More tributes for Tim Russert

Pope Benedict XVI meets Tim Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of 'Meet the Press,' April 17 at The Catholic University of America in Washington. Father David M. O'Connell, center, president of the university, made the introduction during the pontiff's U.S. visit. (CNS/Tony Fiorini, courtesy of The Catholic University of America)Official and unofficial Washington continues to mourn last Friday’s death of Tim Russert. For instance, here’s an op-ed piece from today’s Washington Post that does a good job of articulating why the city and the nation were stunned by the news. Even the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops joined in the mourning by issuing a press release quoting the chairman of the bishops’ Communications Committee. It’s hard to remember the last time the conference issued a release mourning the death of a lay Catholic, especially one not involved in a specific church movement or activity.

And if you saw the initial story we moved last Friday (less than two hours after the death was made public), we’ve updated it with even more warm remembrances of Russert’s life. Also, if you saw our blog post Friday, that too has been updated with a link to an interview Russert gave on the importance of his Catholic faith, part of the “One-on-One” series of interviews sponsored by the bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign.

UPDATE: We’ve just learned that NBC anchor Brian Williams will be the substitute speaker for Russert at the annual Philip J. Murnion Lecture of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative on June 27 at Catholic University here in Washington. Advertisements for Russert’s planned speech were already appearing in the Catholic press before his death. Organizers say Williams “will recall how Tim Russert’s life, and the political process he loved, can shed light on the common ground of the Catholic Church.”

PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI meets Tim Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet the Press,” April 17 at The Catholic University of America in Washington. Father David M. O’Connell, center, president of the university, made the introduction during the pontiff’s U.S. visit. (CNS/Tony Fiorini, courtesy of The Catholic University of America)

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.

International Eucharistic Congress goes green

A priest distributes Communion to a woman at the opening Mass of the 49th International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City June 15. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)QUEBEC CITY — When journalists and more than 12,000 pilgrims arrived in Quebec City for the 49th International Eucharistic Congress, they were given black backpacks filled with the expected programs, booklets, a radio for translation and maps to help them navigate the week of lectures, conferences and liturgies. But they also were given utensils, a water bottle and an 80 percent biodegradable, eco-friendly pen made with cornstarch.  Utensils? Cornstarch pen?  Um, OK.

This year, congress organizers have taken special steps to care for the environment, including providing the reusable utensils for meals and the reusable water bottle. They also will plant 49 trees to offset the greenhouse gas production of traveling pilgrims, who came from more than 70 countries for the June 15-20 congress.

According to an estimate cited in congress materials, 60,000 trees need to be planted and 80 years will have to pass to totally offset the amount of carbon dioxide produced by pilgrims, who were invited to plant four trees after they return home to help.

And as for recent reports that water bottles emit the hazardous chemical bisphenol A which can cause cancer? Well, congress organizers have that covered, too.  They included in the bundle of eco-equipment a notice about the bottles with information about research on the chemical and advice on how to avoid exposure to it.

PHOTO: A priest distributes Communion to a woman at the opening Mass of the 49th International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City June 15. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Tim Russert, R.I.P.

Tim Russert, managing editor and moderator of NBC's 'Meet the Press,' looks on as Peggy Noonan, a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal and political author, speaks during a 2006 panel discussion at Boston College. (CNS photo/Peter Smith, The Pilot)This afternoon’s shocking news of the death of NBC “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert sparked memories in our newsroom of stories CNS has written about him over the years. Here are some examples:

— Opening the annual National Catholic Educational Association convention in 2000: TV newsman thanks Catholic school teachers who ‘changed my life’ 

— On his new book “Big Russ & Me,” written, as our story said, “just in time for Father’s Day” 2004: Russert writes about lessons from his father, lessons for his own son

— And in a talk he gave to Catholic social ministers from across the country in 2005: Making world better for children a necessary goal, says NBC’s Russert

That last story has nuggets of what made Russert both a great newsman and a great father. If you haven’t read it yet, make sure you look at the third-to-the-last paragraph:

In introducing Russert, Mercy Sister Lourdes Sheehan, an associate general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said, “Amazingly, he got John McCain and Hillary Clinton to admit that the other would make a good president” …

Remember, this is from 2005!

In that same story, about making the world better for children, he reflected on his role as a father:

In dealing with his own son, Luke, Russert added that he tells him, “You are always, always loved, but you are never entitled.”

Tragically — but perhaps fittingly, given Russert’s devotion to both his father and his son — his death came just two days before our annual observance of Father’s Day.

Also worth a look is this video from John Carroll University in Cleveland, Russert’s alma mater, on the value of his Jesuit education in high school and college.

