Inside the rough-and-tumble world of papal press conferences

Inside the rough-and-tumble world of papal press conferences

Inside the rough-and-tumble world of papal press conferences

Pope Francis talks to journalists during a press conference he held on board the flight to Rome, at the end of a five-day visit to Colombia, Monday, Sept. 11, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, pool.)

You might think coming up with questions to ask Pope Francis would be easy, but experience shows it can sometimes be a bare-knuckle affair.

ROME — On Air Force One, my White House colleagues tell me, a president often comes back and takes questions from the press. It’s a free-flowing deal, with journalists throwing out any number of questions, and it may be on or off the record.

The White House plane, however, does not carry journalists from five different language groups, and it does not have the pope.

On the papal plane, questions for the pope are organized beforehand. The names of journalists who will be asking questions, but not the questions themselves, are submitted to the pope’s spokesman shortly in advance.

For question time, journalists are divided according to five language groups: Italian, English, French, Spanish and German. Each group must agree on one or two questions for the pope, although the first question always goes to a visiting journalist from the country we’ve been visiting.

Then we go in rotation, with one language group posing one question after another. If there’s time, we may get in two questions from each group, but that’s never certain.

In general, the protocol is that the first few questions should be about the trip the pope has just concluded. We’re required to oblige, but most journalists are anxious to get on to non-trip related questions, as we’ve generally spent the previous week already reporting on the trip and are looking to put other matters on the table.

On the recent flight back from Pope Francis’s Nov. 26-Dec. 2 visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, however, we never got that chance.

“I would like more questions on the trip!” the pope decreed, essentially shutting down discussion of anything else. For 58 minutes, the pope stuck to reminiscing about his visit.

The consensus of journalists on board was that it was a tactical move by Francis. The Italians said he didn’t want to answer questions about the troubled Vatican bank, while the Germans said he wanted to avoid being asked about the hasty dismissal of Cardinal Gerhard Mueller as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

I think he was irked by negative media coverage during the trip, which was dominated by criticism of Francis refusing to use the word “Rohingya” in public meetings in Myanmar, referring to the Muslim minority community currently oppressed by Myanmar’s leadership. In effect, it was his way of getting us back.

Whatever the reason, the pope once again demonstrated his masterful skill at playing the press.

Formulating the Question

It may seem to the outsider that deciding on a question to ask the pope shouldn’t be difficult. In truth, it’s usually a scrum of secret pacts, hurled insults and time-pressured jockeying to get your question to the top.

At least, that’s true for the rough and tumble English-speaking group; the others generally seem to be much more civilized.

Discussion about what we should ask usually begins in the airport terminal while we are waiting to board the flight back, although in twos and threes, people have been talking about it all the way along. That’s never enough to guarantee anything, however, because the English-speaking group is large, usually about 16 journalists or so.

Not every news agency sends a reporter on every trip, but there’s a core of English-speaking Vatican reporters from both secular and religious outlets. From the secular press, CNN, AP, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, NPR, ABC, NBC, Fox and BBC are usually on board.

The Catholic press is generally represented by Crux, Catholic News Service, National Catholic Reporter, National Catholic Register/EWTN, America magazine, and our lovely British colleague from The Tablet who manages to stay above the fray.

In theory, anyone can throw out a question they would like to ask and the group votes. The top two questions are chosen. In practice, from the moment the first suggestion is made, loud debate begins, chests puff out, more mild colleagues (or those simply sick of the whole scene) slink to the back, and the gloves are off.

Here’s a sampling of what one might hear in the heat of the moment:

  • “You haven’t asked a good question in 35 years!”
  • “Nobody cares about the dubia!”
  • “We have to ask him about sexual harassment!”

After the egos have had their say, we re-group, with time ticking down, and take a vote. The short end of the stick is generally drawn by those who would like to ask a “Catholic” question, on the grounds that it’s not mainstream enough.

Here’s a practical example of how things work.

