n May 1978 I was hired as a reporter in the Rome bureau of United Press International. Rookies often got slow Sunday shifts, but they came with a burden: Sunday was the pope’s most public day. Be vigilant, I was told. Pay attention. Look for clues. Listen carefully. Read between the lines.
A month later, then-Pope Paul VI traveled to Marino, a small town in the Alban Hills, for Sunday Mass. Giovanni Battisti Montini, a former Archbishop of Milan, looked every bit like an 81-year-man short on life. The period’s confusing tide of secularism — including Italy’s divorce referendum and waves of left-wing terrorism — had devastated a diplomat who, not unlike Pope Benedict XVI, associated himself with a more punctilious era.
Paul’s comments in Marino were innocuous until an unscripted line toward the end: “Our own death, which cannot be far off.” At the time, the papal “our” was a common mortal’s “my,” with the third person plural a lofty stand-in for mother Church (Paul’s short-serving successor, Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, would overturn the tradition). My dispatch was concise but noted that the pope, while usually circumspect on the subject of mortality, had referred to his own death.
Facing a delicate subject, the pope, and my own inexperience, I checked and rechecked the facts. Alone in the office, all I filed entered the editorial domain without vetting, and I’d already suffered my share of self-inflicted wounds. Writing about the Italian presidential elections I’d confused the name of the incumbent Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, with that of American Formula One driver Mario Andretti.
The mistake hadn’t gone over well with my UPI colleagues. Nor were new journalists hard to find in the raucous 1970s. In Rome alone, UPI and the Associated Press had five correspondents each, Reuters four; The New York Times, Time, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, ABC, NBC and CBS all had bustling bureaus. In 1977 I had worked briefly with Newsweek, whose Rome correspondent, Loren Jenkins, knew the late Hunter S. Thompson, who called the pope “the old guy with the funny hat.”
The mockery seemed appropriate, at least to some. In Italy, where feminism and the Communist Party were ascendant, the Vatican’s steadfast but failed resistance to divorce and its rejection of contraception and female ordination had sunk papal popularity to an all-time low. Pope Paul’s timidity didn’t help. He struggled for ease even among school children. Unlike the portly and luminous Pope John XXIII, who seemed to relax into his circumstances, or appeared to, Paul was troubled by the modern world. Though he’d traveled internationally — the first pope in 150 years to do so — he’d earned little public affection.
On the morning of Sunday, Aug. 6, 1978, less than two months after the “death cannot be far off” remark, UPI bureau chief Jack Payton called me at home. I knew him as a lucid, no-nonsense reporter who loathed commas, deplored the passive voice, and could dictate clean 400-word news reports by telephone. He always got my attention.
“The pope is bad,” said Payton.
Already ill, Pope Paul VI, by then at his Castel Gandolfo summer residence, had taken a sudden turn for the worse. Payton knew nothing else.
“Get there,” he said.
“How?” I asked.
“Now,” he replied.
Still disheveled, I hopped a cab, assuring the driver I had the 20,000 lire for the 20-mile trip to Castel Gandolfo. The main square was empty when I arrived in early afternoon. No one knew the pope was on his deathbed (he died later that night following a massive heart attack).
The local bar had the town’s only public phone. Calling Rome meant a handfuls of gettone, phone tokens that cost 50 lire each. I dialed the UPI desk, fumbling with the coins.
“It’s quiet here,” I told Payton.
“It won’t stay that way,” he replied. “Call me back with the scene.”
I hung up and walked to the quiet papal palace 50 meters away. Two veteran journalists from the Italian agency ANSA had arrived, along with Paolo Frajese of Italian channel RAI Uno. They laughed fraternally and shared summer stories.
I redialed Payton on the hour and into the night. “Pretty slow here,” I repeated.
“He’s dead,” he barked suddenly. “Get quotes. From the townsfolk, from religious, from anyone; get quotes and figure it out.”
But no one had information, let alone reaction. When I told the bar owner of the death he was about to close up shop. He said only “Povero…”
The sedateness made sense: Paul had picked a death day suited to his diffidence, a Sunday in high summer.
