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Pope's US tour: Reporter's diary

Pope Benedict XVI is making his first visit to the US since becoming pontiff in 2005 - a trip that includes a meeting with President George W Bush, two open-air masses and prayers at Ground Zero in New York. BBC Rome correspondent David Willey, who is travelling with him, will be filing regular reports.

THURSDAY, 17 APRIL, 2008

After Pope Benedict's impressive mass for 48,000 at the spanking new Nationals baseball stadium - the first non-sporting event held there - I took a couple of hours off in Washington's warm spring sunshine to visit another intriguing new addition to the nation's capital, the Newseum.

It's the world's first museum devoted entirely to the history of news and it cost $450m. It opened only last week.

On the fašade of the ultra modern steel and glass building situated on Pennsylvania Avenue only a short distance away from the Congress building, is a monster rendering of the First Amendment of the American Constitution. Metre high lettering spells out the famous text:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Very apt, I thought, given the religious freedom that the pope has been publicly admiring in America. How newsworthy, I wondered, is the Pope's visit considered by the American media?

In the Newseum

The answer was there right in front of me. The front page of every daily newspaper published today in all 50 states of this vast country, all the way from Hawaii, to Alaska, to here in Washington, were displayed on the sidewalk in a long line of glass cases.

Nuns look at a mobile phone before the Pope led Mass for 48,000 in a Washington stadium
Washington was awash with papal fans, but the visit made headlines nationwide

A quick check revealed that the papal visit and the Pontiff's strong condemnation yesterday (and again today) of the scandal of systematic sexual abuse of minors by some American Catholic priests, formerly covered up or denied by ecclesiastical authorities, was considered front page news in exactly thirty five American states.

I did a quick tally of the 15 state capitals whose main daily newspaper did NOT report the Pope's visit or remarks on their front page today.

They included Honolulu, Alaska, Oregon, Idaho, Kansas and Minnesota - all states remote from the hustle and bustle of Washington and New York, the only two cities chosen for this papal visit.

Most news in American papers is local news - the parish pump mentality endures.

Inside the Newseum, I saw some news icons of our time: Some concrete sections of the Berlin Wall complete with their original graffiti; a concrete watch tower from no man's land between East and West Berlin; a decapitated granite statue of Lenin from a remote Russian town more than a thousand miles from Moscow.

The museum creators would doubtless have liked to transport here the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein from Baghdad if they could have laid their hands on it.

They had to make do with a twisted mass of steel from the top of one of the twin towers in New York. Their catastrophic destruction on 9/11 will be commemorated by Pope Benedict when he goes to pray at Ground Zero before he leaves for Rome on Sunday.

I remarked in my report yesterday on the iconic figure of the pope. Could he too one day be toppled, I mused, thinking about the paedophile priests scandal?

Real news

Back at the Press Centre for the papal visit, news was just coming in of an extraordinary unscheduled meeting this afternoon between the Pope and six men and women victims of clerical sexual abuse from the Boston diocese.

For years the Vatican has rejected all attempts by survivors of these criminal acts to meet the pope. The petitions for the redress of their grievances fell on deaf ears.

Today, the pontiff listened carefully to each of their individual horror stories in the private chapel of his temporary residence here, and prayed with them.

Benedict XVI stands before leads Mass in Washington's Nationals Stadium, 17 April 2008
The Pope will probably pack another famous stadium for Mass in New York

The Vatican spokesman said some were in tears as they recounted their experiences at the hands of those who had been supposed to be their spiritual guides.

Interviewed later on television, one victim, a former altar boy, said he had told the Pope that a cancer was eating away at his Church.

No fewer than six Catholic dioceses in America have had to declare bankruptcy as a result of paying compensation to victims of priestly abuse.

The scandal has already cost the Catholic church here over two billion dollars, as well as ruining the lives of over four thousand men and women and inflicting an incalculable wound upon the Catholic church's reputation.

Each day for the past three days the Pope has publicly repeated his contrition - his mea culpa, his shame - at the scandal which his American bishops have themselves admitted they handled very badly.

It is an astonishing turnaround in Vatican policy after years of pretending to ignore the reality.

That really is news.

Now we are all off to New York, to United Nations Headquarters where Pope Benedict is to deliver the long planned keynote speech of his transatlantic journey.

That also is likely to be news. Watch this space.

WEDNESDAY, 16 APRIL, 2008

"That was one heck of a speech," President George W Bush was overheard to remark to Pope Benedict, after the pontiff had delivered his paean of praise for American moral values and leadership on the lawn at the White House.

They sat there, side by side on a raised dais, the Pope and the president, just like two of the iconic figures from one of those colourful early mosaics in the apses of some of Rome's most ancient churches.

Pope Benedict XVI and US President George Bush
The Pope and the president met privately to discuss world affairs

"Gott Bless America," the Pope gutturally declared at the end of his speech.

It was the German pontiff's 81st birthday. Following the lead of a soprano singer and a marching military band dressed in the colourful uniforms of old colonial times, everyone sang Happy Birthday.

It was the largest gathering of its kind that the White House had seen in years: 12,000 people altogether.

The Pope positively beamed with delight as the president then gently shepherded the Shepherd towards the Oval Office for private discussions on the state of the world.

