- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

The pope’s funeral

This was a story that Vatican reporters had been preparing to write for 26 years — the passing of one pope and the selection of the next.

It seems only a distant memory after the long and illustrious reign of John Paul II, but before he came to the papacy there had been a series of popes in relatively short succession, and reporters of the time had grown accustomed to covering such dramatic events.

So it was when John Phillips came to Rome as a young reporter in 1981, first for Agence France-Presse and two years later for United Press International.

Veteran bureau hands, ever ready to spring into action, had made sure the young Mr. Phillips was familiar with all the arcane procedures and rituals involved in a papal funeral and the picking of a new one. They just never dreamed it would be so long.

Even with all the preparation, a little luck helps. Mr. Phillips, who has been freelancing to us from Rome for a little more than a year, had somehow failed to learn that the Vatican press corps would be drawing lots to see who got passes to view the pope’s body at his palace before it was moved to St. Peter’s Cathedral earlier in the week.

It was only by chance that he happened into the press room just as the lottery began. He drew well and was in the second group of reporters to be escorted into the room for the first look at the late pope in the finery in which he was to be buried. “Otherwise I would have had to describe it second-hand or from photos,” he said.

Given the enormous crowds that jammed Rome for the funeral on Friday, it was also a bit of good luck that Mr. Phillips owns a motor scooter. With streets around the Vatican closed to cars for the occasion, it was about the only way to get around.

Even with the scooter, Mr. Phillips said, just getting to the Vatican on Friday morning was an ordeal, requiring a few surreptitious detours around officious police officers.

Like most of the Vatican press corps, he watched the funeral service on televisions set up in the press room and then headed out into St. Peter’s Square to talk to some of the legions of pilgrims, many waving Polish flags.

Next the conclave

It was when he tried to return to the press room that disaster struck. Never mind that he had been working out of the building for 17 of the past 24 years; he was denied entry because his press pass was not in its proper laminated plastic holder.

There was nothing for him to do but get on his scooter and head out through the crowds and street closings, to a temporary press center that had been set up for the hundreds of visiting reporters on the other side of the city.

The trip went more easily than his morning, journey, if only because the authorities seemed to be in a better mood.

“In the morning it was chaotic, because everyone was in a rush to get to St. Peter’s so as not to miss anything,” Mr. Phillips explained. “There was some tension between the police and some pilgrims who had waited all night to get into the square and were not let in as quickly as they had expected.

“But the funeral seemed to have a cathartic effect on everyone, the organizers as well as the mourners. It was recognized that the event had gone brilliantly, without a hitch, so everyone was more relaxed.”

Now the attention turns to the conclave that will choose the next pope, and for that we expect that Mr. Phillips’ experience will prove even more valuable.

“The Vatican press corps is a fairly collegial place and people help each other. There are people who have become great experts on Vatican protocol,” he said.

“But the priests and clergy and bishops and others who work there are tremendously nervous about the press. They are terrified of their careers being ruined if their superiors learn they have given something away to journalists.

“So it’s very hard to develop sources there, and the best Vatican journalists, who have been building them up for years, guard them very jealously. … It’s going to be hard for people flying in from outside. They can be bewildered by all the protocol and tradition.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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