One Catholic Media Person’s Experience of Covering Breaking Papal History

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

I went to bed on Sunday, February 10, all keyed up for a busy week as a member of the Catholic media.  After all, Ash Wednesday was mere days away, and for someone with plenty of segments to cover, this meant that the news drought between the March for Life and Lent would be over, and I’d not have to be frantically scouring the blogs and news wires for topics of interest to our audience.  Little did I know…

At 6AM Eastern time on Monday, February 11, when our show kicks off the morning live programming lineup, I was half paying attention to our show and half thinking ahead to Lenten programming, while also musing about posting a craving for breakfast nachos on Twitter.  As I logged in to my account to tweet what I thought my followers would think was something important, I discovered something significantly more important on my feed.  I dismissed it at first, thinking that I had imagined what I had read (this happens quite a bit to me at 6AM on Mondays), when I heard a gasp from Anna Mitchell, our news director, at around 6:07, and I snapped back to reality.  Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down, the first Holy Father to do so in nearly 600 years – sick of hearing that stat yet?

At this point, I had, as I usually do, 13 scheduled interview segments for our daily three hour program.  Halfway through our “This Week in Catholic History” segment with Kevin Schmiesing, we broke in to share the news with an audience as drowsy and astounded as we were.  At that point, we scrapped the remainder of our regularly scheduled lineup, and I went through my contacts to see who might be awake and able to speak intelligently on live national radio about something that nobody really knew anything about yet.

My first call was to EWTN Rome Bureau Chief Joan Lewis, who breathlessly begged me to give her five minutes before calling her back for a live interview.  Since she’s based in Rome, it worked out that she’d been awake for several hours, and was able to speak to the physical appearance of Pope Benedict in recent days.  Al Kresta was also awake (even though he mans the afternoon program on the network), and was able to join in the conversation as well.  At that point, I had put out dozens of emails, Twitter messages and phone calls to people like Vatican Radio’s Emer McCarthy (who did an excellent job, especially since she and everyone else at the Vatican officially had the day off), Canon Lawyer Ed Peters, who was able to comment with reasonable intelligence about what this all meant canonically, Teresa Tomeo, whose show airs after ours on EWTN, and others, piecing together things as they came to mind and potential guests responded.  Special thanks goes out to Stephanie Mann, whose planned segment on English Shrovetide traditions instantly became a segment on the significance of Pope Benedict’s other major historical move – the introduction of the Anglican Ordinariate.  I drank no coffee all morning.  Didn’t need to.

Mike Aquilina typically pre-records his regular segment on the early Church Wednesday mornings after we go off the air, and we had planned to discuss retreat reading from the Church Fathers for Lent.  I frantically emailed him to ask if he could discuss papal transitions in the first centuries of Christianity.  He emailed me back, saying he wasn’t prepared for the topic.  Five minutes later, he emailed me again.  The full text of his message: “Wow. Just saw the New York Times.”  Guess I broke the news to him and he didn’t realize I was doing so.

Once Monday was done, it was time to get down to the business of finding the kind of angles that one has to find in a situation like this in order to keep the most interesting Catholic water cooler topic in my lifetime from descending into “hey, the pope abdicated – crazy, huh?” for the next solid week of programming.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to build relationships with solid Catholic writers and thinkers who I was able to tap straight away.  Fr Dwight Longenecker came right out of the gates to debunk the conspiracy theories surrounding the St Malachy prophecy.  Dr Scott Hahn was ready to go on Pope Benedict’s private devotion to Pope St Celestine V, the first pope to decree that a pope could step down.  Dr Matthew Bunson, whose task of coming out with a biography of the new pope the week after he’s elected is not one I envy, agreed immediately to join us twice a week, spending a full segment on each cardinal he thought might be the next successor of St Peter.  And you can bet when I booked Cardinal Donald Wuerl the week previous to discuss new books of his on the Year of Faith and the New Evangelization, I had no idea that we’d be speaking with a man whose vote might determine who follows Benedict as the next Holy Father.

These are exciting times to be Catholic.  We get to have the thrill of a new pope without the mourning (yet) of the passing of our previous pope.  And because he’s the first successor of St Peter to resign in the modern era, there are tons of questions to ask that we’ve never had to ask before.  Questions like:

– What outfit will he wear once he retires?

– Does he get to smash his own Fisherman’s Ring?

– What if the next pope picks the name Benedict as well?  Will BXVI find that awkward or humbling? Will we?

– Does the new pope have to keep the current pope’s monthly prayer intentions, which are scheduled through the end of the year?

– If John Paul II is canonized before Benedict’s death, will Benedict be in attendance at the ceremony, and if so, will he have any responsibilities?

– Who gets to be the person to break the news to BXVI of the conclave’s selection for his successor?  What’s that person’s contact info so I can interview them?

– What writing projects has Benedict been putting off that he might want to get off his chest once he’s no longer pope?

– Will we get to see a pope preside over his own predecessor’s Mass of Christian Burial?

– What will be Pope Benedict’s last papal act, since it’s likely he won’t be making it from his deathbed?

– What would it be like to be a fly on the wall in the first conversation between the pope-to-be and the pope-to-no-longer-be?

As these questions bounce around in the head of this one particular Catholic media person whose job it is to brainstorm for a living, I hope that you’ll stay plugged in to Catholic media, whether the Son Rise Morning Show, or the rest of EWTN’s programs, or solidly Catholic news sites who are paying attention to the papal election for reasons other than speculating whether or not the next pope will abandon some unchangeable Church teaching or other.  I won’t name names here, but I’ve been more than a bit taken aback at the ignorance of some mainstream media personalites – cable news channels, call your office.  Yes, even you conservative cable news channels, who obviously haven’t been following the implementation of Anglicanorum Coetibus.  And why is it that so many journalists who tell us they were raised Catholic seem to be less informed about the Church than their non-Catholic colleagues?  It’s like listening to my wife explain football.  And she hates football.  Which is why the comparison is so apt.

Habebimus papam!


Matt Swaim is the Producer of EWTN’s SonRise Morning Show and the author of Prayer in the Digital Age, The Eucharist and the Rosary and co-author with Colleen Swaim of Your College Faith: Own It!


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