Manna from heaven

The new vending machine for hungry journalists at the Vatican.VATICAN CITY — The Vatican Press Office has been making some notable upgrades recently: high-def plasma televisions in the newsroom, a big digital wall clock, a coffee machine, and now a vending machine (right) that dispenses sugary sweets and fizzy drinks — all at LOW LOW prices.

Many Vatican journalists spend a large chunk of their day at the press hall: it’s usually open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. This is where press releases for Vatican-related events, embargoed speeches, and other coveted Vatican “bollettino” or bulletin items are distributed to accredited journalists.

The first bulletin is usually issued at 12 noon on the dot, and others trickle out throughout the rest of the day. Typically no one wants to stray too far from the press hall so as not to miss what may be a news-breaking bulletin. The head of the press office, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, or his assistant, Passionist Father Ciro Benedettini, also sometimes come by to chat with journalists or divulge some juicy tidbit we should be on the lookout for.

Because no one wants to miss what may be important news coming out, most people choose to skip lunch and type away with a rumbling tummy. 

But now that’s changed! Thanks to the new vending machine, we now can now get a sugar, starch, caffeine, or chocolate fix anytime. It dispenses cakes, croissants, chocolate or granola bars, gum, as well as bottled ice teas, fruit juice, mineral water, Fanta, Coca-Cola, and the Italian classic, “Chinotto.”  The snack machine joins another fairly recent addition of a hot beverages machine that pours out 15 varieties of coffee and other hot drinks.

The added bonus is the cost. The snacks and drinks come at cut-rate prices. A coffee costs just 25 cents while it would normally set you back one whole euro ($1.55) at a nearby coffee shop. A can of Coke is a real steal: just 65 cents versus 3 euro ($4.15) from an outdoor food cart or bar.

Now if only we could find a place that offers free pizza delivery, those of us on Vatican duty would never have to leave!

Reporting on the faith can challenge your own

Even though survey after survey finds the U.S. one of the most religious of the world’s developed nations, and most Americans say that religion is significantly important in their lives, fewer and fewer news enterprises these days assign religion as a regular beat. When they do, it can cause a believing reporter to begin, as the REM song says, “losing my religion.”

In the cover story of the May issue of The Quill, the journal of the Society of Professional Journalists, Debra Mason writes about holding on to one’s faith when covering religion. Mason is executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association and director of the Center on Religion & the Professions at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. (By the way, the president of RNA is Kevin Eckstrom, director of Religion News Service, one of the finest religious news wire services, which gives CNS a good run for its reporting money every day.)

In her story “Keeping the Faith,” Mason tells of Los Angeles Times reporter William Lobdell who, after eight years of covering religion’s “darker side,” lost faith with faith and asked his editors for a change of beat. “Lobdell’s example shows — and he’s not alone — that sometimes a journalist’s job challenges a person’s faith,” she wrote. Yet many other journalists cover religion and their faith holds up. Still others see working in the mainstream press as a religious vocation.

Many of us who have covered religion for years know how faith can wax and wane as deadlines come and go, especially when covering the “dark side” of religious practice. Mason does a nice job giving tips on holding on to one’s faith, reporting on people with different points of view — especially not your own, avoiding conflicts of interest and finding support inside and outside the newsroom.

While covering religion for secular media presents its share of challenges, journalists who choose to combine faith and the craft can find support in associations of like-minded practitioners. The two she cites? Jewish Press Association and Catholic Press Association. The latter, of which CNS is a longtime member, is one of North America’s largest, oldest and best known.

Covering religion isn’t rocket science, but it is complex and at times trying for a believer. Like human existence, it’s messy. Messy can wear you down. Mason well points out the pitfalls as well as some best practices. And it’s good to know there is support out there when you need it on or off a deadline.

The Vatican’s big red book

VATICAN CITY — The Annuario Pontificio is the Vatican’s bureaucratic bible. It lists every diocese and bishop in the world, all Roman Curia offices and their personnel, the diplomatic corps at the Holy See, the world’s religious orders, pontifical academies and universities, a statistical summary and much, much more.

This year’s Annuario weighed in at 3 pounds and 2,511 pages, another record. At 67 euros ($105), it’s not cheap. But for those keeping tabs on the church’s organizational life, it’s an indispensable tool. The problem is that the content is ever-changing.

Already this year, the Vatican has issued 26 pages of Annuario updates — new appointments, retirements, deaths, creation of ecclesial territories and even new phone numbers and email addresses.  At the CNS Rome bureau, someone has to enter each bit of information by hand in the big red book. What makes it especially painstaking is that you have to write really, really small, because there’s not much white space on the page.

Relief may be on the way. The other day I phoned Msgr. Vittorio Formenti, head of the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics (p. 1,294 in your Annuario) and asked him why they haven’t made the whole thing available electronically. As it turns out, Vatican higher-ups have been working on such a project since 1997 and, after a meeting in mid-April, are very close to making it happen.

Msgr. Formenti assured me that his office has had the technical means to offer an electronic version for some time. But he said the project also includes a proposal to offer searchable archived material — a major undertaking, since the Annuario Pontificio has been in print since 1839. The Vatican has to decide which office handles the additional work load, which server hosts the programs, how much to charge and how much historical information to include.

