One in a series.
Catholic News Service Rome bureau staffers always get to cover papal trips, yet, as Pope Francis’ visit approached, we in Washington began thinking about our favorite moments of when we got to cover popes. No one in our newsroom is a papal rookie, so we agreed to share some of our stories.
Imagine starting a new job and then covering the pope two days later.
Pope Benedict XVI’s April 2008 visit to the U.S. coincided with my arrival at Catholic News Service from the Catholic Universe Bulletin in Cleveland, where I was the editor for 10 years. Thinking I’d get a good assignment — you know, show confidence in the new guy — it was a nice way to begin a new phase of my career.
It turned out that my CNS colleagues forgot about me.
The editors planning coverage of the historic trip never submitted my name for a security clearance. That meant I was relegated to reporting on Pope Benedict from afar by mixing within the throngs of people on the streets of the nation’s capital.
For CNS Rome bureau staffers, covering the pope comes with the territory. But in 2008, I was a “rookie” on papal trip coverage. It was a career highlight no matter what I was charged to do.
So I roamed the streets near the White House as the pope was welcomed by President George W. Bush. The crowds were energized, the hours-long wait notwithstanding. People carried signs and placards; some raised their voices in unison shouting “Benedict! Benedict!” Many prayed curbside.
At mid-morning the popemobile approached. The telltale sound of cheers and applause rose up like an ocean wave as the vehicle neared where I had talked with a few people. The crowd was five and six people deep and I had gotten stuck well behind the front row. From what I could see — for all of about two seconds — Pope Benedict stood inside smiling and waving. I’m sure he was blessing people too, but I didn’t see any blessing bestowed.
Just as suddenly he was gone. People quickly dispersed. Getting more interviews was nearly impossible, so I called in the last of my quotes and was off to the next venue: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
It was more of the same on the grounds of the Catholic University of America facing the east front of the basilica, where people started gathering early in the afternoon. Plans called for the pope to make the short trip from the headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the massive church, where he would walk up the steps and wave to the crowd before entering to speak with clergy and religious.
This crowd was a bit more subdued; no banners and little cheering. Polite applause began when the popemobile arrived. This time my glimpse was even shorter, no more than a second.
So I called in the last of my quotes and headed out. The CNS office at the USCCB headquarters remained off limits because I didn’t have the proper credentials. Thanks, editors.
Later that week I was assigned to cover the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast at which President Bush was speaking. So I covered the leader of the largest organized church in the world and the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet in the same week.
It’s been downhill ever since.