A few seconds with Pope Benedict

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.

Pope Benedict XVI greets U.S. bishops as he leaves a meeting April 16, 2008 with them at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Benedict XVI greets U.S. bishops as he leaves a meeting April 16, 2008 with them at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (CNS/Paul Haring)

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.

Covering a pope: You can’t make this up

Pope John Paul II, now a saint, celebrated Mass outdoors with Canada's First Nations in September 1987. (CNS photo/Brad Reynolds, S.J.)

Pope John Paul II, now a saint, celebrated Mass outdoors with Canada’s First Nations in September 1987. (CNS photo/Brad Reynolds, S.J.)

By Barb Fraze, international editor

First in a series

If a Hollywood producer had written a script, movie-goers would have said, “That would never happen.”

Yet what I witnessed 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle could have been an early sign that Pope John Paul II was special and might one day be a saint.

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.

Pope John Paul had been scheduled to visit Canada’s First Nations in 1984, during a multi-city trip to Canada, but he had to cancel because of fog. The Polish pope promised he would return, so he tacked on a visit at the end of his 1987 trip to the United States.

Pope John Paul II's altar platform included a giant teepee. (CNS photo/Brad Reynolds, S.J.)

Pope John Paul II’s altar platform included a giant teepee. (CNS photo/Brad Reynolds, S.J.)

Fort Simpson is a remote town in the Northwest Territories, and the papal Mass site was outdoors, at the intersection of the Mackenzie and Liard rivers. Most journalists flew in by plane — the “bigger plane” added from Yellowknife was a DC-3 — but First Nations members arrived by helicopter and canoe. The very few hotel rooms in the city were taken by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., so international journalists bunked in the ranger barracks and walked the mile along the river to the Mass site.

On the morning of the pope’s scheduled arrival, I could sense angst: Once again, it was rainy and foggy. We waited in the press tent near the altar platform with the teepee, wondering if, once again, the visit would be canceled. About the time Pope John Paul’s plane was scheduled to land, right on cue, the rain stopped. And, when his car pulled up to the Mass site — I kid you not — the clouds parted and a rainbow appeared in the sky.

Pope John Paul met with the First Nations leaders, who then met with press while the pope celebrated Mass laden with native American symbolism. The people were happy — they had planned and waited and hoped for years.

And, after several nights of watching, we journalists finally got to witness the spectacle of the Northern Lights — possibly another little miracle from the magnetic Pole who had visited that day.

– – –

Follow Barb Fraze on Twitter: @BFraze.

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Sept. 13, 2015

"I was brought low and he saved me." -- Psalm 116:6

“I was brought low and he saved me.” — Psalm 116:6

Sept. 13, Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle B. Readings:

1) Isaiah 50:5-9a

Psalm 116:1-6, 8-9

2) James 2:14-18

Gospel: Mark 8:27-35


By Jean Denton
Catholic News Service

I’ve known Mack since he was 11 years old — that’s 44 years. He grew up in a faithful, practicing Catholic family, much younger than his four older brothers and sisters. He was a young teenager when things started unraveling at home, largely due to alcoholism in the family.

He was well on his way to being an alcoholic himself by the time he was 20. He fell in with some unsavory colleagues, was involved in a few violent encounters and quickly flunked out of college. Soon afterward, his father died and he continued a lifestyle of uneven employment, social isolation, minor arrests and alcohol abuse.

For a while, it seemed that he was trying to address his situation by periodically participating in substance abuse programs and reconnecting with family members. He also held — by the thinnest thread — to his faith.

He was hanging on to Jesus’ call, recollected in the Gospel for this week, to bear the cross life had handed him and hope in the promise that in joining his own troubles to Christ’s suffering, he also would find peace through him.

However, it later became obvious that alcoholism was at the root of his problems, as Mack grew increasingly isolated. Lately, it appears that he has accepted a life of constant hardship — remaining homeless, barely employed and alcoholic.

But he has let go of his faith.

He continues to pick up his cross, but he no longer holds to the second part of Jesus’ exhortation — to follow him.

It’s the second part that makes all the difference. Peter didn’t get it either when Jesus said that he’d have to suffer. But Jesus explained further that, yes, everyone has suffering, but if you “follow me” through your suffering, you’ll also follow him to resurrection. That means one must cling to the life of Christ, being centered on goodness and trust in God, all the way to resurrection. Not easy in the middle of serious strife.

Mack’s friends and family hope that he will reach out again for that thin thread of faith in Christ that once held him. They hope he will find the right direction in which to follow Jesus while carrying his cross through to resurrection.


How do you go about following Christ when you are struggling or suffering? How does that affect you in such situations?

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Sept. 6, 2015

"Be strong, fear not!" -- Isaiah 35:4a

“Be strong, fear not!” — Isaiah 35:4a

Sept. 6, Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

      Cycle B. Readings:

      1) Isaiah 35:4-7a

      Psalm 146:7-10

      2) James 2:1-5

      Gospel: Mark 7:31-37


By Jeff Hensley
Catholic News Service

You hear the source of major themes voiced by Pope Francis and St. John Paul II in this week’s readings.

