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COM Goes to the Vatican

Team to cover historic canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II


This weekend an estimated three to four million Catholics will gather in Rome to celebrate the canonization of two 20th-century popes. Among the thousands of journalists from around the globe covering the historic event in Vatican City is a BU team led by Emmy-winning veteran journalist and former local anchor R. D. Sahl. Their coverage will be broadcast live on CatholicTV Network and the BU News Service.

The canonizations on Sunday will honor two of the most popular popes of modern times: John XXIII, who led the Church from 1958 to 1963 and convoked the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II)—a series of sweeping reforms that transformed the Catholic Church—and John Paul II, pope from 1978 to 2005, whose papacy is credited with promoting ecumenicalism and helping to end Communism in Russia.

Sunday’s ceremony marks the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that two popes are being elevated to sainthood on the same day; some critics say that it’s an attempt by the Church to promote unity at a time when church membership is waning. Pope Francis’ decision to canonize the two together is seen as a symbolic effort to bring the conservative (supporters of John Paul II’s canonization) and liberal (supporters of John XXIII’s canonization) factions of the Church closer.

News of the two-for-one canonization struck Sahl as a unique opportunity for young journalists. Over his 40-year career, the College of Communication associate professor of the professional practice has often covered the Vatican: the elevation of two Boston archbishops to the College of Cardinals, the Vatican’s response to the Catholic priest sex-abuse crisis, the funeral of John Paul II, and the election of Pope Francis in 2013.

“It becomes even more unusual in that you have two dead popes being celebrated by two living ones—Francis, and the expectation that the retired Benedict XVI will attend,” Sahl says. “And in the audience, among the College of Cardinals, is possibly the next pope.”

Sahl tapped students Kirsten Johnson (COM’14) and Matt Younis (COM’14) to travel to Rome with him, noting that the two broadcast journalism students get how to tell a big story like this. The team arrived in Rome on Thursday and will stay until Monday. They have a packed schedule, with no downtime likely for sightseeing, Sahl says.

While it was a given that their coverage would air live on the BU News Service, Sahl wondered if they could interest another news outlet in their stories and pull in a bigger audience. He reached out to Father Robert Reed (COM’12), president of CatholicTV Network, who had earned a master’s in television management at BU. Reed, it turned out, was eager for content.

The BU team has been credentialed by the Press Office of the Holy See, a fairly involved procedure that gives them access to the area around St. Peter’s Square. But even with those press passes, there is no guarantee that they will be able to navigate the massive crowds. Sahl remembers  the challenges of having to wend his way through three million people to cover John Paul II’s funeral—one of those challenges having to climb over people sleeping in the streets to get to work every morning.

The BU journalists plan to focus their coverage on local reaction to the canonizations: stories in the works include interviews with Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, who was US ambassador to the Holy See from 1993 to 1997, and a former member of the Vatican Swiss Guard who was John Paul II’s personal guard, as well as profiles of some of the 50 local seminarians from Blessed John XXIII Seminary, in Weston, attending the canonization.

This wide variety of stories requires a special attention to detail, something that Sahl is an expert on after a lifetime of reporting. To organize coverage of this magnitude, he says, he keeps all of his information together in a massive three-ring binder with six tabs, neatly storing papers with travel arrangements, interview logistics, and important phone numbers. “My former colleagues in television would always have great fun with me,” he says. “They knew it was serious if I had a bible like this.”

Despite the planning, Sahl has stressed to Johnson and Younis the importance of taking advantage of chance-met opportunities for an unplanned story, saying that a reporter never knows who he or she could run into.

Johnson, a managing editor at the BU News Service, is honored that Sahl chose her for the trip. She says she’s both nervous and excited by the opportunity to report from Rome.

Younis is currently freelancing at WCVB Channel 5 as an assignment editor. “I’ve never done anything with thousands of people, never mind millions,” he says. “Think how many stories and types of people will be there. It will be really exciting.”

See the COM team’s BU News Service coverage of the canonizations and the events leading up to them here. Coverage will also be broadcast on CatholicTV.

Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

One Comment on COM Goes to the Vatican

  • philip pullella on 04.25.2014 at 3:06 am

    Welcome BU! I am a COM (actually SPC) graduate (76) and have been covering the Vatican for 30 years here in Rome for Reuters and before that for UPI . Saw the whole world with JPII. Look me up if you get a chance.

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