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Issue Date:  April 15, 2005

From the Editor's Desk

At the edges of the crowd

In 1979, I covered the Philadelphia segment of Pope John Paul II’s first visit to the United States. I remember abandoning the press platform to move around the edges of the crowd and being surprised at the jostling and the hubbub where I, naively perhaps, expected reverence and solemnity.

There was the slightly deranged man, moving in somewhat staggering steps deeper into the crowd, yelling, “Holy Father, pray for me!” He soon came out on the arms of some of Philadelphia’s finest.

Before the Mass nuns were preparing some items on and around the altar, and nuns somewhere behind me said something to the effect of “That’s all we’re allowed to do.”

A woman pushing a child in a wheelchair argued with guard after guard, usher after usher, that she belonged closer to the pope. A husband and wife knelt and prayed the rosary, hours before the pope arrived.

A priest who taught at Villanova University was speaking with a few people I assumed were students, a discussion about the direction of this new papacy. So little was yet known.

I remember the unifying element -- the prayers of the Mass -- how one could feel held aloft on the swell of the words and gestures that we all knew, that we had all taken from the confines of familiar sanctuaries to this liturgy outside.

I remember it being a long day filled with the sublime and the ordinary, with the man who carried a sick child forward as far as he could as the crowd silently parted, with endless complaints and arguments over gold tickets and silver tickets and with mostly futile attempts by some to get to the settled and serene center of the crowd, the VIP area.

At home, I turned on the evening news and watched the extensive clips and commentaries of the day, and I noticed that in the long-lens view of the pope’s big stage, the lines came out nice and tidy. There was a neatness and a symmetry to the large blocks of people within the camera’s range. There were flowers and the glisten of gold and white. It was impressive.

I’ve thought of that day from time to time during this papacy and the incredible public events that marked its 26 years. I recalled it again as the pope’s last enormous public event began to unfold with his death and as it continued with the huge outpouring of affection as hundreds of thousands lined up to view his body prior to his funeral Mass April 8. It is clear, taking those poles as metaphor for our experience, that few of us are able to live in the uncluttered and well ordered VIP seats of the church; most of us exist in some degree toward the edges of the throng, where life is far less predictable, where the unexpected may occur at any time, where finding the space and quiet for spiritual reflection takes some doing.

~ ~ ~

This is an unusually large issue, the first time we’ve ever done three sections, according to Vicki Breashears, promotions director for advertising, who has been with NCR for 37 of its 40 years. It is an interesting coincidence that the “B” section is devoted in large part to the observance in El Salvador of the 25th anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

While most of the world’s attention was on the events in Rome, thousands of people showed up in El Salvador to observe the anniversary of one of Christianity’s 20th-century martyrs.

Romero’s life played out, for certain, on a smaller stage than that of Pope John Paul II. However, the enduring power of Romero’s witness to justice and his deep commitment to the poor has made him an inspirational figure to people far beyond El Salvador.

It was a fascinating week. In the coverage from Rome, there was a constant commentary on this pope’s “connection” with people, his genuine love of people, how he was energized by large crowds. Away from that coverage I was reading Paul Jeffrey’s dispatches from El Salvador, where Romero’s connection to people was expressed in his increasingly dangerous walk with the outcast, a walk that eventually cost him his life. He was murdered while saying Mass.

It will be interesting to see how the legacies of these two men play out in the years ahead, two expressions of the Gospel and how church is lived in some ways deeply similar and in other ways wildly different.

Both were men of deep thought and lived lives of forceful activity. But Romero’s was not a life of celebrity and certainty, as was John Paul’s. Instead, the Salvadoran archbishop is known to us mostly for his conversion to the cause of justice and speaking out. He climbed the stage and spoke into the microphone reluctantly, but with great power. Holiness, living out the Gospel, takes many forms.

~ ~ ~

As John Paul II changed the nature of the papacy, he forced a change in the way we cover it. At one time, it was a beat, as the late Peter Hebblethwaite showed, that could be covered, at a somewhat reflective pace, by telephone from England. But that was before e-mail, the Internet and 24/7 news networks.

In the five years that John Allen has worked the beat, he has been on the ground in Rome and often in the air in the papal plane. He has employed the highest standards of U.S. journalism to both investigate and explain this most unusual of global institutions. His relentless and tireless pursuit of facts and truth, his scrupulously evenhanded treatment of the material he deals with even in the most frustrating of circumstances, has earned him generous praise across the spectrum of Catholic life and beyond the church. It has also brought more than a few complaints from all sides -- I know, I often get them -- that he was not liberal or conservative enough, depending on the issue and the audience. It’s a sure sign he’s doing more than something right.

The full force of his talent and work is apparent in the 9,000-word obituary of Pope John Paul II that appears in this issue.

Another kind of compendium of his work has been on grand display these past weeks in his many hours before the camera as CNN’s expert (while still filing regularly for the paper). Thanks to our Web site and Allen’s work, I can say this little outfit, NCR, has never before contributed to the global conversation in such a full and prominent way.

Behind the scenes, just about everyone, from publisher Rita Larivee to Web site manager Dennis Coday, to the composing room staff -- has worked long hours to produce not only the newspaper but daily updates on the Web site, We know that some design work for the section on the pope was finalized on a laptop somewhere in Indianapolis between games of the Women’s NCAA basketball tournament. It is an undersized crew that accomplishes outsized performances.

Our readers should be also be assured that when the TV personalities leave the rooftops of Rome in a few weeks, when all the cables have been cleared and the scaffolding comes down and the crews go home, John Allen will still be there, interviewing, digging and ultimately explaining, in his inimitable style, whatever the new papacy holds for the future of the church.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005

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