I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to hear the tone of Pope Benedict's remarks to George Bush, and the president's replies as they discussed the collateral effects of the war in Iraq, Mexican migration into the US, and the moral imperatives of being a superpower for a full 45 minutes.

But we reporters unfortunately are not privy for the moment to gather such gems. We shall have to wait for the memoirs, or the release of the official record in decades to come.

An early night

The Pope's words and his visit have upstaged that of another VIP who arrived on Wednesday, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Mr Brown is dining at the British embassy which lies just across the road from the Vatican's embassy, the Pope's temporary residence here.

The pontiff is having a much smaller private dinner at his embassy, with a few close advisers and American friends, and is having an early night in preparation for Thursday's great set piece, a mass for 45,000 faithful in Washington's brand new baseball stadium - the first time it will have been used for a non-sporting event.

Pope Benedict XVI
The pontiff berated cardinals and bishops over recent sex scandals

Meanwhile, the revels continue at the White House, where the president is hosting his gala dinner party in honour of the Pope's visit, the first since that of Pope John Paul II, 29 years ago.

Among the guests were no fewer than five Catholic justices of the Supreme Court, along with many other national dignitaries.

The Pope himself declined to attend this party, on the well-justified grounds that he had a previous important engagement with his cardinals and bishops.

As I write this, he has been berating them for their poor handling of the paedophile priest scandals of recent years.

He lectured the 400 bishops and cardinals gathered in the rather gloomy crypt of the Catholic hilltop shrine of the Immaculate Conception about the proper place of sexuality in human relationships.

What does child protection mean, the Pope asked, when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many American homes on television or on the internet?

He called upon the entertainment and media industries to play their part, as well, in protecting the values which underpin American society.

Say what you will, Pope Benedict has made a big impression in his first 48 hours on US soil.

He has been polite, bold and outspoken, and he has put his finger upon some of the main causes of malaise in contemporary American society.

For while US network TV concentrates on the trivia of the papal visit, such as the exact colour and origin of the Pope's red shoes, Benedict himself has a far grander agenda and vision.

Pope Benedict projects a different sort of image from that of his late predecessor John Paul II, who I remember watching on one his earliest foreign trips, in Warsaw in 1979, on his knees, lost in deep prayer as he was being driven amid cheering crowds, looking for all the world like a vision from some mediaeval painting.

Pope Benedict is a different sort of icon, but an icon all the same.

TUESDAY, 15 APRIL, 2008

Daily trials

All papal trips begin with the collection of the "bible" from the hands of Sister Giovanna, a dedicated nun who works in the Vatican press office and does all the paperwork for the journalists accredited to the Holy See.

Pope Benedict XVI
The Pope will be welcomed to the White House on Wednesday

This essential "bible" for the journey to America (lose it at your peril) is a 56-page confidential document - some might call it a crib sheet - containing the detailed movements of Pope Benedict and his retinue for the next six days, minute by minute, together with the bus departures which are going to take us to and from each venue.

It contains lists of names of all the important people the Pope will be seeing over the next six days, useful telephone numbers, what the weather is likely to be, where he will be making his main speech (at the United Nations in New York on Friday) and where to catch the bus for each "pool".

A "pool" is a selected group of journalists and photographers who cover private papal events where access is limited for logistical or security reasons, and who are supposed to brief their less fortunate colleagues, on what they have seen and heard.

A papal journey is a bit like an obstacle race in which there are a number of daily hurdles to jump over.

The first is to get embargoed copies of the papal speeches which are released at some impossible early hour, usually just before dawn.

Pope Benedict bumper stickers on sale in Washington DC
Bumper stickers and other souvenirs are already on sale

With a sigh of relief, I see that we have a lie-in tomorrow morning.

But every other morning, we have a narrow 15-minute window, usually between 0500 and 0515, to pick up our papal texts before we are cast into an outer circle of ignorance.

The papal charter plane - the Americans have already nicknamed it Shepherd One - is a Boeing 777 belonging to the loss-making Italian flag carrier Alitalia.

It has embroidered white headrests bearing the papal coat of arms on each seat.

The Pope and his private secretary have a special curtained-off section up front. We hacks all sit in economy class at the back.

New style

A news conference takes place as we head out over the Atlantic after crossing the French coast.

The Pope and his press secretary, a Jesuit priest, come aft, and the Pope, standing by a bulkhead, answers some questions submitted and vetted in advance.

It is a very different story from the days when I first began my travels with the late Pope John Paul II.

He used to walk down the aisles of the plane, chatting freely with us for hours at a time, speaking in seven or eight different languages.

There was a lot of climbing over seats to try to hear what he was saying and comparing of notes afterwards to find out what were his exact words in each language.

Pope Benedict is different. His briefings are all much more structured. He takes only five questions and speaks through a microphone linked to the plane's public address system. I record every word in perfect quality.

The good German theology professor does not like disorder around him, and I can't say I blame him, remembering the flying tripods and the hectic scrambles of some journalistic encounters on previous papal trips.

Now there is a problem with communicating our stories to the outside world. There is a telephone handset by each seat, but only six satellite calls can be made from the aircraft at any one time.

Everyone is swiping credit cards and dialling at the same time and the system crashes. Finally, at my 25th try, I get through to London and can broadcast live on radio and TV what the Pope has been speaking about.

You need perseverance to cover papal travels.




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