From the time Pope Benedict XVI came off the plane in Washington, D.C., until he departed from JFK, Catholic News Service photographer Nancy Wiechec was at his side. During the duration of the Pope’s trip to America she took nearly 8,000 photographs. The CNS visual media manager spoke recently to Register senior writer Tim Drake from Washington about what it was like to follow the Pope.
How did you get the opportunity to officially capture the Pope’s trip to the U.S. on film?
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which owns Catholic News Service, asked me to be the bishops’ official photographer and arranged a special clearance from the Vatican.
You followed Pope Benedict during his recent U.S. visit. Were you able to get any sleep during the six days he was here?
I did sleep some to keep my wits about me. But the days were long. I worked from about 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day.
Did you exchange any words with Pope Benedict during the visit? What was said?
Yes. I got the chance to greet the Pope at the residence of Archbishop Migliore in New York. There were five people from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lined up to meet him. I said, “Peace be with you, Holy Father,” and then someone told him that I was a photographer and he said, “Ohhhh, a photographer!” That must mean he likes photographers, which is a good thing.
Do you have a favorite photo from the trip?
I took almost 8,000 images. Two that stand out for me is one of the Pope arriving to the site where the World Trade Center towers fell in the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The other is of the Pope in reflection following Communion during Mass at Nationals Park in Washington.
With both these images there is a stillness or calmness that was the feeling of the moment. Amid all the cheering, flag-waving, and celebration that was part of the Holy Father’s visit, there were times of deep reflection and prayer. I hope these images portrayed that.
Was there a particularly moving or touching moment during the trip for you?
There were times the Pope reminded me that even though he is the leader of the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics, he is also still a priest: When he blessed children with special needs and their families. When he gave Communion to those at Mass. When he spoke individually with those who lost loved ones in attacks on the World Trade Center. In all these instances, his miter and crosier were set aside, and he was serving as any priest would.
From the time spent with him, did you feel that you got a sense of the kind of person he is?
One thing I noticed about him that really made an impression was how he looked everyone he met right in the eye and lingered there. He was keenly aware of each person and everything going on around him. That makes him very personable, even though he must have greeted hundreds of individuals during his visit. I would describe him as a senior but energetic professor, who still wants to guide his students through the lessons of life.
Where are you from originally?
My family moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to Phoenix when I was 7 years old. I call Phoenix my home still today, even after 14 years in Washington. I have two sisters and a brother. My dad was a software manager for mainframe computers. (Remember those?) My mother worked in retail a bit while we were growing up and then worked for Catholic Cemeteries of Phoenix. I am the only journalist in the family.
How did you get your start in photography?
My eighth-grade science teacher introduced our class to darkroom developing and printing. Even though I had taken pictures before then, I was hooked when I discovered the wonders of the darkroom.
I still remember having my first photo published when I was in high school and how excited my family was. We gathered about 100 copies of the local newspaper where it appeared.
Tell me about a moment during the Pope’s trip that wasn’t caught on television.
I got to see the Pope open a present. It was given to him by Cardinal Edward Egan of New York. I think the cardinal had intended the Pope to open it later, but instead he slid off the ribbon and tore into the packaging.
I think the Pope, even at 81, still at times has the wonderment of a child. Want to know what was in the box? An engraved silver Tiffany tray commemorating his visit to New York.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.