Keeping Up With the Pope

The biggest post-trip story of Pope John Paul II's recent apostolic pilgrimage to Slovakia was not, it seems, an evaluation of the Holy Father's apparently weakened physical condition as evidenced during his four-day stay (during which the media continued to speculate on whether or not this was the last foreign trip for the Pope) but rather the physical ailments of the journalists who traveled with him.

A story in the Sept. 16 edition of the Milan daily Il Giornale titled “Travels Don't Bend the Pope, but They Break Journalists” recounted the physical vicissitudes of the author, Andrea Tornielli, as well as those of nine journalist colleagues who, he wrote, granted him permission to tell their stories.

“Everyone fears for the Pope's health,” the story begins, “examining every perceptible expression on his face, asking if he will be able to keep up his global travels, seated on his semi-movable throne. Barely anyone, however, knows the physical consequences of papal travels on the group of journalists who follow the travels of John Paul II, an interesting litmus test in understanding the level of resistance of ‘God's globetrotter.’”

Tornielli then notes that French bishop, writer and preacher Jacques Bossuet, in his volume Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture, wrote: “Among all weaknesses, the greatest is the excessive fear of appearing weak.” The journalist goes on to say, “It is for this reason that, asking the reader's indulgence for the unusual biographical tone, I will start by telling you that for all four days of the Pope's trip to Slovakia, I experienced a sudden and extremely painful tooth problem which certainly did not facilitate my work as a writer.”

He was joined in his maladies, he explained, by six Italian colleagues, two Spaniards and a journalist from Argentina, whose troubles included a one-day stomach flu, lumbago, migraines lasting several days, sprained ankles (leaving a restaurant), strained knees (alighting from a taxi), serious eye problems and debilitating neck and back pain. His colleagues, he wrote, were constrained to either stay in bed, work bent over in pain, limp painfully around papal events and even sleep sitting up in a chair.

“Without dramatizing,” the article concludes, “between 12 take-offs and landings, traveling hundreds of kilometers in buses, being awakened at dawn for the daily transfers, the autumn-like climate with wind and rain (which, explains papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro Valls, ‘is good for the Pope's health’ — but evidently not that of the journalists), all of these elements were felt by everyone, notwithstanding age and length of service. More than asking ourselves if Pope Wojtyla will be able to continue to travel, we should ask ourselves if the journalists of the papal entourage will be able to keep up with him.”

The reaction to this article by other journalists who had been on the papal plane ranged from being unaware of their colleagues' problems to calling the story an “over-dramatization by the Italian media” to a majority who considered it “a tale told in very bad taste, an attempt to discredit vaticanisti” — those writers whose beat is the Vatican and the Holy Father.

There was also the viewpoint — a minority — that journalists would feel a greater empathy with the Pope if they, too, suffered pain or discomfort but continued, undaunted, in their life's calling, as John Paul does.

A telling postscript to the article: Many vaticanisti — most of whom are Italian — have been covering the Pope since his election to the papacy on Oct. 16, 1978. There are even a handful who have reported on several of his predecessors. As the Pope has aged and slowed down, so have they. Thus, a bit of empathy with “God's globetrotter” is indeed within the realm of posibility.

Joan Lewis works for Vatican Information Service.