Pope USA

9/23 WDC: The Pope & the President



— The Note is setting aside a special place for daily insight and analysis of the Holy Father’s trip. As our guide, we’ve enlisted the help of Father Michael A. Russo, an expert on the papacy who is serving this week as a media consultant for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In today’s installment, we asked Father Russo (@frmikerusso), who also blogs at https://francisfactor.com/, to preview Pope Francis’ visit with President Obama:

 –FR. RUSSO: “Coming onto the world stage a mere two-years ago, Pope Francis looks to be a man fully aware that he has a limited time to affect his church, and the world. Much like President Obama, even popes concede that they have a ‘term of office.’ Pope Francis’s arrival in the Alitalia jet yesterday at Andrews Air Force Base from Havana sharpens the point that his own diplomatic intervention as the ‘go between’ for Raul Castro and Barack Obama makes him one of the very few successful global leaders today. Pope Francis may be the very first pope to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

“The live television coverage of the pope’s arrival, the motorcade into Washington — in his tiny black Fiat sporting the Vatican license plate, and surrounded by the security team in those large black SUV’s makes for the stuff of ceremonial politics. Such is the power of popes and presidents. Here television news, and the social media join the political establishment to declare a ‘holiday.’ This ‘theater of power’ provides the images, and just enough space for the words and gestures of a second-term president and a 78-year old religious leader to craft messages that have the potential to find a hearing for Catholics, Americans, and world citizens. More than the external exchange of gifts at the White House or the history of American/Vatican diplomatic initiatives, the pope and the president have plenty to gain from their friendship. They can turn the page, change the agenda, make the most of their limited time, and create a mutual legacy.”

For the complete ABC News “The Note,” here’s the link:


Wednesday, September 23rd, the day of the canonization of Junipero Serra, brought us back the Catholic University of America campus and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.


Our bus left the Marriott hotel at 8:30 AM for the twenty-minute ride to the campus from Massachusetts Avenue.  We pulled into the back of the campus, stopped, and out the doors came the entire TV production crew  — with barriers to the left and right that pointed us to the security apparatus, and the TSA  agents.

As I gathered my bag, belt, and even my clerical collar with its brass hook — these  went into the magnetometer. The TSA attendant told me “Lift up your left foot,” as she wiped me with her electronic wand. Then she commanded “Lift up your other foot!”  I replied that I could do both, and she did not laugh. It was a less than a cordial greeting to the crowds of people gathering for the security screening that would permit the to a ceremony that would not begin until mid-afternoon.

Most of the morning left us to preview the ceremony, its script and the camera shots of the large outdoor stage that was erected on the lawn of the Catholic University campus.

Despite all the best intentions and even the good weather, the idea of an outdoor Mass works fine at Saint Peter’s in Rome, I’m not so sure that it makes much sense for the potential of a hot/humid or rain soaked Washington, D.C. The weather was perfectly fine, perhaps too much sunshine for those standing or sitting for the long ceremony. In any case, had the pope arrived one-week later, Washington was in the direct shot of a Northeaster, so we lucked out.

More to the point, the idea of building a liturgical set outside when the basilica itself had all the grandeur of a major Cathedral makes little sense, and great financial expense. Instead, place the people in the church and on the lawn — with large-screen televisions outside, where the pope could have easily gone into the crowd with the popemobile. Also, the liturgist had their day, and provided the kind of papal pageant that Pope Francis is still not fond of.


Unlike Pope Benedict who appeared to be a liturgical purist, Francis would have been better served saying Masses in smaller more intimate settings and in the fashion he celebrates daily Mass at his Vatican residence. Instead, this papal Mass conducted with all the complicated moves that most of us are really not attuned to anymore. And it makes of an uncomfortable experience, let alone one that does not really connect with the “audience.”

An added note, the rector of the National Shine, Msgr. Walter Rossi of the Scranton, Pennsylvania diocese has been on the job for the past decade. He’s a fusspot — the last minute moving of candles, making adjustments to the location of the statue of the Mary. All well and good, however it drove the production team to tears as their 22 cameras with precise views of the altar had to be adjusted at his direction.

And frankly, the design of the Washington site, the color of the altar/stage area appeared on camera to blend into the walls of the basilica, and even the Mary statue, not exactly the work of a Michelangelo, made for a very dull set. In great contrast to the efforts at New York’s Madison Square Garden, that indoor sports venue worked to great effect — with its staging, set design, lighting, professional choir with music, and the Mary statue of artistic note.

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For a church that has as its heritage great art work, the television production itself could be an art work, however there is a not so subtle tug of war between the liturgical elements and the need to produce a meaningful public ceremony, and one whose content connects with those in the Church as well as those watching on television. Given the number of hands, as well as the number of production companies involved with the Canonization Mass including Vatican TV, the wonder is that the production came off as well as it did.

The very best example of this kind of public liturgical ceremony was the 1997 funeral for Princess Diana — a vastly more interesting and engaging public ceremony with genuine heart-felt sentiment, and given Elton John, a bit of show-business. Something the Roman Catholic liturgy and a papal Mass avoids at all costs.

Before the Mass, it was time for lunch. Juan and I took time from the TV truck to find the lunch tent with the proscribed “box lunch.” With our short walk behind the basilica, where we dodged several Secret Service agents, para-military with guns, the idea came to us that we might be walking on land-mines for all we know. From this vantage point, we could see that the adjacent streets were closed off and occupied by strange FBI vehicles, long-bed trailer trucks with dishes on top that scrabble radio waves.

At the lunch tent, we sat randomly and showed our credentials, so we were provided our turkey and cheese sandwich. As it turns out, I sat next to a very friendly table of volunteers, one of whom was Susan Allen from San Mateo. It turns out her brother is a former Saint Mary’s alumn, Wayne Billheimer, and a producer for Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco. It was a short but wonderful conversation, and Susan acquired a batch of the official programs for the Mass for me and the TV crew.

Back in the TV truck, the Mass began on schedule from the initial stages inside the basilica with the long-line of concelebrants moving toward the side door. The pope appeared slightly exhausted from all the travel and the all so complicated liturgical movements. Once at his post, he appeared to doze off, and to my surprise, for a moment he appeared to look like Pope John Paul, who toward the end of his life, was totally inattentive to the ceremony he was conducting.

One of the primary concerns of the executive producer, Phil Alongi was whether Pope Francis might go off script and use his native Spanish. This really did not happen, most of the prepared text worked to the letter. Strangely enough, the liturgical ceremony with its prayers in Latin and English and with several additional elements for the intercessory prayers in Native America languages, and the languages of the representative peoples were to be translated for the views with subtitles. Despite all the preparation and pre-planning, all the viewers saw was the graphic “in a foreign language.” It was as if Google translation was used. There was no way to rescue this production problem for the live-broadcast.













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