Notebook: Pope's Performance

Pope Benedict XVI arrives for the concluding Mass of the World Youth Day at the Marienfeld near Cologne, Germany, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2005. The Pontiff celebrated an open-air Mass before more than 1 million young people Sunday, calling on the pilgrims to make wise use of the freedom God has given them.(AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito, Pool) AP

In a reporter's notebook filed exclusively for CBSNews.com, CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey provides an insider's look at traveling with the new pope.


Benedict XVI's arrival for the open-air mass that culminated World Youth Day was the most subdued any of the reporters who cover the Vatican could remember.

Standing to one side of the almost million-strong crowd, one was not even really aware he had entered the vast meadow that sits over a former coalmine until the top of his enclosed pope mobile came into view.

It was a stark contrast for those used to the rolling waves of cheering and applause that heralded and almost lifted John Paul II. Even the stirring religious music was turned off just before Benedict's arrival.

Some of the reticence in greeting may have been due in part to the fact that it was foggy, damp and the pilgrims who had camped out overnight in anticipation were tired and chilly. A few who had been to the Toronto version of the event complained they had been "left in the dark" at Marienfeld, whereas in Canada the religious rock had belted most of the night. They came to an event, after all, that they expected to be more Woodstock than sleepover.

The mass is supposed to be a chance to the faithful to take the measure of the pope close-up, but they never got close. The altar was set on a mound, the people kept a good 200 feet back from its edge. The altar canopy, which in places like Poland is worthy of being in a cathedral, looked more like a spaceship landing in a Steven Spielberg movie. That's not a criticism, of course. It was in keeping, in a way, with Benedict's message that going to mass should be joyous rather than inconvenient.

His homily was a contrast to those of his predecessor. John Paul II's were generally dense in prose style, littered with Biblical quotations. Today's had only four direct references that required annotation in the official text. The tone, too, was less finger-waving than JPII's, even if it did take several minutes to get to the part of the speech that might strike a chord. Journalists call that "burying the lead."

How well it went down is still not clear. It is widely held that one-third of the people at such gatherings are deeply religious, one third are as curious as they are faithful, and the rest came because their friends did.

But they all want an image from the man on the stage that they can take home and carry in their memory. Benedict gets the adoration and professed love and respect one would expect for a man in his position, with a sense that there is also a "but..." hanging in the air.

Still, it wasn't a bad draw: more than a million by official estimates, from more than 160 countries. Who but a pope could do so well?

The German organisers also deserve kudos for getting them all in place. Hopefully, they will do as well in getting them all back to town and onto trains and busses. But if, once again, the experience of the press is anything to go by, it may not be as smooth as tired pilgrims would like.

There is always a bus that leaves for the filing centre as soon as the Pope's homily is over, so those with deadlines can file before leaving to get back on the plane with his to return to Rome. The problem this time was that it left exactly on time, which left a dozen of us being escorted to it watching it pull away. A mini bus was shanghaied and we caught up. But the escort with the authority and permits to get us through the police roadblocks did not. In the end, there is nothing hacks with a deadline to meet cannot overcome. Cell phone calls to organisers and the Vatican logistics man were made, and then pressed into the hands and ears of police. The message eventually got through, and so did we.

The next time we do this one will be in Sydney in 2008. We can only hope the next place Benedict goes before than is not so vaunted as Germany for its efficiency.
  • Joel Arak

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