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.

The CNS News Hub is back!

News Hub logoAfter a three-month hiatus, the CNS News Hub is officially back in business. We hope you enjoy this new format, which is only an interim step until we get an entirely new Catholic News Service Web site early next year.

The CNS News Hub, originally launched in August 2006, is our way to showcase some of the interesting stories, columns and editorials published by our clients around the Catholic press — items that you’ll wish you knew about if you don’t check these pages often. There’s even an RSS feed if you know how to add the CNS News Hub to your RSS reader.

We’ll also use this area to highlight some of our activities here at CNS that you also may not be aware of. Examples may include stories we’ve written that give a unique perspective to an issue that’s dominating the secular news media, or news nuggets from our award-winning Rome bureau that you can’t find anywhere else!

So, sit back and check here often for another view of the life of the church. We don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

This week in Origins

Another edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service, for more than 35 years the primary source for church texts, is in the mail and posted online. Here’s what’s in the edition dated Oct. 25:

  • If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace, an international group of Muslim leaders and scholars say in a letter to Christian leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI. Finding common ground between the world’s two largest religions is a demand of their shared belief in the unity of God and of the necessity of love for him and of one’s neighbor, they say. (Subscribers: Click here)
  • Where there is acceptance of the direct killing of noncombatant civilians or justification of the use of torture in eliciting information from prisoners, there is no military chaplaincy worthy of its name, says the former head of the U.S. military archdiocese, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore. (Subscribers: Click here)
  • An earned path to citizenship for illegal immigrants constitutes neither amnesty nor a reward for lawbreaking because offenders pay a penalty proportionate to the intent and effect of their lawbreaking and remain accountable to the law, says Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. (Subscribers: Click here)

Canadian Catholic TV network interviews CNS Rome bureau chief

Canada’s Salt + Light Television network this month broadcast an interview with the CNS Rome bureau chief, John Thavis, which we highly recommend. Click here to view it online.

thavis_web.jpgThavis, you may recall, earlier this year won the Catholic Press Association’s St. Francis de Sales Award for his contributions to Catholic journalism. He has been a firsthand and close-up witness to the workings of the Vatican since before the election of Pope John Paul II. One of the best parts of the interview is toward the end when Thavis recalls the electric evening in St. Peter’s Square when Pope John Paul was introduced to the world as well as the pontiff’s 2005 death and funeral and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. In the Salt + Light interview, Thavis also provides keen insights into Benedict’s papacy, insights that he shares regularly with Catholic News Service readers.

Salt + Light Television is itself an interesting story. Canada’s first Catholic television network, Salt + Light broadcasts 24/7 via Canadian cable and satellite TV outlets, and much of its work is also available on the Internet. Its interview with Thavis was part of of an ongoing, in-depth interview series called “Witness” with distinguished leaders both inside and outside the church. Another recent Salt + Light interview was with Philadelphia’s own Cardinal-designate John P. Foley, best-known to many perhaps as the off-camera voice every year of the pope’s Christmas Midnight Mass telecasts. Click here to view that interview, which is also well worth your time.

Rating George Bush; support for Hillary?

National political issues are prominent in the current editions of two national Catholic publications this week. First, Our Sunday Visitor features a column by commentator Russell Shaw that asks how Catholics should rate the presidency of George W. Bush. And the National Catholic Register publishes an article by the president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List on whether Hillary Clinton can count on women to back her bid to be the first woman president.

Story of the day (so far) …

Today’s stories on the 23 new cardinals named by Pope Benedict XVI include one memorable anecdote: Cardinal-designate John P. Foley was incognito in St. Peter’s Square when his name was called out:

He said a pilgrim standing next to him asked him if he knew any of the men the pope had just named to be cardinal.

“I said ‘Yes, I know quite a few of them.’ And I said ‘I am one of them,’ Well, I don’t think he believed me,” he said laughing.

Click here for the entire story.

Pope’s next encyclical — the real story

At CNS, we’re not above tooting our own horn when we have information no one else has reported. That’s definitely the case today with our story this morning that Pope Benedict XVI’s next encyclical has been completed and that it will be a meditation on Christian hope.

That, of course, contradicts the rumors that the next encyclical would be on economic issues and would declare tax evasion “socially unjust.” But why not? The subject of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, on Christian love, surprised many observers who thought the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would address more hard-hitting doctrinal issues.

But what about the encyclical on social issues? Our story says that is the topic for the pope’s third encyclical. Stay tuned.