Having run World Youth Day in Canada in 2002, founded and led Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in Canada since 2003, and served as the Vatican-appointed media attaché at two world Synods of Bishops in 2008 and 2012, I had some idea of media work for the church. But nothing came close to the daunting experience of serving as a Vatican spokesperson during Lent 2013. The adventure included a papal resignation, the sede vacante (or interregnum), a conclave taking place without the atmosphere of a papal funeral, and the surprise election of the first pope from the Americas — not just any pope, but a Jesuit pope — the first modern pope to have been ordained to the priesthood after the Second Vatican Council.
Over the next month, I experienced not a deluge but a tsunami of images, stories, encounters, people and opportunities that would change the life and direction of the church! Thank God I was accompanied by one of the young producers from Salt and Light Television in Canada, Sebastian Gomes. Together we worked day and night, and Sebastian kept me steady through the experience.
Pope Benedict’s resignation may have shocked many in the church and in the world, but personally, I was not surprised. The pope had been alluding to a possible resignation for the past few years. With the announcement of his resignation, a brilliant theologian and teacher who had been the champion of tradition and was labeled “conservative” left us with one of the most progressive gestures made by any pope. Acknowledging what he called his “incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me,” this eminently shy man known for exquisite kindness, charity, gentleness and humility offered a final, provocative teaching moment that shook the world. We had no playbook, script or notes left behind by Pope Celestine V, (Pietro del Morrone, a Benedictine monk) who, overwhelmed by the demands of the office, stepped down after five months as pope in 1294.
If Blessed John Paul II taught us the important lesson of suffering and death with dignity, Joseph Ratzinger taught us the meaning of sweet surrender — of not clinging to power and the throne, to prestige, tradition and privilege for their own sakes. He truly was for us, Joseph, our brother — the one many refused to accept in the beginning, but in the end, recognized and embraced as a beloved brother.
One of the most poignant moments of my Roman sojourn took place on Feb. 28, the last day of Benedict’s pontificate. His departure from the Apostolic Palace and the Vatican captured the heart and mind of the world. The farewell from his coworkers on that crisp, Italian afternoon, the brief helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo, his final words as pope, reminding us that he would become “a pilgrim” in this final stage of his life, touched us deeply. There were no dry eyes in Rome that night. The whole departure reminded me of that emotional moment in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 20) when Paul took leave of the elders at Ephesus.
Once the pontificate ended, our work multiplied in spades! Together with Father Lombardi and Father Gil Tamayo from Spain, we led the daily press briefings for hundreds of accredited journalists from every corner of the globe. Our colleagues nicknamed us “the Trinity.” More than 6,000 journalists descended upon Rome, and they were hungry for information. We had to make choices: either contribute to a media vacuum that would soon be filled with all the wrong elements, or provide a media buffet of information that would assist our colleagues in telling the world a great story unfolding before our eyes.
The Vatican strategy of spreading the table began to bear fruit. As cardinals gathered in Rome and met in secret sessions to assess the state of the church and come up with a profile for the next pope, we answered countless hundreds of media questions on a daily basis. I was asked to handle requests in English and thus worked 18-hour days with television, print and radio media from every corner of the globe. I lost count after doing 165 television and radio interviews with every possible network you can imagine — first in English, then French, Spanish, Italian and German.
Questions coming to us at press conferences and briefings revealed an immense interest in things church! From the color of the retired pontiff’s shoes, to the seals that would be put on the papal apartments, to the destruction of the ring of the fisherman and papal seals, to modified, detailed rules and regulations for conclave behavior, to the chemical products that would be used to produce the smoke — the world was watching and listening. I chucked several times thinking that the church had made great strides these past years in social communications, but that for such a major event as a conclave, we still relied on smoke signals.
The issues addressed by the cardinals during their intense pre-conclave meetings were wide-ranging: from the state of affairs of the church, to major challenges of evangelization; the relationship of the Roman Curia to local churches; from the “Vatileaks” that had plagued Pope Benedict’s pontificate to fallout from the sex-abuse scandals throughout the world and administrative and communication challenges occurring at church’s highest level — all of these were topics of discussion during the interregnum. And through it all, the question intensified each day: “Who is the man that can handle this?”
When the College of Cardinals finally entered into conclave on Tuesday, March 12, the excitement and expectation was palpable. I was invited to be inside the Sistine Chapel during the opening rites of the conclave for the majestic procession, solemn ritual, prayer and oath taking of the cardinals. When we entered, several things struck me in that hallowed space. When I was a boy, I used to watch movies on TV about everything that happened here. Yet on that day, watching cardinals processing slowly up the specially constructed ramp, I realized that this was not a movie or a political campaign, but a deeply moving, spiritual experience. I had chills going up my spine as I heard the Sistine Choir chanting the Litany of the Saints and the “Veni Creator.”
