Pope John Paul II’s words and symbolic actions may not always be heeded, but rarely have they failed to make an impression. This was particularly true recently when he expressed his deep concern over the humanitarian crisis in western Sudan.
He first called on the faithful to show concrete solidarity with the suffering people in the country’s Darfur region. Then, unable to travel there himself but as keen as ever to lead by example, he sent Archbishop Paul Cordes, the president of the Pope’s charitable arm, Cor Unum, as a papal envoy to the country.
The archbishop’s under-secretary, Mgr Giampietro Dal Toso, told the Herald of the “considerable and visible impact” on both the secular authorities and the Christian faithful of the “words and concrete gestures of our Holy Father”.
“I want to particularly emphasise that point,” he said. “On these occasions, I’m left very impressed as I see how important the bond of communion is within the Church. The Holy Father’s envoy was heartily welcomed because he presented in a personal way the concern and fatherly closeness of John Paul to the Church in Sudan and to all the suffering people there.” The Caritas representative in Khartoum described the envoy’s reception in Sudan as “incredible”.
The conflict in western Sudan, which according to UN estimates has so far claimed at least 30,000 and made millions more homeless, threatens to mirror in its severity Rwanda’s ethnic conflict of 10 years ago. Some Vatican officials believe it has already reached that stage.
“What’s really happening there is genocide,” said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the UN in Geneva.
In an interview with the Herald, he cited as evidence the failure of the Khartoum government to disarm Arab militias, despite persistent calls and UN resolutions to ensure they do so. But he maintains confidence in the UN, saying the organisation “is as effective as member states want to make it” and that it is currently reflecting on its own organisation to find ways to make it more efficient.
But as the international community delays, more lives are being lost. “The UN is fiddling while Darfur burns, ” one Vatican official observes caustically.
Mgr Dal Toso, however, prefers to keep faith in the process of negotiation and dialogue. “We certainly have reason to hope that the diplomatic and humanitarian aid efforts will be intensified in order to reach a just solution for Darfur,” he said. And he emphasised the importance of the Holy Father’s instruction at a recent Angelus “to pray intensely for our brothers and sisters who suffer so horribly in Africa”.
Vatican journalists are a goodnatured lot who, being largely Catholic, will share what information they can. But as in every media office, there remains a competitive edge to be first with a story.
So last week, when false rumours of the Holy Father’s imminent demise, or even death, were being relayed from Rome, to the Vatican, to London and back to Rome, some hacks got rather overexcited.
No one quite knows where the wild goose began the chase. Some journalists believe that a cardinal set off the small media frenzy, and in turn rallied staff at the Italian state broadcaster, RAI, which then got the BBC interested.
It is a frequent occurrence to which the more seasoned journalists and media staff have become accustomed. One such person is Marjorie Weeke, who for more than 30 years was responsible for coordinating the media at Vatican events.
When asked, usually in the middle of the night, if she knew if anything had happened to the Holy Father, she would simply reply: “I live across the street [from his apartment] and the lights are all still on over there.” She would then ask about the source which invariably turned out to be somewhere as far away as Australia.
Weeke, who has now retired, says she has grown weary of the media’s preoccupation with the Pope’s health. “It’s a fixation,” she says. “Why not report on what he’s saying?”. Weeke puts the obsession down to live media, which has made the urgency to be first with the news even greater.
She remembers vividly the time when the Pope made a false step while coming into the Sistine Chapel for a baptism and lost his balance. “We thought he was going to faint,” she recalls. “Unfortunately I had a cameraman to my right who caught the whole thing. That went round the world in about an hour with the headline ‘Fear for the Pope’s Life in the Sistine Chapel.’ It was just ridiculous”.
As the woman in charge of media access to the Vatican, Marjorie Weeke occasionally worked with stars of stage and screen, most notably Gregory Peck and Peter Ustinov.
Ustinov was a “perfect pro”, she says, who could “make you laugh with just nothing”. She remembers him as a spontaneous mimic, most notably of Ronald Reagan. She recalls Peck as a “delightful person” who was “so nice, humble like the Pope, asking me all about myself, where I came from”.
Cast as a monsignor, Peck, a Catholic, quipped: “I always play a priest every 35 years”.