WHEN THE POPE comes to Britain in May a great many unusual .strains will be placed on the organising abilities of the hierarchy and those who work with them.
Of the beginnings of one of these we had a glimpse the other day when the national Press. television cameras. lights and all, came in some strength to a Press conference at Archbishop's House, Westminster, because they were expecting more details about the papal visit,
These they were given. though certainly not as plentifully as some of them would have liked. Those of us in closer daily touch were not astonished. The news that the tentative plan for what would be proposed to Pope John Paul was the twenty ninth version so far, and that a good many more were likely before the final one was achieved, gives a notion of the magnitude of the task.
But the Press did get a newsy bonus. Cardinal Hume's timely restatement of the Christian position on the sanctity of life.
The Cardinal clearly has a natural aptitude for speaking comfortably but authoritatively to journalists. He is friendly. open and at ease; but he listens carefully. and I doubt that skilled operators of the loaded question would find him a good subject.
After-a good many years away from the Catholic Press, I was struck by a marked change in the whole attitude of Archbishop's House towards my trade.
Perhaps the Cardinal's example is partly responsible for this; but, of course, for a number of years now, we have had Catholic Information Services, the official national body of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales concerned with Press relations and communication aeneraffy.
I suspect that few of those who use it or work for it would suggest that it is quite perfect yet: but gone are the days I remember so 55 ell when getting much more than the bare hones of information out of Archbishop's House was rather like seeking to gain entry to Fort Knox with a
bus ticket. • Evidently much has been learned, One may hope that the rigours of the Pope's visit will provide further useful lessons.
My experience, however, tells me that this may not necessarily be so. For example. I remember that when Pope Paul VI visited New York a place where the authorities and the citizenry are generally quite astonishingly cooperative with the Press the Catholic clergy and organisers seemed to me to be the odd men out.
A fussy cleric nearly prevented me from leaving St Patrick's Cathedral while the Pope was there to get to the nearby studio from which I was to broadcast to London.
I had to appeal to a policeman, who got me to the microphone with just about two minutes to s are.
When he saw my Irish name on my Press card, he said he knew I couldn't be a terrorist. A mysterious thought!
I had similar difficulties trying to get away quickly from the Yankee stadium when the Pope said Mass there. The occasion made superb material for a broadcast.
The Yankee Stadium is, of course, normally used for baseball: and interestingly it retained its authentic atmosphere.
The assembled thousands were like an English Cup Final crowd. Hot-dog and soft drink stands did a roaring trade. It became a religious occasion gradually, and then wholly so as, in a great silence, everyone knelt amid the pop-corn bags. the cigarette packets and empty Coca-Cola bottles on the terraces, and we could hear the Pope's voice saying quite clearly those words which are the heart of the Mass, Hoc est enirn Corpus mean, ...
There were no facilities for making my broadcast from the stadium itself, but once again it was understanding policemen who helped me.
A police car quite unofficially escorted me through the heavy traffic to the studio in the centre of Manhattan. There I had another piece of luck. The recording engineer who had been taping the network broadcasts of the Mass, happened to be a Polish American, and he had ready for me a selection that only a Catholic could have made of the most moving and significant moments.
Once again without benefit of clergy, might one say? I got to the microphone just on time. I hope the British police will be as co-operative as those of New York when the Pope comes here.
l wonder if Wembley Stadium will prove as moving a setting for a visiting Pope as did the Yankee Stadium?
I think that, in all honesty, I have to record that, of all Catholic clergy, 1 have found those at the Vatican to be the most inept in their dealings with the Press though I have every confidence that things will improve now that Bishop Agnellus Andrew is looking into these matters in the Holy City.
I have no doubt that he could tell many a story of his own about the frustrations and pitfalls of reporting at the Vatican. My own experience of them dates back to the war. A Vatican Press Office existed, I remember. but it seemed to have very little grasp of the needs of journalists or of the way they worked: and this, of course. was at a time when there were hosts of war correspondents passing through Rome every day, and an enormous amount of real news in the Vatican City. if only it could be obtained.
We tried quite hard to educate the clergy and officials concerned.
