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.

A message from the pope as he heads to Cuba as pilgrim and missionary

Speaking and looking very much like a grandfather-friend as he spoke to the camera, Pope Francis sent Thursday a brief video message to Cubans ahead of his upcoming trip. He heads to the island Saturday as a “missionary of mercy,” he said, but also as a a pilgrim, a son looking forward to visiting his mother’s house — referencing a planned visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, the country’s revered patron saint.


He said he has a simple message to transmit: “Jesus loves you very much.” Jesus never abandons, but “comforts us, gives us new hope, new opportunities, new life,” said the pope.

After arriving in the capital Saturday afternoon and celebrating Mass there the following day, he is expected to visit Holguin, on the eastern end of the island, then Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city. He then will head to the nearby town of El Cobre to pray at the shrine that honors the country’s patron saint, who is revered by many of the island’s denizens, not just Catholics.

He thanked those in Cuba who have been praying ahead of his trip and encouraged them, too, to be missionaries of God’s mercy.

“Be missionaries of that love, which is infinite,” he said. “Make sure no one is lacking the testimony of our faith, of our love.”

That love helps us arrive at forgiveness, helps to support others, helps to give hope, he said.

He spoke of his admiration for the faith of Cubans.

“It does me a lot of good to think of your fidelity to the Lord,” he said.

Hitting the lottery

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. 

After having heard the news that my parish in Washington was going to conduct a lottery for tickets to Pope Francis’ Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — but having been out of town for the two weeks after the announcement was made — I was afraid I had missed my chance.

Not to worry. Not only were parishioners able to sign up for a chance the weekend I got back, but the weekend after as well. I wrote my name, address and phone on the back of a red raffle ticket.

My D.C. parish got 40 tickets, but every parish in the Washington Archdiocese was getting 40 tickets. So members of my parish, which has only hundreds of households, have better odds of winning a ticket than someone in a suburban parish with thousands of households.

Cover of 'Unity in the Work of Service
‘Unity in the Work of Service” by Pope John Paul II about 1987 U.S. visit.

I’ve had decent luck, for both myself and for others when St. John Paul II visited Detroit in 1987, so I kept my fingers crossed. Ah, but no such luck. Forty other parishioners won tickets.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also conducted a lottery — and I won! I won a chance to be on the West Front of the Capitol with thousands of other people who are hoping for a glimpse of the pope after his address to Congress. However, I’ll be on assignment somewhere else for CNS.

In 1987, when I was a reporter at The Michigan Catholic, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s newspaper, it seemed that every employee of the archdiocese was given a chance to get a pair of tickets to one of the papal events planned for his stop in the Motor City, which spanned two days. Given the nature of the events and the potential turnout for them, all of the journalists on The Michigan Catholic’s staff opted to seek tickets for the event with the fewest seats: the welcoming ceremony at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral.

And, as luck would have it, we all got what we had hoped for!

The final event of any size on Pope John Paul’s itinerary was the Mass at the Pontiac Silverdome. My Detroit parish, where I served as music director, got 47 tickets to the Mass. The ticket distribution was made according to each parish’s size. Even though my Detroit parish was smaller than my D.C. parish, the Silverdome accommodated some 90,000 people once you fill most of the football field with folding chairs; the pope celebrated Mass at the 20-yard line.

Even with 47 tickets, there were more people who wanted ducats than were available. Still, I had another way in. As parish music director, I could pick myself as one of the four people sought from each parish to sing in the papal Mass choir.

But I came upon the horns of a dilemma. Do I choose one soprano, one alto, one tenor, one bass? What if the best singers were in the same vocal range? Would it be OK to shift one to another voice part to get the best singers in the papal choir?

People line Hamtramck, Mich., street during pope's 1987 trip. (Photo: Arturo Mari/L

People line Hamtramck, Mich., street during pope’s 1987 trip. (Photo: Arturo Mari/L’Osservatore Romano)

Not sure of what to do, I called the archdiocesan director of music ministries. He solved the problem for me: “They can all come,” he said. So, instead of four singers, my parish contributed 15. Nobody had to change voice parts, and I could put the full choir through its paces before regional rehearsals began.

The only ethical chicanery took place without my knowledge. Three of the sopranos lied about their height. They correctly guessed that the shortest would be seated in front, and the tallest in back, but they wanted the chance to sit together in the Silverdome. Not only did they sit together, a Detroit Free Press photographer took a great picture of them singing that was published in the next day’s paper!

New book brings together pope’s 30 audience talks on family

Cover Pope Francis on familyVATICAN CITY — Just an hour after Pope Francis finished his series of general audience talks about the family yesterday, the head of the Vatican publishing house and his press assistant dropped a book on my desk.


The volume, “The Family: The World’s Generating Force,” contains the full texts in English of the 30 audience talks the pope gave beginning Dec. 10, 2014, and including the prepared text for yesterday’s talk. The last texts does not include the pope’s ad-libbed asides, but holding off would have made it impossible to get the book printed and ready for sale at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.