Msgr. Formenti said he expects the online version to be up and running by next year. Knowing how slowly carefully the Vatican proceeds when it comes to the Internet, I think that may be optimistic. Meanwhile, if they come out with a beta version, CNS will gladly volunteer to test it.

Rocking the Mormon world

Sometimes it is easy to predict when a CNS story is going to stir a huge buzz in the blogosphere, and that was certainly the case with our story last week on the Vatican’s effort to block posthumous rebaptisms by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon or LDS church. The story, which has been viewed more than 10,000 times as of this afternoon, reported that Catholic dioceses around the world have been directed not to give information in parish registers to the Mormons’ Genealogical Society of Utah.

That may not excite many ordinary Catholics in the pew, but it predictably struck a nerve in the Mormon world, where posthumous baptisms by proxy have been a common practice for more than a century. As CNS staff writer Chaz Muth reported, the practice allows the church’s faithful to have their ancestors baptized into their faith so they may be united in the afterlife.

One Mormon blog said the news “rocked the LDS genealogical world.” And stories this past weekend in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News generated hundreds of comments. A Utah Catholic priest also devoted a blog entry to the issue, generating his own set of a dozen or so comments.

Faithful readers may remember that this is the second time in just over two weeks that a CNS story has generated an interreligious buzz with the Mormon church. Our story during Pope Benedict’s U.S. trip on how representatives of the LDS church came to participate in a papal event for the first time — a story that came in second for most views during April –generated both gratitude from Mormons glad to see an emphasis on common beliefs as well as a huge debate on one evangelical site wondering why LDS representatives bothered to participate since, according to this site, Mormon founder Joseph Smith believed “that all other churches were wrong, an abomination and corrupt.”

Divine intervention for the Nationals after papal Mass?

Pope Benedict XVI arrives to celebrate Mass at Nationals Park in Washington April 17. (CNS/Paul Haring)Did Pope Benedict invoke divine intervention for the Washington Nationals when he celebrated Mass at Nationals Park last month? Probably not, but over the weekend I heard two local sportscasters here in Washington credit the pope with the Nationals’ recent winning ways.

Since the altar and other liturgical accoutrements at Nationals Park were disassembled and the field returned to its original purpose, the Nationals have won eight games at home and lost only three. Before the Mass, the team had won only two games at home and lost five. Overall, the team had a woeful 6-15 record before returning home the week after the papal Mass. (They’re now 14-18.)

To vest before the Mass, the pope used Nationals’ manager Manny Acta’s office, while bishops who concelebrated used the Nationals’ clubhouse (left). The local sports network here that televises the games claims that the pope actually blessed the Nationals’ clubhouse after celebrating Mass here, but it’s pretty unlikely that he would do that on the way out of the stadium.

Most-viewed CNS stories for April

In a month that included the historic visit to the United States by Pope Benedict, it figures that the most-viewed story on our home page for April would instead be about liturgical renewal. Bloggers and others are passionate about issues surrounding the liturgy, and their links to stories like these always have an affect on any site’s Web stats. (They’re also passionate about the Mormon faith, as shown by No. 2 below. More on that later.)

But eight of our most-viewed stories were indeed on the papal visit. Check them out if you missed any of our coverage the first time around:

1. Vatican official calls liturgical renewal ‘irreversible path’

2. Ecumenical meeting marks first time Mormons join in papal gathering

3. Pope to visit New York, Washington in April, papal nuncio confirms

4. Pope Benedict greeted by Bush as he begins first U.S. visit

5. Pope calls sex abuse scandal ‘countersign’ to Gospel of life

6. At ground zero, pope offers silent prayer, comforts survivors

7. Cardinal Dulles gives farewell speech as Fordham’s McGinley professor

8. Nuncio says pope comes to strengthen faith, hope, love of U.S. church

9. Singers who will perform for pope consider it a singular experience

10. Four key phrases help unlock meaning of pope’s speech at U.N.

More on Ronald McDonald children meeting the pope

Do you remember our story on the disabled kids from the Ronald McDonald House in New York who got an unscheduled opportunity to meet Pope Benedict? If you were touched by that story, you’ll be even more touched by this Dominican Friars blog post which includes a YouTube video of TV coverage of the event. It’s one more example of how people were amazed with their personal encounters with the pope.

No ‘Time’ for the pope

Time magazine has published its annual list of the 100 people it believes are most influential in the world. The Dalai Lama, leader of the world’s Tibetan Buddhists, is there. So is Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. But Pope Benedict XVI was not among the Time editors’ choices.

He was, however, 60th in the poll conducted among Time readers.

Some of my Italian colleagues — perhaps like some Time readers — were shocked that the pope didn’t make the list. So they asked Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the papal spokesman, to comment.

Father Lombardi said he was not particularly upset by the pope-less list.

In fact, he said, “I’m pleased the pope is not there because they used criteria totally extraneous to an evaluation of moral and religious authority.”

In a list that includes politicians, actors and sports stars, “I find it positive that they do not confuse the pope’s type of authority and service with other, mundane characteristics.”

At least one Time writer wanted the magazine to rank the chosen 100 instead of just listing them. He even attempted to come up with a mathematical formula for doing so.

But, again, Father Lombardi defended the Time editors: “It would be difficult to make comparisons or give a scale when dealing with such diverse characteristics.”

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