Friday, October 02, 2009

The pope has become an Italian story

by John L Allen Jr on Oct. 02, 2009

Rome -- At one point during Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the Czech Republic last weekend, I strolled across the press center in the Prague Hilton. Taking in the conversations floating through the air, and gazing at the people in the room, I was struck by this insight: The pope has once again become largely an Italian story.

Pope John Paul II was a global newsmaker, and the press corps that followed him was strikingly international. These days, the non-Italians who regularly travel with the pope have dwindled to the media equivalent of a remnant church. On this trip, there was no one from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or CNN (unless you count me, but my phone never rang), all of whom used to be regulars. Fox was on the papal plane, but only because their Rome correspondent is invested in the Vatican story; if he weren't around, it's a good bet Fox wouldn't be in the mix either.

To be sure, those agencies have a presence in Prague, so it's not like they blew off the story. But once upon a time, all would have had a correspondent moving with the papal party and filing daily coverage. At that level, the American presence boiled down to the Associated Press, a producer from ABC, and the Catholic News Service. (I made the trip, but not on the plane.)

Probably the lone thing that people who get their news from American TV know about the trip is that at one point a spider crawled across the pope's garments. That clip has become popular on You-Tube, and of course it doesn't require any reporting or analysis to understand.

Two points probably help explain this lack of global interest.

First, Benedict XVI simply isn't the charismatic figure John Paul II was. Second, Benedict has surrounded himself with Italians who sometimes seem more interested in il bel paese than the global scene. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, regularly injects himself into Italian affairs. The best sound-bites from the Holy See usually come, in Italian, from prelates such as Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples.

In many ways, this is more a return to historical form than a novelty. Prior to John Paul II, most popes were figures of occasional interest around the world; only in Italy were they everyday headliners. Rather than being an exception, Benedict XVI is more like the norm -- and hence a reminder of just how remarkable John Paul actually was.


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