One-a-day assignments and security hurdles to overcome

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. 

Journalists got the word over the summer: Because of security concerns, journalists covering Pope Francis’ visit — even if they lived in one of the cities he was visiting — had to stay at the hotel designated in each city as the media center. 

Moreover, a journalist could cover only one event a day. 

Looking at street plans for the pope’s September visit, it’s easy to see that the plans are designed for the pontiff to get from one place to the next, but not anybody else. But journalists are trained to go after the story, and that’s precisely how we did things when Pope John Paul II visited the United States in 1987 and Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2008. 

First, the Polish pope’s trip. I was lucky enough to score a pair of tickets to the papal welcome ceremony in the cathedral in Detroit. This required driving to an assigned parish, hopping on a charter bus, parking only somewhat close to the cathedral, going through the security sweep, and waiting an hour and a half or so for Pope John Paul. The actual ceremony was hardly anticlimactic, but after all was said and done, it probably wasn’t until 11:30 p.m. that I was able to return home — which might have been at most a 20-minute drive to the cathedral. 

Couple in traditional garb greet Pope John Paul in Hamtramck, Mich., in 1987. (Photo by Arturo Mari/L'Osservatore Romano)

Couple in traditional garb greet Pope John Paul in Hamtramck, Mich., in 1987. (Photo by Arturo Mari/L’Osservatore Romano)

But for someone covering the pope, one goes where one has to. Because I was assigned to cover Pope John Paul’s early-morning address to Polonia -– Poles outside Poland –- in the Detroit enclave of Hamtramck, I had made advance arrangements to stay overnight at a friend’s house. I got about three hours’ sleep before the alarm woke me up so I could get back to my car, drop off my old clothes, and stand in line in an intermittent drizzle for another security sweep. 

But the event was held with no hiccups -– and it stopped raining! -– but I had another papal event to get to: the papal Mass at the Pontiac Silverdome. But I wasn’t the only journalist covering more than one papal event in a day. So too was Julie Asher of CNS. The advance arrangements in Hamtramck also led me to do reconnaissance for the parking garage. I told Julie my make, model and color of car and the license plate number so she could spot it and get a ride with me to the Silverdome. 

In between the Polonia address and the Silverdome, Pope John Paul addressed deacons at Ford Auditorium in downtown Detroit and made an address at Hart Plaza, also downtown. Afterward, he had lunch with the Michigan bishops at the archbishop’s residence next to the cathedral. But remember: travel arrangements are made with the pope’s ease of travel in mind, not those of anybody else. 

Once we got through another security sweep at the Silverdome, a tunnel was cordoned off for accredited reporters to get to the press box. There, Julie could write her stories about Polonia, the deacons, the papal address and the Mass while I searched for a way to get out of the press box, since I was singing in the papal Mass choir. 

Pope's public Mass at Silverdome outside Detroit in 1987. (Photo by Arturo Mari/L'Osservatore Roman)

Pope’s public Mass at Silverdome outside Detroit in 1987. (Photo by Arturo Mari/L’Osservatore Roman)

After Mass, Julie and I reconnoitered a second time –- now, at the parking lot of an auto parts store that had shut down at noon. The auto parts store was not our first choice, but since we could hear the entire Hart Plaza address on the radio and travel maybe a mile because of the traffic jams, we had opted to hoof it to the Silverdome. I gave Julie a ride back to the downtown hotel where the media center awaited scores of fatigued journalists to write more stories. Because the Michigan Catholic didn’t publish daily, I could get a decent night’s sleep in and then go to the office after Mass to do my writing. 

In 2008, I was assigned to report on Pope Benedict’s Mass at Nationals Park, in its first year as a baseball stadium. Because I lived in Washington, I figured I could save CNS some dough by not staying at the hotel, wake up from my own bed at 3:30 a.m. to get to the media-center hotel by 4 a.m. to get on a 4:30 a.m. bus to the ballpark. And I was right on all counts. The Mass was over in 1:52, eight minutes short of the two hours allotted for it -– talk about German efficiency! — and went to the hotel to write stories and blogs. After all, I had the rest of the day to write because I had nothing else on my coverage itinerary. 

That is, until I was told to head out on the double to the Vatican nunciature in Washington, where Pope Benedict was meeting with victims of clergy sexual abuse. This was an unannounced, under-the-radar event. 

I had to park my car more than a few blocks away, but when I got to the nunciature there were only a handful of reporters, and perhaps 100 or so people milling about behind a rope line on the front lawn. When Pope Benedict emerged, they all wanted was to shake his hand or kiss his ring or say something to him. And, because the crowd was so small most of them did. And I was one of the few reporters to witness the event. I suppose I could have gotten in line to shake his hand, too, but it was more important for me to get in talk to the people who did.

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