The hyperbolic engine that was UPI’s New York City desk ignored that detail. Copying the feral grief that had followed the 1958 death of Pius XII, also at Castel Gandolfo, it colored the scene with imagined gobs of grief. Early reports spoke of sobbing nuns and droves of grieving townsfolk locked in passionate mourning (I saw only a few curious German tourists). For New York, all Castel Gandolfo loudly grieved the loss of the “Pilgrim Pope,” Paul’s media moniker.
But the only wailing I heard came from the Vatican correspondent of Rome’s Il Tempo newspaper who ordered me to hang up the precious pay telephone or face the consequences. It was Frajese who pulled me from harm’s way. He would handle the coming days with grace, broadcasting extemporaneously and loquaciously.
When ABC anchor Peter Jennings arrived the next day by limousine, Frajese snickered — understandable since Jennings preened before going live and had assistants combing and caressing his hair to prevent its ruffling by the subversive hilltop breeze.
In fairness, the vaudeville mourning UPI’s eager New Yorkers had slapped into my stories gradually yielded to the reality that the pope was dead but that few, if any, were traumatized. The Church still functioned. Italians remained on vacation. The hysterical days of Pius XII no longer applied.
Still, to the chagrin of veterans, a rookie had accidentally stumbled into a story some reporters had waited a lifetime to cover. My byline had topped the story of Paul’s death for a day. What I hadn’t foreseen was that death was only a first step. The real drama lay ahead.
When got back from Castel Gandolfo after two nights, Bill Bell, a UPI mentor, recommended I brush up on papal embalming. I might be needed to check on decay. Decay? In 1958, Pius XII, lying in state, began decomposing prematurely because of bad embalming. Suddenly, doctrine mattered less than the theater of demise, in which the Catholic Church would ignore the century and apply medieval-styled secrecy to all it did. That has not changed.
Long and pent-up papal reigns only fueled the postmortem theater. Pope Pius XII lasted 19 years (1939-1958), Pope Paul 16 years (1962-1978), and John Paul II nearly three-decades (1978-2005), the latter outlasting some journalists who had covered his election. Pope Benedict’s modest eight years, as well as his voluntary exit (unimaginable in 1978), has forever changed that ritual topography.
Death brought with it morbid scavenging. In the days before pedophilia scandals and instant distractions, small details were prized. One conclave journalist from a British tabloid focused on a single question, which he asked of each cardinal’s camp: “Does your guy have a pet?” Pets and pet peeves mattered.
The theater of the absurd soon overtook common sense. Did the Swiss Guard converse in Latin? Did the pope own a jet, and if so was it built by the Church? Was there central heating in Vatican crypts? Did the pope ever take walks, incognito, to mingle and shop? The shopping rumor came from stories of Pope John Paul I, the former Patriarch of Venice, strolling Venice embankments and chatting with passersby. Pope Benedict was said to have taken a private car ride through Rome after becoming pope in 2005, exasperating his then-press spokesman. Both rumors were true.
Some journalists had inimitable flair. Early into the first conclave, in August 1978, Mary McGrory, then a columnist for the Washington Star, charged into the Vatican press office on Via della Conciliazione howling, “What number pope is this!” McGrory, a joyously irascible and unabashed Irish-Catholic, pressed her numerical query until I answered her sheepishly: 264. We became close friends. She died in 2004.
Then as now most local news came from Italian-language agencies and newspaper reports. At UPI, we monitored the ANSA wire — ANSA was and remains the largest Italian news agency — reworking its reports into English. Few efforts were made to confirm the authenticity of the source or the authority of the information, a practice that came with risks (in 2005, Fox News inaccurately reported John Paul II’s death a day early.)
The most successful British and American correspondents spoke Italian and knew the national propensity toward exaggeration, useful in keeping rumor on a leash. Three months before his death, in May 1978, a minor Italian agency had reported that Pope Paul was running a fever. A flurry of activity followed until Paul, at a general audience, said (with rare humor) that he would seek treatment for the fever the press said he had.
The Vatican press office never made it easy. Early into my UPI stint I met its proudly antediluvian director, Father Romeo Panciroli. He considered television intrusively frivolous and couldn’t have conceived of a world that included social media.
