Day One: Roma Deserta

This is a strange season for a papal conclave. Paradoxically, there’s no one here. Despite reports that over 4000 journalists have received press credentials to cover events, the streets, restaurants, and cafes are all virtually empty – like in ferragosto, the Italian summer holiday, when virtually all of Rome is elsewhere, on vacation.

There are probably good reasons for this phenomenal vacuum. The pope did not die, so there’s no body lying in state to be viewed. At the same time, there’s no pope in the Apostolic Palace for visits, no Wednesday general audience, no Sunday angelus.  And we’re not sure of the date of the Conclave. Even tourists have lost many of their usual motives for coming to Rome.

Raymond Arroyo, my EWTN colleague in this coverage, says he sees the difference from 2005. Back then, a network like CNN had seventy producers, various anchors, and multiple hired commentators. This time around they have one producer, one celebrity anchor from back home, and John L. Allen – the last probably the best living Vatican expert writing in English. But what a change from just a few years ago.

Until I saw this ghost-town Rome, I thought the press – which now has to fill hours of air time and fling trillions of pixels around the Internet – was just showing its usual ignorance and bias towards all things Catholic and religious. I now think its even worse than that. Imagine large news organizations staffed by people hoping to make a name in journalism and finding themselves in a deserted Rome – while having to pump out interesting material anyway.

What you get, I fear, is the need to put out something, anything controversial enough and at the same time familiar enough to American readers that it will hold some interest. That means sex and scandals, however old and without proof. Some think here that one large bone of contention will be between traditionalists who want to go further in reforming the liturgy and others who do not. If you sent that dry technical debate to your producer, would your story be likely to see the light of day?

So a word of advice. Be even more discerning when you see any account of what’s happening in Rome and what it’s likely to mean for the 2000-year-old Catholic tradition. Most of what you see reflects what’s of interest to the members of the media themselves and to those they presume are following them. God may think otherwise.

We’re off to a press conference at the North American Conference Wednesday and will probably broadcast a live feed later in the afternoon. I’ll be with Raymond, Fr. Gerald Murray of NYC, and Fr. Roger Landry of Massachusetts. We’ve already been having some lively exchanges among ourselves off camera. Tune in to EWTN in the PM to hear some of those.

[This report may also be read in Italian and French.]

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