The Vatican publishing house, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, will have a booth at the World Meeting of Families Congress Sept. 22-25. The volume will be on sale there.wmf logo


Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, which convokes the world meetings, described the pope’s audience talks as an “organic cycle of catecheses on the family,” one that is not pure theory, but addresses “the figures and the relationships, the moments and the places, the happiness and the hardships, the successes and the failures” of many families today.


Throughout the series, the archbishop said, the pope challenged the church to rediscover how families are the foundation of its communities and how networks of Catholic families strengthen each other and reach out to others with charity and the Gospel message.


In Catholic teaching, the archbishop said, the family must be “extroverted,” recognizing it has a vocation to protect life and all creation and to promote faith, hope and love among its members and all people with whom each family comes in contact.


My colleague Carol Glatz, who wrote the Catholic News Service stories about most of the 30 talks, has summarized them and other speeches by Pope Francis about the family in this article.

‘Body surfing’ to see the pope

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.

Back in 1979, Thomas Lorsung, CNS’ retired director and editor-in chief, was managing editor of the news service — then known as NC News —  when Pope John Paul II visited the U.S. in 1979. As Lorsung writes, there was a break in editing stories the last day of that papal trip, allowing him to get out of the newsroom and wander down to the National Mall where the pope was celebrating Mass. Here’s his account:

By Thomas N. Lorsung

WASHINGTON (NC) — I thought of it as “body surfing.”

There was a lull in the action of editing stories on the last day of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States and I decided to walk to the city’s Mall and look for myself at the papal Mass concluding the visit.

The 20-minute walk took me down deserted streets and, as the Mass site approached, past vendors selling all manner of buttons, calendars, pennants and papal flags. There was even a “special graphic” — a modern original poster — commemorating the visit of the pope to the nation’s capital.

It was not a cold day by my Milwaukee-bred resistance, but with temperatures in the 60s and a steady breeze blowing, there was a wind-chill factor operating.

At 12th and Madison, I was at the edge of a crowd and from there could hear the pope reading the creed in his now-familiar, solid, deliberate baritone.

Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass Oct. 7, 1979, on National Mall. (Photo credit: Mitchell, Smithsonian Institution)

Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass Oct. 7, 1979, on the National Mall. (Photo credit: Mike Mitchell, Smithsonian Institution)

But seeing him was another matter. From that distance, half a block away, he was just a speck on a white stage. I wanted to closer to put some of the crowd and at least some possibly identifiable image on some Instamatic film left in my children’s camera, which I stuffed in my briefcase at the last minute when I left for work a week before.

At the crowd’s edge the “body surfing” began. It did not involve surfing with the body as much as it meant surfing through bodies to edge closer to the action.

A James Taylor song says he would “ride with the tide and go with the flow.” It was the way toward the front of the crowd. When someone came out, from up front, the most successful “body surfers” would seize the moment and slip up to fill the gap. There was a certain ebb and flow to the process, all right.

As the crowd ebbed, we surfers flowed — past the couple in their 20s praying aloud the parts of the Mass, past the two women wrapped in a quilt to keep off the wind as they sat in lawn chairs, past the short woman carrying a baby who was more intrigued by my striped tie than by the crowd towering above, past the young men who climbed 20 feet or more up into trees like Zacchaeus trying to see the Lord.

But the family history scrapbook will probably be a little light in pictures of the pope. After surfing through about two dozen rows, I lifted the lens toward the action only to see a pontifical figure in green on the white stage in front of the Smithsonian castle. The viewfinder showed a view of the altar and castle, anyway, I thought. The only problem was that the red warning light on the camera told me that it was probably futile to shoot in the fading daytime, as dusk was accelerated by a new cloud cover. But I shot anyway. That’s how surfers are. One wipeout can’t stop us.

– – –

Also noted: Just a few days before Lorsung’s story ran, the news service reported that a federal judge had rebuffed an attempt by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a well-known atheist in those years, to block the papal Mass on the National Mall.

U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Gasch ruled that Pope John Paul II’s right to free speech entitled him to celebrate Mass on public property. Gasch said he had to strike a balance between the First Amendment’s provision for separation of church and statement with the same amendment’s free speech clause — and in this case free speech should prevail.

“Here the Department of the Interior is extending to the (Washington) Archdiocese no greater access, uses, facilities, privilege or support that would be extended to any other group, religious or nonreligious,” the judge said in his opinion.

“Mrs. O’Hair was unable to cite any authority for the proposition that certain religious faith should be excluded from privileges extended by the government (for) the use of the park, particularly when the practice is to permit any religious faith to exercise that privilege.”

Gasch said the federal government “has completely avoided any connections with or sponsorship of the Mass on the Mall.”

The Archdiocese of Washington took care of all the details for the public Mass, he noted, from the platform to sound equipment to temporary fencing to seating to portable toilets to cleanup.

O’Hair had vowed to appeal if she lost the case, but the historic Mass took place in what was a 33-hour whirlwind trip for the pontiff to the nation’s capital. His visit included an afternoon at the White House with President Jimmy Carter and Mass for 1,500 priests at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and the public Mass on the Mall. Before arriving in Washington, Pope John Paul visited Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Des Moines, Iowa, and Chicago.

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.


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