Sunday, July 12, 2009

Letter from Rome, #19: Last Meeting

insidethevatican - Jul 12, 2009

After Pope Benedict XVI met today with the Prime Minister of Canada — the Pope's last private audience before his summer vacation — I was able to meet with the Pope for a few moments

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome


Meeting with Stephen Harper

A day after US President Barack Obama met with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican, the Pope received the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and his family: his wife Laureen, and his two children, Benjamin and Rachel.

Harper, coming off the Group of Eight world economic summit in nearby Aquila, Italy, was the fifth national leader to meet the Pope, following leaders of the United States, Japan, Korea and Australia.


"Why don't you put you name in for one of the press pools?" Suor Giovanna (Sister Giovanna) said to me a few days ago.

Over the years, I have had my run-ins with Suor Giovanna. She is a severe, no-nonsense nun from Trent in northern Italy.

The Trentino is a region where the Alps start to climb toward Austria, and there the influence of "Germanic discipline" is felt more strongly than in the warm Italian south.

Since 1984 — about the time of my own arrival in Rome — Suor Giovanna has run the Vatican Press Office press credential section with an absolutely iron hand, occasionally striking fear into the heart of journalists who misplace or lose their Vatican press passes (Suor Giovanna: "I'm sorry, but you cannot get a replacement without reporting the loss to the Italian authorities..." Journalist: "Are you sure you can't make an exception?" Suor Giovanna: "I'm sorry, no exceptions.").

But in recent years, she has grown less gruff, and this past week — the week of her retirement — she has been positively cordial (I knew she always was, of course, deep down...). Indeed, she even broke down briefly in tears last week at her retirement press conference.

"Aren't there many other journalists in line in front of me?" I asked.

"For President Obama, yes," she said. "But ask Cindy what she can do for one of the other leaders..."

She was referring to Cindy Wooden, the veteran Catholic News Service Vatican reporter. Cindy is in charge of assigning journalists to the "pool," or small group which goes into private meetings and reports back what they have seen and heard.

A couple of days later, Cindy said to me, "All right. You can go in the pool for the last visit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada. So you'll get to meet the Pope, after the Prime Minister leaves. The Pope will receive the two journalists of the 'pool' and several from the Canadian press. You'll have just a few seconds, unless he wishes to talk with you a bit longer..."

"Thanks!" I said.

"But listen," she said. "We have a lot of clients in Canada. I'm relying on you to give us every detail. I want you to look at your watch at the start of the audience, and at the end of the audience, and tell me how many minutes it lasted. And what the Prime Minister's wife is wearing. And what the gifts are. That's important. And any words you hear at the start of the meeting. The cameras will be clicking, so it may be difficult to hear, but try. They usually speak a sentence or two. Sometimes you can catch a phrase..."

"I'll take good notes," I promised. "What time should I be here?"

"The audience will be at 11 a.m. Sister Giovanna will escort you up a few minutes before. You should be here at 10:15."

I paused.

"Who will be going in with me?" I asked.

"Isabelle de Gaulmyn, Rome correspondent of the French daily La Croix."


When writing about the Obama visit yesterday, I tried to develop an argument about "true and false science" and cloning, and I used a quote from Brave New World, and read through the little green book the Pope gave to Obama (I pulled up the text on the internet).

My newsflash was my attempt to explain the meaning of the Obama visit, and it took time, until long after midnight.

And as the time passed, and it became 2 a.m., then 3 a.m., I started to worry. "I'm going to be so tired tomorrow morning, I won't have my wits about me when I meet the Pope."

So that is the reason Newsflash #18 wasn't even longer! I had to wrap it up and get to sleep, knowing I was going to have to take good notes for Cindy, and speak a few words to the Pope, in just a few hours....


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