I couldn’t get to sleep. On Monday, May 26, the group of Catholic journalists who travelled to Israel to cover Pope Francis’ visit there would finally get a chance to see him.
I was still on a high from having met Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, the previous evening at a press conference. The quotes I jotted down helped me craft the analysis and summary piece I wrote for May 30 issue of The Tidings.
“We have to encounter and engage people,” Father Lombardi said. “If there’s peace, there are no walls. We have to engage in a situation where there are no walls between us.”
The word — encounter — and his comments about Pope Francis’ “culture of encounter” are the lens through which I recapped the pope’s trip in last week’s cover story. It’s one of those things that seemed obvious afterward, but at the time it like a light bulb.
So I finally got to sleep and, in what felt like minutes, I woke up to the sound of my iPhone alarm clock. The moment I opened my eyes I knew what day it was, what I was doing and, frankly, the pressure I would feel about getting the reporting right. It’s as if my subconscious mind had been mulling it over all night.
I gathered my things together, most of which I’d left out the night before. I had my credentials, special event credentials issued by the state of Israel, camera, notebook, and a suit. I was told I definitely need a suit to get into this event because it was at the Presidential Residence.
I said a prayer specifically for my reporting before leaving the room and making my way down to breakfast. I knew I had to eat a lot because, despite having to be at the presidential digs at 8:30 a.m., we weren’t expecting Pope Francis until 20-after noon. Once there, everyone got in without much trouble — except for me and Bill Howard of The Colorado Catholic Herald. We weren’t on the list.
So, we waited and they made phone calls and we waited and they looked awkward at us, and we waited. I started feeling it — the let down. I had travelled from Los Angeles to report on Pope Francis and here I was, standing outside the president of Israel’s home and wouldn’t make it any farther. How would I cover this?
Well, through Catholic News Agency, I would have access to photographs from ANSA and Getty Images. I’d be relying on those heavily anyway since I would only actually get to see Pope Francis for this sliver of his entire journey. I could also probably get the transcript of the president’s remarks, as well as the pope’s, and go from there.
Heck, not getting in would make a great blog, right? Take it easy, JD, it’ll be fine. Bill started making jokes about coming all this way and all, though I can’t remember what he said. It was funny, sure, and put me at ease. I remember thinking, well, there’s nothing I can do, no sense getting upset. It’s probably not a great idea to make a scene in front of the Presidential Residence. I mean, I hadn’t been inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, so I didn’t want to get kicked out of the country yet.
John Fiester, the top dog over at St. Anthony Messenger, made some crack when he went in — something unsympathetic like, “Well, I’ll say hi to Pope Francis for you. See you back at the hotel.” (Bill and John are great work colleagues who I’ve spent time with outside the United States — in Mexico, Africa, and now Israel.)
Well, anyway, you can see where this is going. I’m starting to cheer myself up basically because I’m not going to get to see the pope. And then I hear, “OK.” Security nonchalantly put security bracelets on our wrists, asked us if we had any weapons for self defense, and let us into the house. I found out along the way that we’d be seeing the pope and the president in the backyard.
There, we met up with Peter Jesserer Smith of the National Catholic Register, who was also on the trip travelling with Fiester and others who I’ll name in a minute. Peter, I’d just like to note, told me, no, he wouldn’t be changing his name to Peter Cotton Smith when I asked him outside our hotel the night before. He, Bill and I had a good laugh with the “Do you have any weapons for self defense?” question once inside. You know, why the “for self defense” specifications? We shared the wise-crack answers we thought of but kept to ourselves in the moment.
“Do you have any weapons for self defense?”
“No weapons for self defense, but I am carrying one to tell time.”
Or, “Yes, but you can’t see it.”
Or, “For self-defense? No, not for that.”
Or, “None of your business.”
Or, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”
And others I won’t repeat here.
We sat down in the press seats. We’d been told there would be 50 journalists there, but there sure seemed to be a lot more. And another thing, there were hundreds of people in front of our seats, which were in the back.
So there we were, along with Joyce Coronel of The Catholic Sun, Julie Holthaus of the Kansas City Leaven, Denise Bossert, a freelance columnist from St. Louis, and Marge Fenelon, who writes for OSV Newsweekly. We were all waiting. And waiting. Bill found they had tuna sandwiches in the press room, but Fiester immediately said something about how bad an idea it would be to eat a warm tuna sandwich “that’s been laying on a table for who knows how long” in a situation like this.