For example. on one occasion when the Pope 55 LIN due to give an address thought likely to be of importance. I tried to persuade a charming but clueless monsignore that it would be useful to have a text in advance, so that I could send a story to be held for release as soon as the speech was known to have been made, because at that time I had American as well as British deadlines to bear in mind.
After a lot of discussion and much reference to all manner of important superiors, 1 was told that this would be provided.
I was to wait in the Hall of Maps in the Vatican at a certain time. I waited and waited.
This hall. well enough known to tourists in peacetime, was then rather a creepy place to stand in alone as the shadows lengthened and the light from its thirty-four windows grew dimmer and was lost in the vaulted ceiling.
Al last. from somewhere a long way away.. I heard the Pope's voice coming from someone's radio set. and decided there was no longer any point in waiting.
Just as I was about to leave, my monsignore emerged smiling from somewhere in the ghostly gloom and triumphantly handed me a set of galley..-proofs from the Vatican newspaper, the Osservatore Romano, which had apparently had the text of the Pope's speech all day. I hope I thanked him.
That Press office was also, sometimes. startlingly naive. One day. an official there telephoned and asked me to see him on "a grave matter of' urgency".
Could it be news? Alas, it wasn't. He wanted an opinion. It seemed that a well-known Italian novelist had just published a sexy novel which was also rather anticlerical.
Did l think that this might be a cause , of grave scandal among Catholics in the British forces? I think I managed to keep a straight face as I explained that relatively few members of the First and Eighth Armies knew enough Italian to read a novel, and so the danger was probably not great.
There was some improvement when I went to the Vatican years later to report the Conclave that elected Pope John XXIII. At all events, rather more people seemed to be assigned to the task of handling the Press, and they had placed some well-arranged broadcasting points up on the colonnade at St Peter's.
But there was a daunting rigidity sometimes, a nervous fear of flexibility. We had a television camera positioned up on a bit of roof which gave us a good view of cardinals in procession before the Conclave started, but we saw that we could get a second interesting shot if we moved it a few yards.
An official protested anxiously that he had received no instructions about this. We all suddenly discovered that we hadn't a word of Italian between us.
One striking memory, though, is of the extraordinary change that seemed to come over the Vatican immediately after the election.
On the very first morning, a young man from one or the news agencies wandered in, genially waved on by guards and officials, and to his astonishment, found himself chatting to Pope John himself'. My recollection is that arrangements for the. Press were not quite so good for the conclave that elected Pope Paul VI. But the Pope himself, who had a family connection with the Press, was determined to acknowledge the presence of the hordes of journalists who had come to Rome for his election, and gave a special audience for them. It was held in one of the newer parts of the Vatican Palace, which was reached by a lengthy, steep and winding stairway.
Some of the pressmen were feeling rather disgruntled by this time, and as we toiled upwards, jam-packed like a football crowd. one of' them said crossly: "This is no way to treat the international Press."
My BBC colleague, Christopher Serpell, asked learnedly but untruthfully: "Didn't you know that Charlemagne came up these stairs on his knees?" The cross man made a quick and eager note on the back of an envelope. I have often wondered what newspaper printed that charming piece of misinformation.
Watching television over the last couple of weeks, it has struck me that one Pope who could have used a good Press officer was Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI.
There is no doubt that he was a shocking old man in his private life, though he had plenty of powerful enemies who would most certainly have been eager to think up little items to make the record blacker.
One of these slanders, I'm told was central to one of the more recent episodes in the BBC extravaganza. However. this may be, it prompted from one member of my family the exclamation: "But how on earth could anyone have known such a thing'?"
Patrick O'Donovan, the proper incumbent of the Charterhouse column, was to have taken a look at the record of Alexander VI last week, and I hope he will be able to do so when his health improves.
He was also to have reminded us that not all the Borgias were "buddies," and that one of them, Francis Borgia, was canonised.
He was the grandson of Juan Borgia, the second son of Alexander VI, who was assassinated in 1497, allegedly by his brother Cesare, an assertion with which the BBC apparently agrees.
A book I have sayS of St Francis Borgia: "By his penitent and apostolic life he repaired the sins of his family and rendered glorious a name, which but for him, would have remained a source of humiliation for the Church."
His feast day is October 10. The television chronicle of his forebears started in the same week within the octave, one might say.