ROME, JUNE 10, 2011 ( Last week, many American tourists stumbling out of the Vatican Museums into the bright light of St. Peter's Square blinked and wondered if they had been magically transported to New York's Rockefeller Center. In Italy's most famous piazza, America's favorite morning program, the "Today" show, had set up tent, cameras and shop.

As the No. 1 rated morning program in the United States, with between 4 to 6 million viewers daily, the Today Show with anchor Matt Lauer and weatherman Al Roker brought Benedict XVI and the Roman Catholic Church into the homes of millions of Americans just in time for breakfast.

In the face of last year's hailstorm of negative press from mainstream media and the persistent silly caricatures of the Church in cinema and television, the Vatican did more than just turn the other cheek. It stretched out the arms of St. Peter's Square to welcome the curious, the dubious and the just plain interested into the heart of the Church.

The program was filmed over two days in Rome, June 1 and 2, and presented the Church and the papacy in a way that challenged many people's present perception of the Roman Catholic world.

The magnanimous host of this event was Archbishop Timothy Dolan, head of the Archdiocese of New York, which is also the home of the Today Show. Taking advantage of an NBC request to do a profile show on his life, Archbishop Dolan brought the Today Show to Rome to see how the Church of America is just a part of the Universal Church.

Archbishop Dolan even took Today viewers on a tour of St. Peter's (a long-standing apostolate of seminarians at the North American College where Dolan was rector from 1994 to 2001). While dazzling viewers with the awe-inspiring space, he also reminded people of its humble beginning as the pauper's tomb of the martyred fisherman St. Peter.

Many Americans also got their first view of the new tomb of Blessed John Paul II, whose beatification had drawn over a million people to Rome one month earlier.

Archbishop Dolan escorted Lauer and Roker to meet Pope Benedict at the Wednesday general audience in St. Peter's Square; the gentle chain of embrace -- Pope Benedict warmly clasping Archbishop Dolan's hand while the archbishop put his arm around Matt Lauer -- was an image that needed no words. Lauer asked the Pope for a message for the millions of Americans tuning in. In English, Pope Benedict said "Confidence in God, continue the faith in Christ."

The polyglot Pope surprised Al Roker who noted that Benedict greeted people easily and fluently in eight different languages during the audience.

While the Today Show provided peeks into fascinating corners of the Vatican, including the Secret Archives (demonstrating that Dan Brown's novel "Angels and Demons" had no clue of what the archives are), and an encounter with the Swiss Guards, Pope Benedict was the great revelation of the program.

Although Americans had been charmed by him during his 2008 visit to the United States, the onslaught of negative press in 2010 combined with an endless array of unflattering pictures selected by mainstream media, had cast a pall over his image.

CTV, the Vatican television service, filmed a day-in-the-life piece on Pope Benedict over a year ago, but it hadn't been circulated much, until NBC took it and gave its viewers a behind-the-scenes look of how the Pope goes through his day. The images of the Pontiff shared his early wake-up call, his favorite foods, his (limited) exercise and preparation for his day of meetings. Americans preparing for their busy days saw Pope Benedict as a kind, hard-working and prayerful man, despite his high-pressure schedule.

Another special guest appearance was Monsignor Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, who discussed the Vatican's growing mastery of the new media -- another surprise for viewers. Monsignor Tighe's great coup last month was organizing a Vatican conference for Catholic bloggers, bringing them together from over the world to get to know the Church and each other and to be able to share ideas and experiences.

But the star of the show was Archbishop Timothy Dolan, whose gregarious, straightforward and intelligent personality filled the screen. He addressed issues such as the sex abuse crisis with frankness, but also brought humor and warmth to the often-overwhelming magnificence of the Vatican.

Archbishop Dolan was appointed head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last year and he certainly opened his tenure with a bang. A spectacular co-host, Dolan brought American television to see the Church up close, to watch the archbishop greet his friends, glowing as he talked about his beloved Rome and his beloved New York.

Many of the people watching the show were on their way to Rome for a bit of summer vacation and the success of the program was soon felt in people's reactions to the Pope. Instead of the typical prompt, "So, what do people from here think of this Pope?" visitors have been asking, "How can I see Pope Benedict? Where is his vegetable garden? How many languages does he speak? Does he ever come to the museums?"

The reciprocal spirit of welcome on the part of both the Church and the Today Show went a long way to show that popes, priests and even archbishops are people too.

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Interesting people and pretty things

Startled to see the Today Show set up in St. Peter's Square, many people wondered if this was the first time that an American program had pitched camp at the Vatican.

To dig up the history of live broadcasts at the Vatican, I spoke to Marjorie Weeke, who served as the head of the Vatican audiovisual service for over 30 years. Any movie, television or still camera in the Square had to have her approval.

Weeke, who retired in 2001, has arranged the most poignant, brilliant and surprising media encounters in the Vatican, including a meeting between Pope John Paul II and the mother of his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. Gifted with a tremendous sense of what might be important as well as decades of experience, Weeke is still consulted about most major media undertakings in the Vatican.

"Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary," said Weeke of the Today Show event. "In 2003 for the 25th anniversary of John Paul II's pontificate, ABC's Good Morning America brought the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by American maestro Gilbert Levine, to the choir chapel of St. Peter's Basilica for a concert in honor of the Pope."

The first great pioneer of American TV at the Vatican was Tim Russert, NBC News' Washington bureau chief from 1988 until his death in 2008 at age 58, explained Weeke. A devout Catholic who made it a point to never miss Sunday Mass, Russert brought the Vatican into American homes in April of 1985. In three days of broadcasts, Russert interviewed several high-level Vatican officials for the Today Show.

Weeke credits Cardinal John Foley for the acumen to realize that Russert's idea would be good for the Vatican image. Cardinal Foley had just arrived at the head of the Holy See's Council for Social Communications when Russert proposed the program. Weeke recalls that it was difficult for them to sell the idea through the Vatican, but through hard work and perseverance the show culminated with an encounter with John Paul II.

Weeke pointed out that Russert's show also took viewers into the Pauline Chapel, painted by Michelangelo after he finished the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in 1541. It was an exciting behind-the-scenes look at a space, which most people, except art historians and prelates, didn't know existed.

Russert hoped to return with the Today Show to present the Vatican of Pope Benedict, but his untimely death handed the torch to Matt Lauer.

Weeke suggested that these morning programs are a good medium to present the Vatican in a friendly, familiar way to Americans. "When people are getting up and going to work or school, " she said, "they don't want hard-hitting stories and heavy-duty news; they want to hear about interesting people and see pretty things. The Vatican has plenty of both."

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas' Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at