The great concern of Pope Francis for the poor comes through in the reading from James. “Show no partiality,” James says. “If a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes … have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

Pope Francis has shown us before his papacy — and so many times since — that he goes beyond this standard to identify with the poor. His following of Gospel mandates to show love and mercy to the poor and fatherless has extended to inviting those who live in the streets around the Vatican to share the food of his table.

The reading from Isaiah fits well with the “Be not afraid!” message of St. John Paul II. “Thus says the Lord: Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication.”

We need to be a church that works with, advocates for and shares bread with the poor.

And we need to be a fearless church that stands by what the Gospel tells us about the poor, the unborn and children.

When I was preparing a book of readings on the protection of the unborn, the disabled and the elderly — titled “The Zero People” — 30-plus years ago, I had moments of fear, worrying that some people would be more than simply offended by its pro-life message. But God, through Scripture, spoke a word that strengthened my backbone. The book was published and did well. Some 32 years later, it is still broadly quoted, and more than 600 copies are in libraries around the world.

Standing by the courage of our convictions, according to our faith, we can see that God, in time, does act along with us, but only if we act with confidence in support of his own word.


When have you acted with courage in obedience to God and found it fruitful?

#JokeWithThePope and support a good cause

Within a week, Americans will be able to share a joke with Pope Francis and, by doing so, help support a mission cause.

Celebrities such as Bill Murray, Conan O’Brien, George Lopez, Whitney Cummings, David Copperfield and Al Roker have joined the cause and recorded jokes. Even Jesuit Father Jim Martin has welcomed the pope with a recorded joke about a Franciscan and a Jesuit who reach the pearly gates.

The site is sponsored by the Pontifical Mission Societies, and it goes live Sept. 8, said Oblate Father Andrew Small, director.

On that date, people can visit JokeWithThePope.org and select one of three causes: needy children in Argentina, homeless people in Ethiopia or hungry people in Africa. Then, they assign a written joke or record a joke and assign it to that cause.

Three different causes have been chosen for the JokeWithThePope contest, but more causes will be available on the new Mission App. (Photos courtesy Pontifical Mission Societies.)

Three different causes have been chosen for the JokeWithThePope contest, but more causes will be available on the new Mission App. (Photos courtesy Pontifical Mission Societies.)

“For those that are comedically challenged, you hit a button and it spits out a joke for them,” Father Small said. “We have a lot original jokes.”

The funniest participant will be chosen at the end of the campaign to receive the first-ever official title of honorary comedic adviser to the pope, and his or her cause will receive a $10,000 donation.

Note: Father Small said all jokes will be screened.

As fun as JokeWithThePope sounds, its larger aim is to point people toward the Pontifical Mission Societies’ new Missio app, which will be relaunched in English Sept. 10. Other language versions will follow. People who downloaded an earlier version of the app will find it has totally changed; on Sept. 10 they can download it from Google Play or the Apple App Store.

The new app will allow “open-source philanthropy.” People can choose from dozens of projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Besides supporting them financially, they can share information about the project with friends through social media channels or organize an event or other action in their community to help support the project.

The new Missio app can be downloaded Sept. 10.

The new Missio app can be downloaded Sept. 10.

“You will be able to communicate with the project leaders directly,” Father Small said. For instance, a parish with a twinning project can keep in touch with the project’s process all year long.

The app will allow “unfiltered access to the change-makers on the ground,” Father Small said, “direct access to someone … who is making a difference half a world away.”

Project leaders must answer some questions to put their project on the Missio platform. But people who support a project can also place it on the app.

“If you’re Mary in Milwaukee who has a twinning project you, Mary … can put up a project in Haiti,” as long as she can satisfy the criteria, Father Small said.

“It goes through the church’s secure financial transfer mechanism, particularly through the papal ambassadors in each country … to the eventual project.” This is the way the societies fund all their projects, he added.

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Aug. 30, 2015

"What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?" -- Deuteronomy 4:8

“What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” — Deuteronomy 4:8

Aug. 30, Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle B. Readings:

1) Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

Psalm 15:2-5

2) James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


By Jean Denton
Catholic News Service

The singsong voice still echoes in my head all these decades later: “We missed you at church Sunday night.”

Simultaneously, I still hear my mental translation: “Shame on you for not going to church on Sunday night.”

I was a teenager and the singsong voice was that of a youth group leader. I accepted the implied criticism since it came from an adult, and so I felt guilty for not showing up at the Sunday evening service — although, for the life of me, I didn’t understand why I had to go to church twice!

That small, Southern Christian church was hardly the only community where members press extra “requirements” on each other as proof of faith. Religion itself is about expressions of faith, so naturally people are going to sometimes confuse outward signs of reverence, discipline or commitment with actual attitudes of the heart.

In some people’s minds, the signs grow into conditions necessary for salvation: saying your prayers every night; never missing Mass — or the collection basket; for some traditions, abstaining completely from alcohol; the list goes on.

People — and churches — tend to put obligations on us beyond what God asks. Unfortunately, it leads to misunderstanding, unnecessary guilt and misplaced resentment. For example, when I taught a confirmation class, a candidate once asked, “If you don’t receive the sacraments, will you go to hell?”

