Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In a flurry of gunfire a Vatican-related dream was fanned out; years later, no regrets

When the calendar rolls over tomorrow to February 28 and all eyes are on Pope Benedict XVI's final hurrah before he becomes "pope emeritus", another much-less-noticed but coincidental retirement party also will occur at the Vatican at the same time. Originally scheduled months before Benedict's announcement, this event has a deep personal meaning for me.

Anyone who knew me before November 1985 was aware of my desire to be a Vatican correspondent. After my first adventure for the Houston Chronicle to cover Pope John Paul II's first trip outside the Vatican as pope--to Mexico in February 1979--what had been a wild-card professional fantasy suddenly turned into a driving passion for me. How could I manage this career move? I often asked myself.

Any time I would meet someone who actually was assigned by his or her newspaper or news magazine to the Vatican, I would drool with professional envy. Each time I traveled on the media plane or in the media section of a train or in the automobile caravan accompanying John Paul on one of his many worldwide pilgrimages, I usually managed to find someone who actually held one of those jobs. 

Then in November 1985 I finally got my opportunity. The Houston Chronicle management agreed to send me for a one-month stay at the Vatican to cover the 25th anniversary celebration of Vatican Council II, called the Synod Extraordinary. I hardly contained my excitement and enthusiasm for the assignment.

My wife, Kay, and our son, Matthew, then 9, accompanied me to Rome for the first 10 days of that month-long assignment. After my first day in the Vatican press room, I returned to our hotel room at the Piazza Navona Hotel in the old city of Rome and breathlessly told Kay about meeting Victor and Daniela Simpson, a husband-and-wife journalism duo such as ourselves. The Simpsons were Americans who actually lived in Rome and both were covering the historic Vatican synod just as I was. He worked for the Associated Press; she worked for Time magazine.

Every day that I was in Rome covering the meeting, I deliberately engaged one or both of the Simpsons in conversation. I found a seat in the press room near them. At every opportunity I queried them extensively about what living in Rome was like and especially how their two children—a daughter, Natasha, 11, and a son, Michael, 9 (Matthew’s age)—liked living in such an historic and colorful place. We even talked about possibly getting Natasha and Michael together with Matthew to play. (Our daughter, Katie, only 4 at the time, had stayed behind in Texas with her grandparents while the three of us made the long trip to Rome and back.) Regrettably we never were able to work out a "play date" for the kids, but at least I got to introduce Kay and Matthew to this fascinating couple.

After 10 days Kay and Matthew packed their bags for the next leg of their journey--a few days in London--then on home to Houston to start getting ready for Christmas. When their departure time arrived, I dutifully hailed a cab and accompanied them to Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport for their  flight to London. As we waited for their plane, we walked about the airport and soaked in the multiplicity of cultures we evidenced there.

Three weeks later I returned to Leonardo da Vinci Airport for my own flight home to Houston. I now was armed with arguments galore about why the Chronicle ought to create a Rome bureau next to the Vatican with me as the bureau chief. My backup plan was to start sending resumes and letters to every newspaper I could think of that either had or "needed to have" a Rome/Vatican bureau.

Two days after Christmas I stayed home from work with our children; that morning as Kay was preparing to back out of the driveway to leave for her job as a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, I was listening to the radio. That's when I heard the news: Terrorists had opened fire in Leonardo da Vinci Airport. The Simpson family, returning to the States for the holidays, had been caught in the flurry of bullets. Their daughter, Natasha, was dead; their son, Michael, was wounded by a gunshot to the stomach. Victor Simpson had tried unsuccessfully to shield the children from the terrorists' gunfire and sustained a minor hand wound. Daniela was walking their dog at the time of the attack and was spared being in the middle of the shooting. Fourteen people, including Natasha and three terrorists, were killed and more than 70 were wounded in the da Vinci Airport shooting. A similar attack by the same group of anti-Israel terrorists occurred shortly thereafter in Vienna. This attack killed and wounded many others.