UPDATE: The U.S. bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign also has an insightful interview with Russert about the importance of his Catholic faith conducted in 2004 by Msgr. Jim Lisante for the CCC’s “One-on-One” series. It too is well worth your time to see how important the faith was to Russert.

PHOTO: Tim Russert, managing editor and moderator of NBC’s ‘Meet the Press,’ looks on as Peggy Noonan, a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal and political author, speaks during a 2006 panel discussion at Boston College. (CNS photo/Peter Smith, The Pilot)

The spark in Down syndrome children

The story of how Down syndrome children offer unique gifts to society has been told dozens of times before, but perhaps no better than in this story in the current Catholic Sentinel of Portland, Ore. Said one mom who helped found an Oregon association for families who have a child with Down syndrome, “In the end, these families don’t want pity or sorrow. They want people to see the spark of joy.”

No news is good news

A scene from the first day of the U.S. bishops' meeting in Orlando. (CNS/Andrew Sullivan)ORLANDO, Fla. — Seeing the words “remarks by the apostolic nuncio” on the agenda of the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in Orlando today reminded me of the last time Archbishop Pietro Sambi addressed a general assembly of the bishops. Last November the nuncio made the first official announcement that Pope Benedict XVI would visit the United States for the first time as pope in April.

Would the Vatican diplomat’s talk make big news this time?

When the time came for Archbishop Sambi to speak, Cardinal Francis E. George, president of the bishops’ conference, skipped over it without a word. After a coffee break the cardinal announced that Archbishop Sambi had indicated he did not wish to speak but changed his mind after encouragement from some of the bishops.

Saying that he was making “an effort to speak less,” the archbishop said Pope Benedict had told him he had gone to the United States “to confirm my brothers in the faith, but they confirmed me in hope.” He urged the bishops to “trust more our faith, be more near to our priests and more creative in our pastoral programs.”

Archbishop Sambi ended his brief talk with a reminder of the need for humility. “I’m sure that we are all very important people,” he said, “but the church was existing before us and will exist after us.” But in the end each will have to answer God’s question: What did you do to make the world a better place?

Unlocking the Gallego Code at SMU

Faculty and students at Southern Methodist University pulled off a stunning bit of academic skulduggery this year when they got their hands on a 15th-century altarpiece from the cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain.

The masterpiece’s 26 surviving panels, created in oil and tempera between 1480 and 1500, originated in the workshops of the great Spanish artist Fernando Gallego. They were painted by Gallego and the unknown Maestro Bartolomé and are on loan to SMU from the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

The chance to study the dazzling panels, which depict biblical scenes from the Creation all the way to the the Final Judgment — think Sistine Chapel but smaller and with a Spanish flavor — became a semester-long series of courses for 11 professors and 110 students who immersed themselves in all aspects of Spanish art, culture, politics, life and religion of the period, according to a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The professors came from disciplines as expected as art history and as unexpected as engineering. They came up with courses designed around the altarpiece and taught them on top of their regular workloads.

According to the Chronicle,  “students earned 30 percent of their grades through individual or group projects that brought an element of medieval Spain to life. Some students designed Holy Week floats that they paraded across campus shortly before Easter. (The campus chaplain blessed the floats and taught students about the traditions of Spanish Holy Week.)

“Others took on the role of class minstrels and learned to play and sing Spanish songs in musical groups called sopistas, the medieval forerunners of present-day tunas, the roaming student music groups. (On Valentine’s Day, a group of self-described valentunas burst into a meeting of campus administrators and serenaded the startled deans.) Still others produced plays or videos about events such as the conquest of Granada or the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Students built models of medieval cathedrals, replicated fashions of the time, and documented historical events in YouTube videos.

“Working in groups of three to five, students earned 60 percent of their grades by becoming experts in one of the altar panels and teaching fellow students and members of the public about it.”

“When you see students pay attention with such intensity, you know it is transforming the way they will look at art and the way they will interact with art objects forever,” Mark Roglan, director of SMU’s Meadows Museum, told the Chronicle.

Roglan snagged the loan from UAMA. The Meadows has perhaps the finest collection of Spanish art in the U.S.

The church has long used the power of art to move souls, especially young ones. I suspect the two Spanish masters knew this deeply but could hardly have suspected the impact on 110 students in Dallas a half a millennium later.

It’s probably only a coincidence that the Catholic chaplain of SMU is Deacon Bronson Havard, who is soon retiring as the longest-serving editor of the Texas Catholic. TC did a terrific story on the exhibit. You can read it by visiting their Web site. The panels and the results of the work of the faculty and students will by on display at the Meadows until July 27.

It’s worth a trip to Dallas. It’ll take you back 500 years and a half a world away.