For several papal trips now, a question to the pope on the “dubia” has been proposed, referring to the critical questions posed to Francis by four cardinals about his document Amoris Laetitia and its cautious opening to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The idea seems to be gathering steam, but so far it’s not made it past more liberal Catholics who think it’s a fringe issue, allied with secular guardians who fear that the topic would not make a big enough headline.

Because the end-game is just that: To ask a question that elicits a headline.

Translating the pope

Once we board the plane with our two questions ready, the real work begins.

The presser is the first thing that happens once we take off, and some 20 TV cameras must be put in place, cables drawn down the length of the narrow aisles, audio tested, computers and recorders placed at the ready.

(As a footnote, journalists traveling aboard the papal plane pay business class airfare for coach accommodations. In effect, we’re helping subsidize the cost of papal travel.)

Our challenge for the next few hours will be to take dictation of every word the pope says in Italian, translate it, find the headline, write the story – all before we land back in Rome.

You must be sure to have a good audio recording of the presser, because you will have to listen and re-listen to the pope’s words to be sure you have heard correctly. But it’s not enough to hear the Italian correctly, of course, because we must also translate it into coherent English.

You know where this is going…more debate among strong-willed journalists ensues.

One recurring translation debate, for example, has been about the pope’s use of the word “condition” when describing a homosexual inclination. The Italian is condizione, which Francis has used in the past interchangeably with “tendency.” Some colleagues object to a translation in English which uses the word “condition” because it sounds like a medical diagnosis, although it’s what the Vatican uses in its official translations.

Each journalist is free to translate the pope as he or she wishes, but every word is weighed carefully, and you don’t want to get it wrong.

The difficulty of transcribing the pope is compounded by Francis’s story-telling approach to answering questions. Unlike Benedict XVI, who naturally spoke in complete sentences, Francis is a rambler.

A typical rough transcript of Francis’s presser is full of ellipses, where a thought trails off, as well as parentheses, where, for instance, he begins a story about that time in Buenos Aires.

Also complicating life is the fact that the pope is known to say things like, “I’ve heard this, but I don’t know if it’s true….” This colloquial style is part of his charm, but makes pinning down a quote or full thought accurately a challenge.

The headline

At the end of it all, you look at your transcript – an hour of the pope’s freewheeling thoughts – and try to decide what will be of most interest to your audience. The headline is the most important part of the story, and often sets the narrative for how the larger world views Francis.

Consider the famous soundbite “Who Am I To Judge?”, which the pope uttered with regard to gay persons during his first-ever in-flight press conference returning from Brazil in 2013.

He answered 21 different questions during that presser, on topics from his choice to live in Santa Marta and his experience of being pope to women in the Church, abortion, and same-sex marriage. It was the choice of journalists to pick out the line, “Who am I to judge?”, out of all the things that Francis said, which not only made news but largely defined the pope’s narrative from there on in.

My favorite headline-that-never-was happened on the plane returning from Poland in 2016. The pope had fallen walking up the steps of the altar for mass in Czestochowa. On the plane, he explained, “I was busy gazing at the Madonna [statue] and I forgot about the little step!”

A seasoned Vatican colleague joked that his headline would be: “Pope Falls for a Woman.”

What makes a headline in the U.S. is not always the same as what makes the cut in other countries. Returning from Armenia in June 2016, the headline for most U.S. news outlets was similar to “Pope says Church should apologize to gays,” one of the topics he touched upon.

Yet the pope also said Martin Luther wasn’t so bad, which the Germans headlined, and that there was only one pope, not two (referring to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), which the Italians liked.

In addition, what makes a headline in any language is not always a full representation of the breadth and depth of a presser or of the pope, which is why it is worth reading the transcripts in full.

For instance, in that presser coming home from Armenia, Francis also said some beautiful things like, “holiness is shy and hides,” and spoke about music with “suspended chords” and silence. But, naturally, in our world today, beauty, holiness, and music don’t make headlines.

Who knows what kind of world it would be if they did?

Delia Gallagher is based in Rome and is the Vatican correspondent for CNN. She’s a veteran of many papal trips.

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