A walk in the gardens

Pope and president walk in the Vatican Gardens. (CNS/Reuters)VATICAN CITY — When I first heard that Pope Benedict and President Bush were going to stroll through the Vatican Gardens, the phrase “a walk in the woods” came to mind.

The expression in diplomatic circles refers to a 1982 U.S.-Soviet arms control session that reached a breakthrough only when the two chief negotiators went for a private walk in the Russian mountains.

Pope-president meetings tend to be formal and predictable. Maybe a “walk in the gardens” — away from aides and the usual protocol — would loosen things up a little and result in some real give-and-take. Or so I thought.

As we now know, that didn’t happen. Instead of a private moment, the stroll through the gardens was video-broadcast from start to finish, from every camera angle: front, back, above and off to the side. Vatican photographers and video operators were actually crouching in the bushes as the pope and president walked by.

It was all very media-savvy, and it occurred to me that that things have come a long way since Pope Leo XIII was filmed in his carriage in the Vatican Gardens by the Lumiere brothers in 1896, in one of the first moving pictures ever made. The Vatican has already made the Pope Benedict-President Bush encounter into an hourlong DVD (it sells for 30 euros.)

Reviews of the Vatican Gardens event were mixed, at least from some of the Italian journalists who watched the proceedings with me in the Vatican Press Office. Some were a little disappointed that the pope and president didn’t pray in the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. (Keep in mind that rumors were buzzing in Italy of an imminent presidential “conversion” to Catholicism.)

On the level of bella figura, there was some criticism of the wooden deck chairs (“Did they get them at IKEA?”) used by pope and president when they sat for a mini-concert in the grotto. That the chairs were placed on a precious oriental rug was an odd combination.

Perhaps most of all, my Italian colleagues were disturbed that the whole thing ended about 20 minutes early; anything that isn’t a little late is suspect in Italy.

Part of the reason for the early conclusion was that the “walk in the gardens” took eight minutes instead of 20. When I watched the DVD, I admit to fast-forwarding through that part.

The DVD, produced by the Vatican Television Center, caught some interesting exchanges during the visit. The pope was indeed a smiling and gracious host, but Bush did most of the small talk. From the medieval tower where they held a private meeting, the president looked down on the fortified walls and asked first whether the Vatican patrolled them, and then whether people ever tried to break in.

U.S. Archbishop James Harvey, a top papal aide, responded with a chuckle: “There’s not too much of that. Every once and a while.”

UPDATE: It’s been reported that President Bush made a verbal gaffe by addressing the pope as “Your Eminence” during the visit, instead of the proper “Your Holiness.” For the record, that’s not really accurate. The president called the pope “Your Holiness” three times upon his arrival; he used the term “Your Eminence” when addressing Archbishop Harvey, at one point telling the archbishop: “Your Eminence, you’re looking good.” Actually, that was not quite right, either, since “eminence” is used in addressing cardinals,  not bishops. But no big deal.

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