I looked at the solemn faces of those cardinals, many of whom I knew, and saw not just men in scarlet robes but also their countries — and I imagined their people back home praying for them. I heard their voices resound in the chapel as each cardinal placed his hand on the book of the Gospel and pronounced the oath in accented Latin, standing before Michaelangelo’s stunning wall of redemption and under the story of creation on the Sistine ceiling. One of their lives would be radically changed in that room. And the words Extra omnes had a direct impact on me, since I was one of the last people to be ushered out of the Sistine Chapel before the voting began.
An early Easter
If one relied only on reports in the Italian media during those days, one would think we were at the horse races. As much as Italy tried to dominate the whole process — and delight in the “Vatileaks” that continued to flow during the pre-conclave meetings — they got it all wrong, as did many others throughout the world who stared in utter amazement when the white smoke finally billowed out of that watched chimney.
I will never forget the experience of that Wednesday evening when the white smoke appeared. It was a cold, rainy evening, and thousands of people ran to St. Peter’s Square. Though deep into Lent, it was like Holy Saturday night, with everyone awaiting something unexpected and new. With the words Habemus Papam came the name of a stranger, an outsider, who instantly won over the crowd in the piazza and the entire world with the words, Fratelli e Sorelle, buona sera! (Brothers and sisters, good evening!) Who would believe a pontificate beginning with those simple, common words?
And never in my wildest imaginings did I expect a pope to be called Francis! Nor could I comprehend the scene of several hundred thousand cheering people suddenly become still and silent as Papa Franceso bowed and asked them to pray for him and pray over him. It was the most moving moment I have ever experienced at a Vatican celebration. His words “Pray for me” still resound in my ears. They were words Cardinal Bergoglio had spoken to me twice during the week before the conclave as we met on the streets of Rome together!
From the very first moments, Francis stressed his role with the ancient title of “Bishop of Rome” who presides in charity, echoing the famous statement of Ignatius of Antioch. We cannot underestimate his repeated use of this term, which is of great significance not only for the continuation of ecumenical dialogue — above all with Orthodox churches — but also within the Catholic Church itself.
If Blessed John Paul II was the pilgrim pope and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI the great, intellectual pope, Pope Francis is the pastoral pope, who is very close to the people, and a shepherd who does not exclude anyone, but who emphasizes and loves what Christ emphasized and loved — the poor, the sick, the marginal. Pope Francis, in continuity with his predecessors and with simple gestures and words, has shown us how to express and communicate the joy of being human. He has called on priests to bring the healing power of God’s grace to everyone in need, to stay close to the marginalized and to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”
His gestures and simple words flow from his episcopal and now papal motto: miserando et eligendo. Jesus’ gaze of merciful tenderness (miserando), shows this patience of God which — according to an ancient insight expressed in our day is his response to human weakness. Taken from St. Bede’s commentary on the call of Matthew, these words express Jesus’ whole approach to people — having mercy on others and inviting them (eligendo) to follow him. These are the bare essentials of the Christian faith.
Remembering Lent 2013
Many close friends, colleagues and confreres asked me during my Roman Lenten journey: “How did you survive in the midst of chaos at the Vatican, a resigned pope, intrigue among cardinals, scandals and back-room skullduggery going on inside the Vatican?” I smiled, because I experienced none of these things. Rather, I encountered a warm welcome from the Roman Curia, an incredible interest in all things church from many of the 6,000-plus journalists accredited to those momentous events. I celebrated Mass early each morning with my colleague Sebastian, either in the Jesuit Generalate on Borgo Santo Spirito, or at a side altar in St. Peter’s Basilica or in the Vatican crypt. Then we went to work.
For four solid weeks this past Lent, we had a golden opportunity to teach, catechize and evangelize the nations and put into practice last fall’s Synod on the New Evangelization. I came away from the whole experience with a renewed sense of wonder and awe, profound gratitude and rekindled joy. This reality we call Catholicism has weathered many storms and withstood the fury of the gates of hell. It is a story about real people, real things and seismic changes that happened to them. These real people staked their lives, and continue to do so, not on fables and fantasies, but on what they came to understand as the truth, the bedrock for shepherds named Angelo Roncalli, Giovanni Battista Montini, Albino Luciani, Karol Wojtyla, Joseph Ratzinger and Jorge Mario Bergoglio — the popes of my lifetime, whose lives and names were radically changed in the Sistine Chapel. It is that same truth that we tried to serve those unforgettable Lenten days as we told the world an ancient, at times incredible story that continues to excite and entice the whole world.
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Fr. Thomas Rosica is the CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Television