A humorless, mini-me version of regal Pope Pius XII, Panciroli mulled over individual accreditation requests through small spectacles. His first question to me was why UPI had sent such a ragazzetto? Was I not under-aged, he prodded? Should he even take me seriously? I considered objecting but instead told him that while I was young and inexperienced I was also eager to learn — above all from him. The blatant fawning tickled his priestly side and he signed off on my form, remarking that most Vatican journalists were craven sensationalists unable to assess the “true” significance of Church views. When I remarked that deadlines might have something to do with occasional sensationalism he reminded me that the Holy Spirit had no such deadlines. Haste, said Father Panciroli, makes waste. Remember, he told me, that the Church thinks not in terms of one year, but of 500. Panciroli also scolded my thinness and recommended I eat better. Did I not have a practicing mother?
After our session, he capered over to the pressroom where to attract the attention of the chain-smoking multitudes he would clap his hands three times. Bruno Bartoloni, Agence France Presse‘s brilliant Vatican writer, always launched into vulgar mimicry after Panciroli left the room, delighting his colleagues.
As the first 1978’s two conclaves neared (the first, in August, produced Pope John Paul I; the second in October, no. II), I was dispatched on one of many cardinal hunts. Outside San Damaso gate, the Vatican’s busy bureaucratic mouth, a car pulled up containing Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Polish primate. “Your eminence!” I clamored. But he scowled and turned up his right palm. The message was clear: Do not disturb. But there was a second priest I didn’t recognize. “This is not the right time,” said the priest in gentle Italian. Non è il momento giusto. He was Karol Wojtyla, who would be elected pope little more than a month later.
But who could have imagined that Pope John Paul I’s reign would last only a month? No one.
After Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, became John Paul I on Aug. 27, 1978, only a day-and-a-half into the conclave, I was sent to northern Veneto to write about his rural roots. Moved by his television demeanor and his gracious friends, I impulsively sent the pope a good luck telegram, expecting nothing. The next day Vatican chamberlain Cardinal Jean Villot cabled back on the pope’s behalf: “The Holy Father thanks you fervently for your personal homage. He blesses you and your family.”
In Venice, friends of Luciani expressed private worries about the new pope’s stamina. His health had never been good. I paid no attention.
Thirty-three days later, on Sept. 28, 1978, the Associated Press, working from an insider tip, broke the story of Luciani’s death, beating all competition and enraging Payton. The Communist daily Lotta Continua, no fan of the Vatican, announced the news in a legendary bottom-of-the-page headline: “É rimorto il papa,” literally: “The pope has redied.”
Seeking comment among tourists in St. Peter’s Square, I found that most assumed that by the pope’s death I mean Paul’s. “Didn’t he die a month ago?” asked one.
For the second time in a month, in rainy mid-October, I found myself back in St. Peter’s Square deciphering cryptic smoke signals. The Vatican’s emissions — white as yes, black as no — were not viewer-friendly. Wojtyla’s evening election on Oct. 16, 1978 took three days to accomplish and included ambiguity and false alarms.
Vatican Radio announcers, wearied by 10 weeks of strain, wilted at times: “White! White! No wait. Wait! Black. It’s black. No. No. It’s … grey…” The stormy skies didn’t help, nor did inexpert cardinals who apparently failed to memorize how to mix their color-making agents. Picked as a pool reporter to visit the Sistine Chapel before the start of the conclave, I noted the smallness of the stove, a four-legged dwarf under Michelangelo’s vast ceiling. It didn’t bode well.
But the scene that followed made it worth the wait. When Cardinal Pericle Felice, poised on the main balcony of St. Peter’s, announced Wojtyla’s name, teasing out the syllables, he faced a crowd of a million that extended from St. Peter’s Square to the cusp of the Tiber River. VOY-TEE-WAH, he exclaimed after the stirring Latin exhortation that begins Habemus Papam, “We have a pope.”
It registered instantly, and nervously, that the College of Cardinals had picked a foreigner, robbing Italy of a coveted 500-year-old position. The applause was dull, the unhappiness palpable. I stood next to Mary McGrory. “I don’t know about this,” she said. Beside were two working class Romans. One turned to the other and pumped his hands skyward. “Mò hanno eletto un giapponese …” They thought the new pope was Japanese.
Spokesman Panciroli, who would later become an archbishop and the papal nuncio to Iran, provided a final if touching hurrah. Breaking with his beloved protocol, he had my Polish-born mother admitted to John Paul II’s first public audience. She was perfectly composed until Wojtyla switched from Italian into Polish. Then she wept.