‘Desperate Journalists’ Descend On Rome

When Pope John Paul was hospitalized for the second time in as many weeks in Rome’s Gemelli hospital with acute breathing problems, millions around the world who love and admire the 263rd successor to St. Peter held their collective breaths as they prayed for a rapid recovery.

Joining the millions of faithful with bated breath were scores of media representatives from around the world, including journalists from the print media, radio and television.

As one person said, America’s TV sensation “Desperate Housewives” has arrived in Italy — and so have “desperate journalists.”

Rome has, in fact, been a center of media frenzy since John Paul II was first hospitalized on Feb. 1. The Holy See Press Office reported 300 requests for accreditation on Feb. 2 alone, in addition to the 450 members of the media with full-time accreditation to the Vatican.

Concern was added to worry when the Pope was readmitted to the hospital on Feb. 24 and underwent a tracheotomy that same evening. That event caused the number of journalists to escalate dramatically, and some media outlets have reporters stationed at both the hospital and the Holy See Press Office, where they anxiously await medical bulletins from Director Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

TV vans, satellite dishes, temporary camera platforms and mini-stages for interviewing Church and civil officials dot the grounds of the sprawling hospital complex on Rome’s northwest side. Journalists and cameramen sit for hours, exchanging pleasantries, questioning each other about the Vatican, making friends with colleagues from around the globe and consuming picnic-style meals. Then they spring to attention when a Vatican official arrives or when movement is discerned behind the shutters of the Pope’s 10th-floor apartment.

And that’s what happened on Feb. 27 when John Paul unexpectedly appeared at his hospital window for about two minutes after a Vatican aide — in the Holy Father’s name — had read the Angelus message and blessed the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

The Pope, who had watched Archbishop Leonardo Sandri act on his behalf at St. Peter’s, waved several times, blessed everyone and before leaving, touched his neck, as if to say, “I’m so sorry I cannot personally address you.”

It was the first time in his more than 26-year pontificate that the Holy Father did not personally recite the Angelus prayer.

Prime Real Estate

For the media, the surprise appearance by the Pope, while helpful in providing images for their latest stories, was like the occasional medical bulletins: Many questions about the Holy Father’s health were left unanswered. And journalists have been asking questions for years. They have flocked to Rome on previous occasions when there has been a health scare and have been preparing for “The Event”  — as most call a future conclave — for at least a decade.

What makes this latest hospitalization much more dramatic for the faithful and media alike is the fact that the difficulty of the Pope’s current breathing problem is compounded by both his age, 84, and the fact that he has Parkinson’s.

The media search has been on, not just for news and updates and precise information on the Pope’s health, but also for the best site from which to cover The Event. Television networks have been negotiating, in some cases for years, with owners of private apartments, hotels, universities or other institutions that have a view of the Vatican.

The less obstructed the view of St. Peter’s Basilica and Square — but especially of the roof of the Sistine Chapel, from whose chimney smoke will pour out during a conclave to announce (white smoke) or not (black smoke) a new pope — the higher the stakes.

CBS, for example, has secured the roof of the Atlante Star Hotel near the Vatican. NBC News has a prime location which one staff member said, “is what we always use for Vatican stories” — the gardens of the Urbanianum, a pontifical missionary university on one of Rome’s famed Seven Hills that overlooks much of Rome and the Vatican.

Associated Press Television will view St. Peter’s Square and beyond from just yards away on the rooftop terrace of the Augustinian’s Generalate House, just off the left hand colonnade on Paul VI Street. 

Fox News Channel has erected a platform on the roof of the building that houses its Rome bureau about a half mile from the Vatican as the crow flies. CNN’s vantage point will be from a tower at Santo Spirito (Holy Spirit) Hospital, about five blocks from St. Peter’s Square.

People are close-mouthed about lengths of contracts or amounts paid to rent a choice premise, but most of the media giants appear to have followed to the realtor’s motto: “The three most important things about property are location, location, location.”

Joan Lewis works for Vatican Information Service.