After racing to stop Kay in the driveway to share the horrible news, I went back inside our home to listen to the radio and TV and talk on the phone to the Chronicle's news desk for the latest from Rome.

Once I had the full picture in my mind, I realized that only four weeks earlier Kay, Matthew and I had stood in the same spot in Leonardo da Vinci Airport where the attack occurred.

With that burst of gunfire thousands of miles around the world from Houston, my dream of being a Vatican correspondent died in my heart almost instantly.

This week I thought of those events when I read that after nearly 35 years as a Vatican correspondent, Victor Simpson is retiring on February 28--a date he chose months ago before anyone knew that on that same day Pope Benedict would become "pope emeritus", the first pontiff in more than 600 years to resign the papacy. The news stories about Simpson's retirement touted all the great adventures he had had traveling with John Paul and Benedict and working daily at the Vatican. Missing was any reference to Natasha, a painful memory I'm sure must still cast a dark and painful shadow over a fabulous career as a Vatican correspondent. 

As I read the story about Victor's retirement, I remembered my dream that died the morning of December 27, 1985; with no regrets for the decision I had instantly made, my thoughts turned to my two now-adult children and my three beautiful grandchildren, who are more precious to me that any career goal ever could have been.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI's most enduring legacy: his well-timed decision to resign

Pope Benedict XVI's historic announcement today that he will step down from the papacy on February 28 not only was the right decision but also may be his most enduring legacy.

With one announcement and the stroke of his pen, he has upended centuries of unnecessary tradition that needed to be brought to an end. Never again will someone be able to say, "But popes aren't supposed to resign or retire." He has! Others now can follow in his shoes.

His actions speak louder than his words.

For those of us who have watched as popes have aged and lingered for years on death's doorstep and become unable to make even the most simple of decisions, Benedict's action is a breath of fresh air. Now we won't have to endure months on end of unnecessary news coverage about every twist and turn of his failing health. Now he can age, decline, and die much more out of the limelight than had this 85-year-old man remained pope until his death.

He's also sending an important message to any religious leader who sees himself or herself as indispensable. No one church or religious figure holds the fate of the church or religion in the palms of his or her hands. God alone is sovereign. We are all mere mortals--every one of us.

Retirement is a modern phenomenon brought about by better health care and living conditions that have led to longer lifespans. That doesn't mean that one drinks of the "fountain of youth" forever. Slowing down and losing certain abilities is a natural part of the aging process. I've known a goodly number of people who have made it far longer than Benedict and some even to the century mark, plus or minus a few years. Some aged more gracefully than others and were in better shape toward the end of their lives than others, but none was as he or she was in the prime of life and able to function as the person once was.

Of course, I will miss Benedict. Since his early days as a cardinal in Germany I've kept my eye on him. He was and still is a fascinating person. I've enjoyed reading his books, reading about him, watching him on TV, and as a newspaper reporter writing about him myself. During the 25th anniversary celebration of Vatican Council II, I was in Rome for nearly a month as I covered that important event for the Houston Chronicle. Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, was an important player in that meeting.

On several occasions I dropped by Cardinal Ratzinger's office at the Vatican and hoped to spend a few minutes with him, but I never was able to sit down privately face-to-face with him. He was always "too busy", but that didn't dampen my curiosity about the man I believed was destined to make a major impact on modern Roman Catholic history.

When early this morning I first read the announcement that Benedict would resign, through my mind flashed images of what life would be like if I were still working at the Houston Chronicle and hearing news editor Dan Cobb's voice on the phone as he rousted me from sleep and barked, "Lou, the pope has resigned. Get to the office as fast as you can and write an analysis for the 10 a.m. deadline."

Benedict's legacy as the successor to the immensely popular Pope John Paul II has included many good and important decisions for the world's Roman Catholics. He managed the role with dignity and integrity. He's built bridges to the Anglicans and other Christians as well as improved relations with Jews, Muslims, and members of other world religions.

But for all of us, he has now left his indelible mark. In the words of Proverbs 3:1 (NIV), There is a time for  everything and a season for every activity under the heaven . . . including a time to pass the mantle to others.