When routine is not

Getting a place on a Vatican reporting pool can be a mixed blessing for journalists. If often means a chance to see Pope Benedict and a world leader up close. But it consumes a morning, and there’s usually not much news to report.

When Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete showed up for a papal audience on Friday, I was one of two journalists who trekked up to the papal library, notebook in hand, hoping to hear a snatch of conversation or glean a stray bit of information that might go into a pool report.

The drill on these encounters seems pretty routine to me, but not to first-timers. We were accompanied by four Tanzanian reporters who were in awe from the moment we walked through the bronze doors of the Apostolic Palace.

In the San Damaso Courtyard, where arrival rituals are played out, a picket of Swiss Guards was lining up, the red carpet was being swept off and Vatican officials were taking their places in the October sunshine.

We rode an antique elevator four floors up and walked through a succession of ornate halls and frescoed rooms. In the Clementine Hall, still more Swiss Guards were assembled. The papal gentlemen adjusted their tuxedos and prepared to receive the honored guest.

The press pool was accompanied by Sister Giovanna Gentili, who works for the Vatican press office. Sister Giovanna, a stickler for rules, has taken some hits on reporters’ blogs over the years for her by-the-book approach. But today she was the Holy See’s friendship ambassador.

She explained to the Tanzanian reporters how the event would unfold, took out a map and showed them the names of all the rooms and the artwork they included, and made them understand that for the visit of a head of state, the Vatican pulled out all the stops.

Soon enough, here came the president and his entourage, accompanied by U.S. Archbishop James Harvey, the head of the pontifical household, and assorted other Vatican officials. They walked at a processional pace, and as soon as they passed the journalists were hustled through a door and along a narrow passageway — a hidden short cut to the papal library.

Here we watched the pope come out and greet Kikwete in English. Turning toward the photographers, the smiling pontiff remarked, “Some photos,” and then led his guest into his library. The doors were closed and we went around the corner into a kind of holding tank, hobnobbing with Msgr. Georg Ganswein, the pope’s personal secretary.

Msgr. Ganswein, taking his cue from Sister Giovanna, promised the African reporters something special — at the end of the audience, they could personally greet the pope. They reacted with stunned gratitude, amplified a minute later when a papal usher came round holding a silver tray of rosaries for each of them.

“Have they been blessed by the pope?” one of the Tanzanians asked. “Yes, of course,” Sister Giovanna assured him. “Can I take two?” he ventured, and soon another trayful was brought into the room, along with a stack of papal prayer cards. “Do you know how many people in Tanzania would like to have one of these?” one journalist said, as he reached into the pile.

A bell rang — a little earlier than anyone expected, it seemed. Presumably the pope has a button under his desk so he can signal to aides when to enter the room and wrap it up. In this case, the aides had to scurry a bit to assemble. We followed them through the door to watch President Kikwete introduce members of his entourage to the pope.

The pope and president next walked to a table for an exchange of gifts. I happened to be standing directly in front of the two, and I pricked up my ears for conversation. But although the Tanzanian gift was impressive — an ebony table with inlaid chessboard, decorated with carved giraffes, rhinos and other African fauna — the pope said very little. He looked tired, in fact. “A very beautiful gift,” he murmured. Then he gave the president a papal medallion.

When the delegation left and only reporters were left in the library, Msgr. Ganswein motioned for the Tanzanians to come forward. They were thrilled to meet the pope and have their photo taken. My Vatican colleague, a reporter on her first papal pool, was also introduced. And then, fearing lest I remain the only person in the room not to greet Pope Benedict, I went up and said hello, too.

On the way back to the press room, I realized we had precious little to put in a pool report for fellow Vaticanisti. But I felt pretty certain that the Tanzanian reporters would be writing about this in detail, and remember it for a long time to come.

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