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 CNS Story:

NAVARRO-TRANSITION May-1-2006 (480 words) With photo. xxxi

Vatican spokesman recounts coverage of Pope John Paul's final days

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- When Pope John Paul II fell gravely ill last year, the Vatican's media machine had to walk a fine line between openness and alarmism, said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

On the one hand, any public move to expand media services would have been taken as a signal of impending papal death, Navarro-Valls said April 29.

But it did not make sense to try to cover up the seriousness of the pope's crisis when he had lived his entire ministry in the public eye, the spokesman said.

Navarro-Valls spoke about the "untold story" behind the papal transition at a seminar for church media professionals sponsored by the Opus Dei-run University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

The papal spokesman said that as early as the year 2000 the Vatican had made plans to deal with the thousands of journalists expected to converge on Rome for a papal death and conclave.

The plan included an expanded accreditation office, round-the-clock press office services, a second press center and video feeds of all briefings.

"The question was: When to activate all this? As soon as we would have announced that the press office was staying open 24 hours a day, Rome would have filled up with every journalist in the world. We didn't want to uselessly create an alarm," Navarro-Valls said.

In the end, the press office enacted the emergency plan two days before the pope died, immediately after he went into septic shock and doctors said death was imminent.

Navarro-Valls said his briefings during that period were basically medical information conveyed by the pope's doctors.

In the intervening 48 hours before the pope died, he said, the media in a sense provoked the massive gathering of the faithful in St. Peter's Square. It was a fitting example of the dying pope's special relationship of complicity with the mass media, he said.

In the end, more than 4 million people and several thousand journalists descended on Rome in what became a global event. Despite years of planning, that was unexpected, Navarro-Valls said.

"We tried to imagine, but we never imagined anything like this," he said.

Navarro-Valls said Pope Benedict XVI has a similar appreciation for the media, but also a clear idea of the media's limits. He said he had met the previous day with the pope for nearly an hour, discussing the importance of the media.

Navarro-Valls hinted that he had also discussed with the pope his own plans after 22 years as papal spokesman, but said it was not yet time for an announcement. Many observers expected the spokesman to retire after the papal transition period.

"The Holy Father knows well what my desires are, and I know well what are the desires of the Holy Father," Navarro-Valls said with a laugh.


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