The brains behind the operation

The press center looks almost like a military command center from a Tom Clancy movie. There are rows of long tables, phones, laptops, headphones, too many wires and a huge projector screen displaying the papal events in real time. 

It’s a dangerous place to set down a cup of coffee, CNS bureau chief John Thavis warned me as he was typing up a story on the papal Mass at Nationals Park. He already had spilled over two glasses of water there. 

If a reporter is lucky enough to get the credentials to cover an event, he or she gets to experience what it is like to be herded like sheep.  

After waiting to wait in a line before waiting to wait on a bus to wait to cover the pope’s address to interreligious leaders at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center April 17, we had to pass through security tent. Think airport security, but with a lot more attention to detail and a bomb-sniffing dog.

But all that tension simply dissipates when the commute across town in the region tied for the second worst traffic in the country is quite smooth when the press bus is led by a police escort.

Reporters playing hopscotch

When a pope is coming to your country — to your city! — it’s all hands on deck if you want to cover his activities as fully as possible.

Few would consider the 81-year-old Pope Benedict XVI a slacker except when comparing him to the positively peripatetic Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict is spending the better part of three days each in Washington and New York, and the hurry-up-and-wait routine for reporters who want to cover a papal event can get exhausting.

In truth, only the pope and the most select members of his entourage can be at every event. Reporters have to pick and choose their spots, hoping for what the local TV news stations call “team coverage” with reporters hopscotching over their colleagues to get from event to the event or two after next.

In 1987, when Pope John Paul visited Detroit, I was working for The Michigan Catholic, Detroit’s archdiocesan newspaper. The pope was going to be in the city and suburbs for 24 hours. Simple, right? Hah!

As archdiocesan employees, Michigan Catholic staff had the right to put in a bid for a ticket to the event of their choice. We all chose the event with the smallest amount of available tickets: the welcome ceremony at the cathedral. Incredibly, we all got those tickets. After playing the hurry-up-and-wait game of getting to a bus departure parking lot to get to the cathedral, then to the parking lot and back home again, I packed a few things to spend the “night” with some friends who lived within walking distance of my next assignment: an early-morning encounter with Polish-Americans. My sleep lasted all of three hours.

After covering the event, I met CNS reporter (and now national editor) Julie Asher in the parking structure where I had left my car overnight. Assigned to cover the Detroit leg of the papal trip, Julie herself was hopscotching with two other CNS reporters to every third city on the papal itinerary, giving them a little breathing room between assignments. As for myself, I had to hopscotch over the pope’s meeting with deacons, an address to the Catholic faithful from a riverfront plaza and lunch at the archishop’s residence with the state’s bishops to get to the Mass at the Silverdome out in the suburbs.

We heard the pope’s entire riverfront address to the faithful while stuck in a traffic jam a few miles from the stadium four hours before the Mass was to start. I convinced Julie that it was best to park my car in the small parking lot of an auto parts store that was already closed for the day and to walk to the shuttle-bus sites. From a block away, we could see the end of a long, long line of people waiting for buses. By the time we got to those people, the line had grown another block. Now I convinced Julie to figuratively hopscotch the buses and walk to the Silverdome if we had any hope of getting to Mass on time.

The walk included at least a couple of miles of highway shoulder, and walking up an off-ramp, to get to the stadium. To be honest, there was some trudging going on, what with Julie’s 1987-era Tandy computer and my camera and cassette recorder hung around my neck like millstones.

But we got there. The media entry-gate line was only a half-hour long; I had pegged the general entrance-gate lines at 90 minutes to two hours. Having hopscotched that hurdle, we were sent to the press box. Except that my assigned location wasn’t the press box, but a seat in the papal Mass choir. And I was stymied how I was going to get out!

As luck would have it, the papal choir director came to the press box — to chat with some reporters, not necesarrily to unmaroon me. But I just slipped out behind  him, got to my seat, sang my parts during the Mass, met Julie (who beat me back to my car) and drove her to her hotel.

Just another day that starts at 4 a.m. and ends at 9:30 p.m.

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