Europe 2000
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European Synod II

Keeping the reporters penned in

By Thomas C. Fox


John Allen stands inside designated press area conducting interview in front of synod hall in Rome.

photo by -- Tom Fox

It was an innocent mistake.

I went searching yesterday for color photographs of prominent cardinals. We always look for ways to update our files, and a break in the synod action provided an opportunity. After asking some questions I found myself headed for the offices of L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper. Its office is inside the Vatican walls down a cobble stone street, just beyond two Swiss Guard checkpoints. With my yellow, laminated Vatican press badge, prominently hanging from the collar of my jacket, I was able to move about inside the Vatican with minimum suspicion.

My intention was to locate and purchase fresh color photographs of a couple dozen papabile, cardinals considered likely successors to Pope John Paul II. This is part of normal press preparation. Our obituary of Pope John Paul II, for example, was first written within a year or two after he became pope. It has been re-written or updated at least a dozen times during his pontificate, always ready to go to press as soon as word of his death reaches us.

I don’t speak Italian, but I do speak some French, and found myself directed to a short man in a blue suit who slapped down before me several catalogues containing color portraits of all the living cardinals. Among those photos, no doubt, is the next pope.

This is where I made my mistake.

I told the man I was gathering photographs of papabile. Why would I ever want to do such a thing? he asked. I told him our paper was preparing for the next conclave. Conclave? He quickly asked me if I worked for a Catholic newspaper. I assured him I did. His mood of mild tolerance ended. “A Catholic newspaper does not do such a story,” he said in clear French. “Yes, they do,” I insisted.

I won’t go further except to say I did not get my pictures and am now considering a plan to return to the L“Osservatore Romano photo department to gather photographs of some of the wonderful cardinals who have been appointed by our Holy Father. But I will wait a few days.

This story illustrates a point: The Vatican has never worked well with the press. Suspicion and control are the operatives here. Unfortunately, the Vatican misses good opportunities. Many of the men and women who work for the Vatican press office are polite and, to the degree they can be, helpful. However, Vatican policy, manifested during synods such as this, is generally uncooperative and even, at times, hostile.

As a starter, the press is not allowed in the hall during the synod. The exception is for five to ten minutes at the start of a day when the press is allowed to watch the bishops pray. One needs to sign up and be part of a press pool for the opportunity. Journalists have been demanding for years to be allowed in during actual synod proceedings. The answer has always been “no.”

Instead, the press is given daily summaries of episcopal interventions. Daily briefings are also held by Vatican appointed press liaisons. Some are better than others, but none seems able to provide contacts with synod participants. For that to happen requests are put in writing. And then you wait.

If you want actual contact, you are reduced to standing outside the hall and calling to synod members as they enter and leave. But that’s not all. Even then you must stand inside a designated box, inside a small wooden fence. One reporter dubbed it “the pen.”

Curiously, synod participants year after year call for greater cooperation with the media. They want to use the media to enhance the church’s evangelizing task - but it does not quite happen. Yesterday, Roger Francis Crispian Hollis, Bishop of Portsmouth, England, was the latest synod father to speak of the need for more openness to the media. He said cooperating with it provides “opportunities to witness and evangelize.” He went on to note, “We pay lip service to the importance of communications in the Church and we have, again and again, committed ourselves to train our clergy, our seminarians and our people to become media-literate. But, in reality, nothing much has changed and we still regard the media as ‘the enemy.’”

Synods are odd gatherings. They are meant to help the Holy Father govern the church by giving him advice on significant matters, but their structures do not enhance the process of advice-given. There is little give and take. For most of the synod, participants one after another read prepared texts. There is no theme of the day. Discussions do not develop naturally. When participants later speak of their synod experiences invariably they will say the most fruitful moments happened at the coffee bars or in the corridors outside the synod hall. Makes you wonder.

What synods aim to do is carefully control the flow of information and thought. This extends to the way the media is treated. Nothing can be left to chance. Nothing is to get out of hand. This includes the media, most of who have long given up on covering episcopal gatherings.

At the end of the synod, the interventions and caucuses produce papers and later recommendations, almost always distilled to pabulum-like ideas, which are presented to the pope. A year or so later, he responds, but by then nearly all the energy that went into the process has ended and most people have forgotten the event all together.

It leads one to think that synods are what happen in lieu of open and honest collaborative deliberation. Changing the form and substance of church synods must be on the agenda of those church leaders determined to bring Catholicism to greater life in the next century.

One has the clear feeling here that some bishops share the media’s frustration. There is something antithetical about attempting to control the Spirit. Meanwhile, I keep thinking of my poor colleague, John Allen, in the “pen” this morning in front of the synod hall. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Fox is NCR publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 1999