The advice I got was, “Never ask the Pope a question!”
In 1987, we were preparing for a trip to the Vatican to shoot an 8-part series about the changing Catholic Church. The Pope was coming to the United States later that year, including a stop in Los Angeles. We were working with the press office at the Vatican, hoping to get an audience with Pope John Paul II while we were in Rome. The odds were good, we were told.
One of the rituals when you visit the Vatican as a reporter is a meeting with the Vatican Press Office for an orientation. There are several “official” rules and some “unofficial” rules the press attache’ will never tell you. For instance, you can get access to some secret areas of the Vatican if you make friends with some of the Vatican guards. They are the men who are dressed in the wild costumes and appear to be protecting doors and passageways. They are NOT ceremonial. They are highly trained security agents, but they are also the friendliest people in the Holy City. I worked for CBS News and we had CBS pens and keychains with us. The Vatican guards loved to get the swag to take home to their children. So, when we wanted access to a secret area, we just gave the guards some of the CBS marked trinkets and they worked like magic. We were in.
The major “official” rule, I was told, was how to talk to the Pope if we ever got the chance to meet him. Never ask the Pope a question, they said. So how was I supposed to talk with him? The press representative helping us said Pope John Paul II was very open and friendly, but very busy and always meeting people. So, he said, if we get the chance to be face-to-face with him during an audience or while he is blessing people in Vatican Square, just make a statement and hope it begins a conversation. I call these sport questions. If you listen to a sports reporter talking to athletes after a game they say, “Your defense really stepped it up today.” It’s not a question, it’s a statement and the player or coach agrees or disagrees and goes on to elaborate. You do the same with the Pope.
On our third day at the Vatican, we were privileged to attend a papal mass in St. Peter’s Square. There were thousands of people standing inside the barricades trying to get a glimpse of the Pope. They had been waiting for hours. The Press Office gave us access to the area near the altar where the Pope would walk and bless people lined up along the railing. We were shoulder-to-shoulder with visitors from all over the world. The Pope was their spiritual leader. Some were crying, just happy they were able to get this close to the man they call their “Father”. Larry Greene, the legendary CBS photojournalist, was next to me on the left as the Pope moved toward us along the railing. Larry had the shot and I had the opportunity, but I could not ask a question. I had to get the Pope to talk with me and look directly into the camera. As he got closer, I saw that he was reaching out and touching some of the people. When it got to me, I grabbed his hand and looked directly into his eyes. Larry had the camera rolling and we were both just inches from the leader of the Catholic Church. I said, “Holy Father, we are from Los Angeles, California and the people there are looking forward to your visit in a few months.” He stopped. He smiled and said, “I am truly looking forward to visiting with all of you in Los Angeles. Please give everyone there my blessing. I will be with them soon.” He gave us his blessing, let go of my hand and moved on down the railing. If I had asked a question, I am told, he would not have answered. But, because I made a statement, the Pope was comfortable delivering a message to the viewers I was there representing.
What is interesting, and other reporters will agree, is that when you are in the “moment” and doing your job you don’t think about the consequences or significance of it. We were working hard. We were in a huge crowd. We were trying to make sure we got what we needed to tell the story. I didn’t realize how that moment, holding the Pope’s hand and talking with him, would stay with me and affect me.
I was raised a Catholic and the Pope was always a mythical figure living in a mystical place called Vatican City. Now, I had met him. I tell my friends that there is something special about a Pope because you do feel you are in the presence of something more than just a leader of men.
I didn’t ask the Pope a question. Sometimes you must know the rules and sometimes the rules work for you. And, if you must break the rules, it’s always good to be able to say the Pope is your friend.