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VATICAN LETTER Feb-24-2005 (680 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Papal hospitalization: a case study in openness for Vatican officials

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As the Vatican was beginning a conference on the future of the Catholic Church and the media Feb. 24, Pope John Paul II was taken back to the hospital.

In a week that saw the release of a papal apostolic letter pledging the church's commitment to openness with the media, very little information was provided to the press or the public.

"Yesterday afternoon, Feb. 23, the Holy Father had a relapse of the flu syndrome with which he had been affected in the preceding weeks," Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told reporters Feb. 24. "For that reason, the pope was hospitalized this morning at the Agostino Gemelli Polyclinic for the appropriate specialized care and further tests."

The only question the spokesman answered was "What time?" He answered that the pope arrived at Rome's Gemelli Hospital at about 11:45 a.m.

He let journalists discover for themselves that the pope arrived at the hospital by ambulance, just as he had Feb. 1 when he was rushed to Gemelli for breathing difficulties.

The pope had remained hospitalized until Feb. 10, and sources said he was experiencing similar difficulties Feb. 24, leading to another trip to the hospital.

Just before the Vatican press office closed Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. -- the normal closing time Monday through Friday -- Navarro-Valls' assistant, Passionist Father Ciro Benedettini, told reporters there would be no further information until late morning Feb. 25.

The announcement that the pope was in the hospital drew reporters and cameras away from the Feb. 24-26 symposium on the church and the media being sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Opening the conference a few hours before the pope was hospitalized, U.S. Archbishop John P. Foley, council president, said the pope's Feb. 21 apostolic letter, "The Rapid Development," spoke of communications as "an integral part of the mission of the church."

"Just as the world of education and the world of charity and social service were viewed as natural places for the mission and ministry of the church -- as they still are -- the media now form an integral part of the mission and ministry of the church," Archbishop Foley said.

Conference themes included how the media deal with the church as well as how the church deals with the media.

The pope had written in his new letter: "Communication both within the church community and between the church and the world at large requires openness."

Openness, however, always must be tempered by "an adequate confidentiality" to protect individuals and their privacy, the pope wrote.

The question about privacy has arisen repeatedly in the past in connection with Pope John Paul's health.

For the Vatican, specifics about the pope's condition, the diagnosis of the Parkinson-like neurological disorder he suffers from and the treatment he is receiving are all private matters.

Navarro-Valls told Vatican Radio Feb. 24, "As is customary in these cases, we will release a bulletin every day in the late morning with the information the physicians feel they can share with the public."

The radio reported that as the Vatican press office was closing Italian and foreign journalists were gathering at Gemelli Hospital "awaiting more precise data on the pope's condition."

The Pontifical Council for Social Communications was given a concrete case study for its symposium, featuring the media's interest in the pope's health, the limitations the Vatican feels in sharing details about his condition and the modern media's thirst for constantly updated information to fill 24-hour news programs and Web sites.

News that the pope was in the hospital arrived at the conference during a speech on how the church can evangelize through the media.

Bishop Renato Boccardo, who helped organize the conference before he was named secretary-general of the Vatican governor's office, was on the dais answering his mobile phone.

When the speaker finished, Bishop Boccardo shared the news. But most of the working journalists, who have their own mobile phones, already had left the conference site in search of more information.


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