November 22, 2017 | Rome, Italy | °C

The Japanese pope


Jordan Bonfante of Time Magazine, left, and the author waiting for smoke in August 1978, radios and walkies-talkies in hand.
By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2013-03-09
I

n May 1978 I was hired as a reporter in the Rome bureau of United Press International. Rookies often got slow Sunday shifts, but they came with a burden: Sunday was the pope's most public day. Be vigilant, I was told. Pay attention. Look for clues. Listen carefully. Read between the lines.

A month later, then-Pope Paul VI traveled to Marino, a small town in the Alban Hills, for Sunday Mass. Giovanni Battisti Montini, a former Archbishop of Milan, looked every bit like an 81-year-man short on life. The period's confusing tide of secularism including Italy's divorce referendum and waves of left-wing terrorism had devastated a diplomat who, not unlike Pope Benedict XVI, associated himself with a more punctilious era.

Paul's comments in Marino were innocuous until an unscripted line toward the end: "Our own death, which cannot be far off." At the time, the papal "our" was a common mortal's "my," with the third person plural a lofty stand-in for mother Church (Paul's short-serving successor, Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, would overturn the tradition). My dispatch was concise but noted that the pope, while usually circumspect on the subject of mortality, had referred to his own death.

Facing a delicate subject, the pope, and my own inexperience, I checked and rechecked the facts. Alone in the office, all I filed entered the editorial domain without vetting, and I'd already suffered my share of self-inflicted wounds. Writing about the Italian presidential elections I'd confused the name of the incumbent Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, with that of American Formula One driver Mario Andretti.

The mistake hadn't gone over well with my UPI colleagues. Nor were new journalists hard to find in the raucous 1970s. In Rome alone, UPI and the Associated Press had five correspondents each, Reuters four; The New York Times, Time, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, ABC, NBC and CBS all had bustling bureaus. In 1977 I had worked briefly with Newsweek, whose Rome correspondent, Loren Jenkins, knew the late Hunter S. Thompson, who called the pope "the old guy with the funny hat."


Lotta Continua's famous bottom-of-the-page headline: "The pope has redied."

The mockery seemed appropriate, at least to some. In Italy, where feminism and the Communist Party were ascendant, the Vatican's steadfast but failed resistance to divorce and its rejection of contraception and female ordination had sunk papal popularity to an all-time low. Pope Paul's timidity didn't help. He struggled for ease even among school children. Unlike the portly and luminous Pope John XXIII, who seemed to relax into his circumstances, or appeared to, Paul was troubled by the modern world. Though he'd traveled internationally the first pope in 150 years to do so he'd earned little public affection.

On the morning of Sunday, Aug. 6, 1978, less than two months after the "death cannot be far off" remark, UPI bureau chief Jack Payton called me at home. I knew him as a lucid, no-nonsense reporter who loathed commas, deplored the passive voice, and could dictate clean 400-word news reports by telephone. He always got my attention.

"The pope is bad," said Payton.

Already ill, Pope Paul VI, by then at his Castel Gandolfo summer residence, had taken a sudden turn for the worse. Payton knew nothing else.

"Get there," he said.

"How?" I asked.

"Now," he replied.

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