Dear Blog Readers— Yes, that photo above is me—a crazed Roman Holiday Hamster running frenetically, non-stop in my wheel and never getting anywhere. This week, a young man asked me if I would contribute a blog post to his travel blog. I asked him what specifically he would like and he suggested a post describing the holiday traditions in Italy. It would have been lovely to write about the delicious panettone Christmas cake, the elaborate nativity scenes (villages really) that Italians set up in their homes, and the famous cenone (big holiday dinners). But unfortunately, I haven’t had the time. I have not even bought a single Christmas present. There is one man responsible for my delinquency from my Mamma holiday duties: Pope Francis. Yes, he is the one. This Pope just never stops making news. Every time I think I might have a slow day, and maybe can slip out of work to buy a few presents, I find myself scurrying over to the Vatican for another story.
I became a television journalist because I love “being there.” and I often feel as I have covered Pope Francis that I am witnessing something important. Ever since I was little, I loved seeing things happen and then telling them to other people. When I was younger I had a tendency to embellish a bit. When I would launch into one of my stories at dinner, my family members would shrug their shoulders, sigh and say, “there she goes again, it is another one of Trisha’s Tall Tales”. Of course as a professional journalist, I had to tame that flare to embellish. With time I learned that once you’ve delivered the facts, it is the delicious details that make a Tale special. Those details can be delivered in the form of words, or in the case of video and photography with a special, detailed image. More on that later.
On Tuesday, I found myself at the Vatican for the much-anticipated, and feared report on the “Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States.” This whole Apostolic Visitation business began back in 2008 when under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican ordered an investigation into U.S. women’s religious orders. At the time the women were considered too liberal and, God Forbid, might even include some feminists. So the conference room at the Vatican was packed on Tuesday with journalists eager for a juicy story that was supposed to go like this “the nasty all-male Vatican hierarchy is taking to pieces the honest, hard-working, devoted American sisters”. However, as the press conference got underway it quickly became clear it was going another direction. It was all sunshine and rose petals. The Vatican report praised the nuns, noting that American sisters have “courageously been on the forefront of her evangelizing mission, selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and the marginalized.” I was frantically taking notes, but all of us in the room began glancing up and looking at each other questioningly. What was going on? Instead of talking about the problem of “feminists” the report was praising “the feminine genius.” Sister Clare Millea, Director of the Apostolic Visitation, who was responsible for interviewing nuns across the United States for the report broke down in tears as she said, “Your message to us today shows that you do understand our on-going struggle to faithfully serve the church in challenging times despite our shortcomings and limitations.” Sister Sharon Holland, President of the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious” said that at the beginning the visitation was met with some “apprehension” and that “Some congregations said older sisters felt that there whole lives had been judged and found wanting” but in the end she said they have an “affirmative and realistic report.” Finally sister Millea pointed out “If you ask ‘where is the controversy?” Sorry, there isn’t any.” And that was that. I am sure all you wise blog readers have read more on this elsewhere, so I will move on.
Wednesday was the Pope’s 78th birthday, which happened to coincide with his Wednesday weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. There can be no doubt that Pope Francis is in a hurry. It is as though he thinks he doesn’t have much time – in fact he is the first Pope I have seen consult his watch with regularly. I think he is conscious of his age and has a lot of things he wants to change at the Vatican and in the world before his time is up. But he always has plenty of time for the people who come to his weekly audience. He rides around St. Peter’s Square in his pope-mobile stopping to kiss babies, caress the handicapped, and greet the faithful. This Wednesday was no exception. The crowd was eager to celebrate. They presented him with a cake (he blew out the candles), they gave him cards (he asked “did you draw this?”) they presented him with birthday balloons and traditional Argentinian Mate drink (he drank it) and a group of homeless people gave him sunflowers.
Following the audience thousands of people gathered around the square and danced the tango in his honor.
Speaking of details, AP cameraman Gigi Navarra got fabulous shots from the ground of dozens of feet twirling around on the cobblestones. And AP photographer Gregorio Borgia captured a happy couple tango-ing cheek to cheek.
That was enough of a birthday celebration for me. But the news from the Vatican didn’t stop. Late Wednesday came the stunning announcement that the US was normalizing relations with Cuba (cut off in January 1961) and that President Obama in a speech from the White House said “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me”…and later added, “I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” Yesterday the Vatican released a statement saying that the Vatican had hosted a meeting between American and Cuban officials in October and “provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both parties.“ Since the Pope is in a hurry, so am I. At 7am this morning I was frantically buzzing about the kitchen—simultaneously making fresh squeezed orange juice for the family, unloading the dishwasher, making Caffe Latte, preparing tea, and setting the table for breakfast. (Normal Mom stuff). My daughter Chiara grumpily came in the kitchen, plopped down in her chair at the table and sat there hunched over watching me zip around. Then finally she said, “MOM!!!!!” so I stopped and looked and her and she said, “can you CHILL???!!” I think the short answer to that question is “no”, and the correct answer might be “not until after Christmas,” or maybe “not as long as Pope Francis is around.” Once the girls were off to school, I found myself at 8am calling the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, asking for a comment and explanation. Later at the Vatican, Lombardi explained to me that the Vatican has been working on this issue for a long time and that many Popes were concerned about Cuba-US relations. He pointed out that both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI visited Cuba. But he also said he thought that it was Pope Francis’ personal interactions that made the difference. Lombardi said the Pope is hoping to make strides on questions of peace and dialogue in other parts of the world. The Pope has spoken extensively about conflicts in the Middle East but has also expressed keen interest in questions regarding Russia and China. Who knows what will be next on the Pope’s geo-political to-do list, but we do know he is not wasting any time. I guess I will wrap this blog post here because I need to be back at the Vatican early tomorrow morning for a Christmas Mass for the homeless at the Sant’Anna Church just inside the Vatican wall. Maybe this weekend I will have time to make some Christmas cookies and buy some presents. …and my little Roman Holiday Hamster wheel keeps on going around and around and around.