The Eternal City usually begins to wake up from its winter torpor in mid-March; this year, however, Rome suddenly woke up as early as February, jolted out of sleep by an event which put it in the limelight.
Pope Ratzinger’s unexpected decision to resign, announced in Latin during an ordinary consistory on February 11, opened up a new religious, cultural and political scenario of great interest, and the world media rallied their troops to supply the best possible coverage of the events relating to the last days of Benedict XVI’s pontificate and the ensuing conclave.
As a consequence, tourists and faithful soon began to flood into St. Peter’s Square, which was therefore at the heart of world media attention, becoming the center of the world for a month.
The Borgo, a small neighborhood located just outside Vatican City, thus became the headquarters of journalists and TV reporters from all over the world.
The Vatican State, a state in all respects, was not taken aback, as the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the dicastery in charge of communication, soon began to deal with the necessities of the moment.
Accustomed as it is to facing such situations, the Holy See Press Office found itself on the front line. It was established in 1966 under Paul VI’s pontificate; it was intended “to promote initiatives to meet the requirements of modern communication, such as press conferences, interviews, meetings with journalists, etc.,” as reported in the press release of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications on that occasion.
The accreditation section of the Holy See Press Office worked incessantly to examine all the applications made by TV stations and newspapers from all over the world.
According to Vatican sources, 3641 journalists had been accredited to the Press Office by February 28 for the end of Benedict XVI’s pontificate and the start of the conclave. Accreditations were granted to 968 media operators from 62 countries in 24 different languages, including journalists (336), photographers (156), TV journalists (2470), radio journalists (231) and web journalists (115). However, these figures increased in the subsequent days to the point that a small army formed, easily recognizable by the red badges its members wore around their necks.
On this occasion many were reminded of media events like the funeral of John Paul II and the
conclave in 2005 and then the
beatification of John Paul II in 2011, which took place in St. Peter’s Square. In both cases the Vatican’s Press Office proved up to the situation, granting accreditations to numberless reporters and TV operators.
This time, in addition to the Vatican Press Office located in Via della Conciliazione, another press office, the Media Centre, was set up in the atrium of the Paul VI Audience Hall, properly fitted with positions for journalists, photographers and TV reporters.
Journalists also had access to the images of the Vatican Television Centre (CTV) and the use of Vatican Radio. For logistical reasons the two press offices were often connected with screens during the various briefing sessions.
This year many will associate the end of February with one image in particular: the image of Benedict XVI leaving the Vatican and boarding the helicopter to Castel Gandolfo at the end of his official meetings. That flight, which marked a turning point in the life of the Church, was covered by the Vatican Television Centre, the official body responsible for coverage of the Pope’s activities, established in 1983 and developed in the subsequent years to follow the numerous journeys of John Paul II.
“We tried to convey the historical importance of that event using high-quality images, without turning it into a show or giving in to gossip,” said Monsignor Dario Viganò, the new editor of the Vatican Television Centre, illustrating in an interview with Vatican Radio the criteria followed in the TV coverage of Benedict XVI’s flight to Castel Gandolfo.
The whole world waited for the conclave to start and the election of the new Pope to be announced. Media coverage of Vatican affairs has grown incredibly, along with demand for information on what is going on in the Vatican.
To meet this demand, the Holy See Press Office and the Media Centre are at the complete disposal of journalists, who are constantly informed with briefings and bulletins released by the head of the Vatican Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi; Father Ciro Benedettini, vice-director of the Vatican Press Office; Dr. Angelo Scelzo, vice-director of the Vatican Press Office in charge of accreditations to journalists; Father Thomas Rosica, in charge of simultaneous translation into English; and Monsignor José Maria Gil Tamayo, in charge of simultaneous translation into Spanish.
With great clarity and competence, Father Lombardi provides all kinds of explanations, answering the journalists’ incessant questions which often focus on well-known scandals such as Vatileaks, the secret dossier drawn up by Cardinals Herranz, Tomko, and De Giorgi, or on embarrassing situations like the presence or absence in the conclave of Cardinals Mahoney and O’Brien.
The Vatican spokesman is busy correcting and denying a great deal of information which is either skewed or completely false.
On this occasion some newspapers revived the old gossip, at the time denied by L’Osservatore Romano, about the Pope’s red shoes having been manufactured by Prada. On the other hand, Father Lombardi has confirmed the news about the existence of a website called Adopt a Cardinal, which may sound like a hoax.
Some briefings were of a technical nature, like the one on the history of conclaves and the one focusing on the illustration of the Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (The Lord’s Whole Flock); others are updates, like the one on the motu proprio by Pope Benedict, Normas Nonnullas, on the General Congregations and the symbols which would be present at the opening ceremony of Pope Francis’ pontificate.
Unfortunately, in their attempt to cause a sensation, the media sometimes invent all kinds of things.
This has caused problems, as was the case with the press conferences organized at the North American College by Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of Media Relations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In these conferences American cardinals updated the media about what was going on in the General Congregations. These unusual meetings, unique in their own right, drew a great number of journalists and were cancelled after a few days.
A few days before, even the Holy See’s Secretariat of State had been led to issue a communiqué condemning the attempt at conditioning the cardinals in view of the conclave with the publication of news reports which “are often unverified or unverifiable or even completely false, provoking damage to people and institutions.”
Thanks also to Father Lombardi, briefings continued in an atmosphere of calm and politeness, not without some smiles. In fact, it must admitted that the journalists asked some strange questions. One asked whether the helicopter on which Benedict XVI was to reach Castel Gandolfo would be fitted with a webcam; another asked if it was true that the cardinal electors would change their rooms every three days while staying at Domus Sanctae Marthae; another asked how they would be seated during their meals; yet another wanted to know why there would be eight masters of ceremonies present at the conclave, but no journalists. And, about the new Pope’s Fisherman’s Ring, Father Lombardi was asked whether the Holy See would commission it to the same goldsmith who had made the one worn by Benedict XVI.
Finally, it is worth remembering that on March 8 the head of the Press Office began his usual meeting with the journalists by bringing a bunch of mimosa flowers as a symbolic homage to all the female journalists.
On March 16, meeting the 6,000 members of the press in the Paul VI Audience Hall, Pope Francis said to them: “I would like to thank you in a special way for the professional coverage provided during these days. You really worked, didn’t you?”