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Issue Date:  May 6, 2005

From the Editor's Desk

Waiting to see what unfolds

A little more than a week into the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the Catholic world seems to be settling into various levels of getting used to the new reality. The reaction runs the full spectrum from elation to deep disappointment. Twice in Rome I ran into Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, once in a restaurant and once at the airport as I was making my way home, and both times he pronounced that it was no surprise that he was very happy with the results of the papal election.

At the airport, I also ran into Fr. Andrew Greeley, with whom I’d had lunch a week or so earlier, and we had a chance to chat as we waited to board the same flight to Chicago. His assessment was pretty much what he wrote in his column for the Chicago Sun- Times: That we should all give the new pope a chance, that in the first days of his pontificate, at least, he was speaking in welcoming and conciliatory tones.

If the mail and opinion coming into NCR is any indication, most Catholics are in that middle ground, they want the pope to succeed, they want to be included, they are hoping for a papacy of compassion and inclusion, and they’re willing to wait to see what unfolds before making too many judgments. That mood is reflected this week, by the way, in the opinion pieces by Catholic authors Eugene Kennedy ( see story) and Paul Wilkes ( see story).

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It has been gratifying to read the volume of positive responses that have come in by various e-mail and regular mail means, through this office and by way of John Allen, enthusiastically endorsing NCR’s coverage of recent weeks. As I said in an earlier editor’s note, I don’t think this little enterprise has ever contributed to such a degree to the international understanding of the Catholic church -- how it operates, the range of opinion and thought it incorporates, its history and glories as well as its problems -- as it has in recent months through the paper, the Web site and, especially, Allen’s work on CNN and other outlets.

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I am sometimes amused when people who haven’t visited our Kansas City, Mo., headquarters begin speaking of us in terms that suggest a far-flung international operation with endless resources. The reality is that about 30 people work here, doing just about everything required from editorial work to marketing to bookkeeping and ad selling for not only the NCR newsweekly but the other publications -- Celebration, a premier worship resource; and our smaller parish publications, Catechist Connection, The Reflecting Community and Parish Life.

When we take the show on the road, as we did to Rome, we don’t go the four-star route. While many of the major outlets took over the best hotels and rooftops in the vicinity of St. Peter’s, NCR camped in an apartment on Via Gregorio VII, about a 10-minute walk from the Vatican. In normal times the two-room apartment serves as John Allen’s office. It’s right next door to the apartment where he lives. The weeks of the interregnum and conclave, however, it was turned into an office and living quarters for Sr. Rita Larivee, publisher, Sr. Joan Chittister, columnist, and yours truly. They took the cots in the bedroom; I slept on a sofa in what became the newsroom.

Italy being Italy, the high-speed line that had been ordered arrived in the middle of the first week; it was activated, I think, as Sr. Larivee and I were boarding the plane for home.

So all the work on the Web site, the constant updates and postings by John and his young assistant for that period, Stacy Meichtry, by Sr. Chittister and others was handled with a simple telephone line and modem. Another line was jury-rigged for our use from John’s apartment. As Sr. Larivee described elsewhere, “We had two phone lines, one TV set, a $59 printer and a 1950 rotary phone.” No kidding. The last was necessary for overseas calls because a fax phone used for the purpose broke shortly after we arrived, and the Italian cell phones we were using worked only in country.

You do the math -- two working phone lines and three users whose lives have become defined by access to the Internet. It was a den of electronic junkies with someone always looking for the next fix.

Sr. Larivee was the wizard behind the posting from Rome and the daily updating of the content and look of the Web site. And Shannon, John’s wife, indefatigable in helping in the setup, in directing us around town, in translating, calling cabs, and assisting us to get to our appointments, helped us all imagine that we really knew what we were doing and where we were going.

Suffice to say, when it was all over we were grateful that the phone lines didn’t crash, that the Web site withstood unprecedented traffic, that the folks back home produced two distinctive issues and that we all remain friends. The rest of the story, as someone said, deserves telling over a good beer.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2005

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