We were maybe 50 feet from the stage, but we had a straight view. It was great and we were ready. Butterflies seemed to be having babies in my stomach. I kept telling myself it would be OK if the photo wasn’t great. Just do your best, that kind of thing. I have this inexpensive Canon zoom lens I got for the trip, that has huge range, like 50-250 mm, which often means the photos won’t be as good a quality. Julie had a nice lens with her. I would have considered stealing it, but it was a Nikon, so it wouldn’t fit on my Canon base.
Anyway, I wasn’t going to get nearly as close with that lens as I wanted, but I was on the aisle. Maybe after it began, I could sneak up closer for a shot like I do when I’m covering a Mass. Just walk on my knees.
Noon. He would be here any minute. 12:15. Deep breaths. Self-pep talks. Ongoing interior dialog of gratitude for being put in this situation and a prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide my reporting.
Then they moved us. They moved all of us one row back, only John and I, who were on the center aisle, were moved clear to the other side of the row — at least 100 feet farther away.
Then, all the seats taken, a woman came to me and told me I was in her seat. Well, I said, “I was asked to sit here.”
She stormed off so I was left with this sinking feeling that I wasn’t going to have a seat at the party. What else? It’s like the feeling when you’re on a plane and there’s no one sitting in the middle seat, and you think, wow, maybe I’ll actually be comfortable on this flight. Only you keep looking down the aisle because you know, you just know, someone is coming to sit there.
So I was looking around, ready to get removed from the residence altogether because I get irrational in these situations, and then I noticed some movement behind us — to the right. I snuck over there and realized I could be on the rail near the door where the pope would come out to the garden. I stood there and just sort of acted like I was supposed to be there because, you know, I don’t think I was supposed to be there at all. I just imagined I was Italian and sort of stood like what I imagine the Vatican Press Corp photogs stand like. Ciao.
I waited… waited.
“Huh?” It was Peter Cotton Smith, errr, Jesserer.
“Do you think you could make room for me?”
Ugh. No, no I didn’t. It was crowded, and I didn’t want to have to shove anyone out of the way to get the photo I wanted. And I don’t shove people out of the way, so if they’re there, it’ll be a problem.
“Well, I don’t know man. It’s pretty cramped up here.”
He looked disappointed. Like someone had stolen his carrot. So I thought, look JD, this guy wants to see the pope too. He’s your brother. Let him stand next to you.
So I did, and he hopped over. He whips out his huge iPad and it’s clear that not only do I need to shoot around Peter, but I’ll have to shoot around his device. So we do a switcheroo so that he’s behind me and we’re fine. I mean I think — there’s also this girl behind me whose arm is hovering over my shoulder. But I’ve played a little basketball and I figured I could just box her out of my way when the time came.
At one point, this TV guy and his cameraman were moved. They’d set up right in the way, and the dude was pretty intense. I thought he’d want my spot, so I kept looking away, with an Italian air of course, toward the door from whence I expected Francis to emerge.
The door closed. It was time.
The door opened and a few seconds later, I saw him. There he was, the Vicar of Christ in Jerusalem, the Holy Roman pontiff in the Holy Land, the ground on which our savior walked. There was Peter, the Rock upon which Christ built his Church.
I figured I could frame the shot of Francis and the president with the Vatican and Israeli flags behind them. I figured this would be my best opportunity to take a good photo, so I took a lot of them. With the front page in mind, I shot a lot of vertical shots.
I lost sight of the pope as he made his way through the garden with the president. I’ll note here that it struck me, as the pope entered the garden of the president’s residence, that he seemed to be entirely comfortable. There doesn’t seem to be any pretense.
I want to say that he’s uncomfortable with the attention, but that’s not it. He seemed to understand the attention he was getting, the attention that’s due to him because of his office, but it’s not attention that he’s seeking. It struck me that he doesn’t look down on anyone. The interactions I saw him have — with security, the president, the boys and girls in the choir, everyone — didn’t seem to be different from one person to the other.
The children sang, and then the president spoke. The pope embraced the president after his remarks. Later, back at the hotel, I looked through the photographs (I took 600 in less than an hour) to see what I’d send to Mike Nelson, the editor for The Tidings, back in LA. And as I did, I stopped on one — the image that ran on the front page. That image made me cry.
I took 13 photos of that momentary embrace, but that one stood out. It’s the way Pope Francis looked at the president. He’s looking at him warmly, with love. In that moment, the two seemed to be brothers and everything else vanished in the background. The divisions gone, face-to-face, they were one.