In today’s Scripture from Deuteronomy, Moses describes God’s law as just and whole, and tells the people that they should not add nor subtract from God’s commandments. In the Gospel, Jesus warns against overemphasizing human traditions that distract from the fundamental truth to which God wants us to aspire. Instead, Jesus calls us to examine our hearts for greed, malice, licentiousness, envy and other evils that lead to acts more harmful than not going to confession. In fact, healthy church communities offer some enhancements that become human traditions — Bible study, devotional practices, special prayers and teachings — that help us understand and follow God’s commandments.

When offered and received as help, not requirements, these human traditions can heal and form our hearts and draw us closer to the heart of God.


What are some traditions, practices and disciplines our church community gives us? How can they distract us from the core of our Christian faith? How can they enhance our ability to follow God’s commandments?

Remembering Phil Hartman

hartmancoverformarksblogEarlier this year, while leafing through a catalog of remaindered books, I spotted a book titled “You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman,” by Chicago Sun-Times journalist Mike Thomas. The title comes from a signature line uttered by Troy McClure, whose character Hartman voiced on “The Simpsons.” McClure, a washed-up actor, was reduced to introducing educational films thusly: “Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You might remember me from ‘Christmas Ape’ and ‘Christmas Ape Goes to Summer Camp.’”

I bought the book, based largely on the strength of a telephone interview I had conducted with Hartman a few weeks before his shocking murder by his wife, who later committed suicide in their home.

It took several months and several other books to go through first, but I finally read “You Might Remember Me.” In one sense, it’s tough reading a biography whose ending you already know. But, about two-thirds of the way through the book, as the narrative slowed down to provide more detail into the last months, weeks and days of Hartman’s life, I grew curious. Had my interview with Hartman been found and used by Thomas? It may seem difficult for readers of this blog to believe, but Catholic News Service is not often regarded as a go-to destination for celebrity interviews.

I thumbed through the index. No sign of my name. Oh, well. Then I looked for “Catholic News Service” in the index. And voila! Seeing where it was, I skipped 40 or so pages to get to the material to see how Thomas had used it.

“Strangely, in light of his long-lapsed Catholicism, he conveyed a seemingly renewed sense of religiousness,” Thomas wrote, “or perhaps he was merely tailoring his words for the publication as he tailed his act for a specific venue.”

Had Thomas sought me out, I would have told him there was no tailoring going on. The phone interview was supposed to have been conducted in April 1997, but a representative of NBC -– where Hartman was starring in the sitcom “Newsradio” — called to reschedule, as Hartman was not going to be available on the original date. NBC had made the pitch for a phone interview to boost the marginal ratings of “Newsradio,” and noted Hartman’s Catholic upbringing.

On the rescheduled date, Hartman called at the assigned time. I asked him how he was, and he said, “Fine.” I asked him what had prompted the rescheduling. “My father was sick,” Hartman replied. I then asked how his dad was doing. “Oh, he died,” Hartman said. I conveyed my condolences, and Hartman launched into an entirely unprompted soliloquy about life and death and the hereafter.

“Our faith prepares us for what lies ahead, and tells us that it’s a mystery to us, and we tremble before that mystery,” Hartman said in part. Moreover, he spoke in slow, measured tones, slow enough for me to be able to capture every word he was saying even without the aid of a tape recorder.

“Faith has guided me to believe it’s a rebirth. We are set free from this mortal coil, and we’ll see wonders beyond our imagination. We’ll get close to the Creator. I’ve believed that all my life even when I’ve questioned other aspects of my faith. I’ll be there with my father in heaven,” Hartman said. I remember needing to ask no questions.

When Hartman was done ruminating about life after death, the interview shifted to more conventional topics. One question I particularly delighted in asking him was: “If I was Rosie O’Donnell, and you were a guest on my talk show, and I pulled a couple of album covers you had designed out from under my desk, which two LPs would they be?” Hartman chuckled at the scenario, then answered with an album by the folk-rock band Poco and the intertwined “CSN” logo used by Crosby, Stills and Nash on their 1977 album.

When the interview was over, I told my editor, Julie Asher, what had transpired over the phone. I knew I had my lead. And it was a good story, one to be proud of.

Three weeks after the interview, I came back to my cubicle from lunch to see a sheet of paper torn off the Reuter newswire resting on my chair: Phil Hartman, wife dead in murder-suicide. I audibly gasped. A new story had to be written. All the comments Hartman had made about his father took on added resonance with his own death.

And therein lay a conundrum. Celebrities are no less immune than the rest of the population to having grown nominally Catholic. Hartman was no exception. Just how nominal it had become, one could only guess, since dead men tell no tales. Brynn Hartman, who likely had shot her husband in a drug-fueled state, turned out to be Hartman’s third wife. Author Thomas in “You Might Remember Me” reveals that Hartman’s first wife had two abortions while married to Phil. Hartman’s family insisted on a Catholic funeral for their son and brother. They got one, at a chapel in the cemetery where Phil and Brynn were interred.

Hartman’s life and career were far too short. “You Might Remember Me” brings all that back home.




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