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JPII-JOURNALISTS Apr-1-2005 (1,020 words) Backgrounder and analysis. xxxi

Pope shared special relationship with reporters -- and they with him

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For the small corps of journalists who cover the Vatican, Pope John Paul II's death marked the departure of a global protagonist and the end of an era.

Many of them also felt a personal sense of loss. They had witnessed the many seasons of his papacy -- from vigorous globe-trotter to feeble old man -- and gradually had formed a bond of sympathy with their newsmaker.

For those who had followed this pontificate from start to finish, the world suddenly seemed a dimmer place.

During the second papal conclave of 1978, I was working for a Rome newspaper when news came over the wire that white smoke was pouring out of the Sistine Chapel. I hopped on my bicycle and pedaled furiously to St. Peter's Square, in time to hear an elderly cardinal come out and proclaim, "Habemus papam!" (We have a pope!)

When the cardinal announced that the new pontiff was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, most of the Italians in the crowd didn't recognize the name. "An African?" they wondered out loud. No, a Pole. More to the point, a non-Italian. There was perceptible grumbling.

Then Pope John Paul came out to the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. I stood right below because I wanted a good look at him, and I was amazed at his youthful and energetic countenance. When he began to speak in Italian, he quickly won over the crowd.

From the beginning, it was clear this would be a media-friendly pope. He spoke seven languages, thrilled the multitudes and spoke his mind. He wrote a lengthy encyclical in his first year, but always understood the value of a sound bite and photo op.

After two years away from Rome, I picked the pope up again in 1982. That was the year he went to Fatima to thank Mary for protecting him during the assassination attempt at the Vatican a year earlier.

Like most reporters who covered his papacy, I had the most direct access to Pope John Paul during his foreign trips. Until the mid-1990s, the pope would stroll back into coach class of his charter jet and run the journalistic gauntlet, taking questions from the 50 or so reporters allowed on the plane.

A good question -- one that piqued his imagination -- could keep the pontiff in front of you for a minute or more. He was courteous with reporters and clearly enjoyed the repartee. On rare occasions he showed his irritation, bristling at a question about birth control in India or telling one reporter in an aisle-clogging huddle to sit down.

On the world stage, he had an actor's sense of drama and timing and appreciated symbolic gestures. That made him a reporter's dream and left journalists with some indelible impressions: the pope dropping in on a slum-dwelling family in Latin America, visiting a Jewish synagogue or riding a "peace train" to Assisi with religious leaders from around the globe.

The pope's energy level in earlier days was amazing. I remember watching him enter a parish church in Africa at the end of a long day. His aides wanted to rush him through the ceremony, but the pope was having none of it: He went up and down the aisles, shaking the hands of parishioners, kissing babies and making them feel like they were the center of the universal church.

Vatican reporters have marveled for years at the pope's ability to bounce back from dire health problems, including the 1981 shooting, a blood virus, a broken thigh bone, a dislocated shoulder, gallbladder removal, an appendectomy, and various fevers and falls.

In 1992 in Angola, after watching the pope wince momentarily as he walked up a set of altar steps, I asked a papal aide if the pope was feeling all right. A month later, doctors removed a tumor the size of an orange from his colon.

That prompted the first of many reports of imminent papal death; if the pope was bothered by what appeared in the papers, he never let on. The pope's secretary, Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, used to enjoy remarking -- with a sense of black humor -- that several journalists who predicted the pope's demise were no longer with us.

One of the hardest things for Vatican journalists to witness was the progress of the nervous system disorder that gradually immobilized the pope over the last 10 years of his life.

His once-expressive face became a mask; his spontaneous banter with reporters and others dried up; in the end, he couldn't even approach the crowds that had so energized him in earlier years.

Despite some frustration, the pope seemed to accept these debilitating changes with the serenity of faith, convinced it was a chapter of life that the world should witness. Not all journalists understood this.

On foreign trips, some reporters observed episodes that seemed unthinkable a few years earlier. After he could no longer walk, the pope had to be lifted and heaved into cars, thrones and lifts in undignified fashion. Many reporters were moved by these scenes and often chose not to write about them.

The ailing pope probably would not have minded reading the details of his decline, however. He seemed to trust reporters, and journalists covering the Vatican cannot remember him ever complaining about a story or about his treatment in the press.

In 2002, he even asked 14 journalists -- including some who had been critical of the Vatican -- to write the meditations for his Way of the Cross liturgy on Good Friday. As one of those invited to contribute, it occurred to me that the pope had an unusual amount of faith in reporters: He was convinced that our knowledge and experience might actually shed new light on the episodes of Christ's Passion.

As the pope's own Via Crucis ended, the same journalists were thinking about the many things that changed during John Paul's pontificate -- the increasing frailty, the loss of speech and the faded smile -- and what didn't change: his intense faith in a new life that gives meaning to human suffering.

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