January 17, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

The Japanese pope

By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2013-03-09

In fairness, the vaudeville mourning UPI's eager New Yorkers had slapped into my stories gradually yielded to the reality that the pope was dead but that few, if any, were traumatized. The Church still functioned. Italians remained on vacation. The hysterical days of Pius XII no longer applied.

Still, to the chagrin of veterans, a rookie had accidentally stumbled into a story some reporters had waited a lifetime to cover. My byline had topped the story of Paul's death for a day. What I hadn't foreseen was that death was only a first step. The real drama lay ahead.

When got back from Castel Gandolfo after two nights, Bill Bell, a UPI mentor, recommended I brush up on papal embalming. I might be needed to check on decay. Decay? In 1958, Pius XII, lying in state, began decomposing prematurely because of bad embalming. Suddenly, doctrine mattered less than the theater of demise, in which the Catholic Church would ignore the century and apply medieval-styled secrecy to all it did. That has not changed.

Long and pent-up papal reigns only fueled the postmortem theater. Pope Pius XII lasted 19 years (1939-1958), Pope Paul 16 years (1962-1978), and John Paul II nearly three-decades (1978-2005), the latter outlasting some journalists who had covered his election. Pope Benedict's modest eight years, as well as his voluntary exit (unimaginable in 1978), has forever changed that ritual topography.

Death brought with it morbid scavenging. In the days before pedophilia scandals and instant distractions, small details were prized. One conclave journalist from a British tabloid focused on a single question, which he asked of each cardinal’s camp: "Does your guy have a pet?" Pets and pet peeves mattered.

The theater of the absurd soon overtook common sense. Did the Swiss Guard converse in Latin? Did the pope own a jet, and if so was it built by the Church? Was there central heating in Vatican crypts? Did the pope ever take walks, incognito, to mingle and shop? The shopping rumor came from stories of Pope John Paul I, the former Patriarch of Venice, strolling Venice embankments and chatting with passersby. Pope Benedict was said to have taken a private car ride through Rome after becoming pope in 2005, exasperating his then-press spokesman. Both rumors were true.

Some journalists had inimitable flair. Early into the first conclave, in August 1978, Mary McGrory, then a columnist for the Washington Star, charged into the Vatican press office on Via della Conciliazione howling, "What number pope is this!" McGrory, a joyously irascible and unabashed Irish-Catholic, pressed her numerical query until I answered her sheepishly: 264. We became close friends. She died in 2004.

Then as now most local news came from Italian-language agencies and newspaper reports. At UPI, we monitored the ANSA wire — ANSA was and remains the largest Italian news agency — reworking its reports into English. Few efforts were made to confirm the authenticity of the source or the authority of the information, a practice that came with risks (in 2005, Fox News inaccurately reported John Paul II's death a day early.)

The most successful British and American correspondents spoke Italian and knew the national propensity toward exaggeration, useful in keeping rumor on a leash. Three months before his death, in May 1978, a minor Italian agency had reported that Pope Paul was running a fever. A flurry of activity followed until Paul, at a general audience, said (with rare humor) that he would seek treatment for the fever the press said he had.

The Vatican press office never made it easy. Early into my UPI stint I met its proudly antediluvian director, Father Romeo Panciroli. He considered television intrusively frivolous and couldn't have conceived of a world that included social media.

A humorless, mini-me version of regal Pope Pius XII, Panciroli mulled over individual accreditation requests through small spectacles. His first question to me was why UPI had sent such a ragazzetto? Was I not under-aged, he prodded? Should he even take me seriously? I considered objecting but instead told him that while I was young and inexperienced I was also eager to learn — above all from him. The blatant fawning tickled his priestly side and he signed off on my form, remarking that most Vatican journalists were craven sensationalists unable to assess the "true" significance of Church views. When I remarked that deadlines might have something to do with occasional sensationalism he reminded me that the Holy Spirit had no such deadlines. Haste, said Father Panciroli, makes waste. Remember, he told me, that the Church thinks not in terms of one year, but of 500. Panciroli also scolded my thinness and recommended I eat better. Did I not have a practicing mother?

After our session, he capered over to the pressroom where to attract the attention of the chain-smoking multitudes he would clap his hands three times. Bruno Bartoloni, Agence France Presse's brilliant Vatican writer, always launched into vulgar mimicry after Panciroli left the room, delighting his colleagues.

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