did. CNN and the other local TVs had cameras at every inch of his trip out to CUA, and in the auditorium where he gave his talk. Visual detail abounded, too. And so I tapped merrily away at my keyboard as the CUA visit unfolded.

Meanwhile, my colleagues who had taken the bus were horrified when they got there to discover that they were NOT going to sit in the same room with Benedict. Instead, they were consigned to a room in the basement with walls so thick that they had no wi-fi, and could not file or communicate with their news organizations. All they had was a TV screen on the wall to look at. They were frustrated and furious, and rightly so -- they really had been betrayed by the organizers. Even more galling, they had to wait for Benedict to leave the building before they were allowed to board the bus, which took 30 minutes I’m told, and of course buses in those days didn’t have wi-fi. So by the time they back to their hotels I’d already filed. (I confess to a certain schadenfreude that makes me smile even as write this.)

Later, I sat with the crowd in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium rather than in the press booth when Benedict said Mass, and again I was glad I did. The wi-fi wasn’t working for them, and they had to file from their hotels, just as I did.

So. It might seem that my clever scoping out of how to cover a papal visit now leaves me feeling smart and smug in the weeks before I board the “popemoplane.” Alas, the presence of TV cameras along Benedict’s route that seemed to make reporting so much simpler – and arguably better – than live accompaniment has turned into something of a monster: the 24-hour newsfeed, starring TV, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Tumblr, blah blah. It means that each time Francis scratches his nose or pats a child on the head, it’s out there for anyone who cares about his travels to see.

So, what’s a reporter on the pope’s plane to do? How do you give your readers something that won’t see on CNN and its clones?

Two things.

First, you start a blog. That’s what I did -- this blog you’re reading – and tell readers what it’s like to follow the pope up close. I still don’t know which venues I’ll be covering live, close to where the pope is appearing. The Vatican Press Office makes those assignments, and access to some is very limited, but I do know it will be a mix.

In some cases I’ll be sitting in the media center at the hotel with dozens of colleagues, and in others I expect to be yards away from Francis, tweeting like a banshee. Then blogging, then sitting down to write a long solo mainbar (lead story) or filing 8 or 12 or 15 inches to a roundup story with perhaps multiple colleagues as co-contributors, with the whole thing assembled in Philadelphia. Frankly, I yearn for the days in Cuba when I could toil over a keyboard all by myself and make 35 inches as good I could. But that was print journalism in 1998. Like it or not (and I sort of like it) it’s a multiplatform approach now -- one you can either do badly or well.

But there is another piece to the task before me. I have to bring myself up to speed on the issues that Francis will likely address during this journey. He is, for example, an acerbic critic of greed and the destructive pursuit of wealth. He is a compassionate champion of the poor, the imprisoned and the immigrant, and has taken a fierce and controversial (and much applauded) stance on the moral issues of human-generated climate disturbance and environmental destruction.

This will not be a plain-vanilla papal visit, folks. This will be a mocha raspberry banana split with cherries on top.

There will be the requisite public appearances and Masses and crowds, which are genuinely meaningful and important. But Francis – as you surely know – will also be making public remarks in Cuba that will almost certainly speak to its long isolation by the United States. He’ll be addressing the U.S. Congress, the United Nations (on care-of-the Earth and climate change’s impact on the poor, most likely), speaking at the 9/11 Memorial (Islamic relations, perhaps, or terrorism?), at a prison in Philadelphia, and giving an address on Independence Mall that most of us think will speak to immigration. So it has turned into something much, much larger than mere smiles and waves at the end of the World Meeting of Families.

I am, quite honestly, as pacing and chafing and anxious as I was before my first papal visit 20 years ago – especially since Papa Francesco speaks mostly in Spanish and I, alas, do not. But in three weeks I will board his plane, pull out my notebook, and do what I’ve always done: start taking notes.

So. Another over-long blog. They will get shorter, I promise, if for no other reason than time constraints when I’m on the road with Francis. And probably exhaustion. My colleagues who travel on the “volo,” or pope’s plane, regularly say you’re run ragged. We’ll see.

Pax.