Most New Yorkers have never been inside the Empire State Building; many Parisians have never climbed the Eiffel Tower and, for most Romans, the Vatican is simply another train station or bus stop on their way to work. So, in Rome, like so many others before it, was just another rainy day.
Well, at least, that’s how it started.
It was a Monday, in fact, and ZENIT’s multi-lingual team of Rome-based journalists was gathered for their weekly editorial meeting. It began with a spontaneous prayer offered by one of the journalists: for the Church, the Pope, that we be vehicles of truth in our work; that what we write bring people closer to Christ. The usual.
The meeting started, as always, reviewing last week’s work and planning coverage for the week ahead. It’s February. Rome is as cold as Connecticut without the snow. Not much for the news cycle. Oh, we just launched a redesign of the website and don’t forget to add keywords and tags to your articles so the readers can find the topics they search for.
Then, a list of events to cover for the week ahead: a couple of congresses in the Pontifical Universities, a few book presentations, a conference or two. The Pope? Normal stuff: weekly audience, the yearly meeting with the pastors of Rome’s parishes, visit of the President of Romania, Ash Wednesday, the naming of a few more saints. Pretty normal.
It was the scene you might see on a Monday morning in any major newsroom around the world. Assignments were given, interviews proposed. Yes, even covering the Vatican has its routines.
And then it happened.
A phone rang. Then, another one. Then, everybody’s phone starting ringing at the same time. Of course, no one answered. They’re professionals. They were in a meeting.
Then, the messages started coming. Lots of them. Then more.
“Was it true?” “Is the Pope dead?” “What’s going on?” “Answer your phone!”
An Italian journalist, listening incredously to the caller on his phone, abruptly shouted out: “E viva il Papa!” Just like everyone else, ZENIT’s journalists had been taken by surprise and, while they were preparing for a week of routine church coverage, the Pope had other plans.
For the next 45 minutes, everyone was taking or making calls in a cacophony of languages that lived up to ZENIT’s title of a “catholic” news agency. I got calls from L.A., Rio, Mexico, Moscow and Madrid. It was crazy!
“Will the new Pope still come to the World Youth Day in Brazil?”
“Who are the frontrunners for the election?”
“Is there an offical statement from the Vatican?”
Then, as if an alarm had gone off in a fire station, someone shouted: “To the Vatican! There’s a press conference in 30 minutes” and the dozen or so reporters dodged the rain and scrambled to fit into a few small compact Italian cars.
I stood there watching them speed away towards the dome of St. Peter’s, laptops and notebooks in hand, and couldn’t help thinking of the chaos and termoil that would descend upon Rome in the next few weeks. I remembered a phrase I once read: “Some people write about history, others make it.”
Yes, Pope Benedict was definitely making history. Or, as he might write in one of his books, “guiding history” as God guides salvation history, with twists and turns that are unexpected, at least by us.
Around the world, the “news” was hitting the press, journalists and film crews were already running to board planes for Rome. Editors, producers and publishers were searching for contacts, sources and resources for the stories they were already writing in their heads.
But here, in Rome, the steady drizzle that had started the day continued, as usual. The city had seen more important history made in its glorious past. In the afternoon, St. Peter’s dome was even struck by lightning. It had happened before. It will happen again. Been there, done that.
For the rest of the world, it was “breaking news” but for the Romans it was just another rainy day in the Eternal City.