Before the Smoke Clears, Covering the Conclave

By Gail Shister 

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In the best of times, covering the election of a new Pope is no picnic. When it follows the first Papal resignation in nearly 600 years, you might need a few ‘Hail Mary’s.’

“There are so many moving parts to the story, you can’t really cover it all,” says CBS’s Allen Pizzey, based in Rome since 1989. “Access is limited, and the Vatican is a very secretive organization.”

Says NBC/MSNBC’s Chris Jansing: “It’s not like we know that Obama or Romney is going to be elected. It all happens behind closed doors. This is a complicated organization at a very complicated time, when many are calling for change.”

Pizzey, 66, a “non-religious” Anglican from Canada, and Jansing, 56, a devout Catholic from Ohio, were both shocked when Pope Benedict XVI announced last week that he would step down Feb. 28, citing ill health. Pizzey and Jansing had covered his election in 2005.

“Never a dull moment in the Roman Catholic Church,” Jansing says. “The idea of a Pope resigning was stunning. Popes don’t resign. It used to be they got sick, and it didn’t take very long before they died.. .. This represents a sea change in the way we view the office.”

In retrospect, Pizzey says, “the signs were there, but we didn’t read the symbolism the way we should have.” Based on the information he has since gathered, the Pope “decided some time ago that if he couldn’t do the job the way it should be done, he didn’t want to do it.”

Pizzey labels the decision as “a lesson for a lot of CEOs.”

Adding to the story’s difficulty factor, neither Pizzey nor Jansing covers the Vatican as a full-time beat. He travels to hot spots throughout the world; she anchors her own weekday show on MSNBC and reports for NBC News.

Part-time Pope-ologists “will never infiltrate the machinations of the Vatican,” Pizzey explains. He gets intel from European journalists on full-time Vatican duty. “It’s a relatively collegial atmosphere,” he says. “Not like something you’d experience in the States.”

By church canon, the conclave to elect the next Pope is supposed to begin March 15 in Rome. Given that Benedict is still living, however, it may start earlier, according to the Vatican. A total of 117 cardinals from around the world will gather.

To Jansing, a lifelong Catholic, the Vatican holds special significance. (Her first visit “was extremely emotional,” she recalls.) In 2004, she arranged for her mother and her sister, who was

very ill at the time, to have an audience with John Paul II. Her sister later died.

Speaking of family, Jansing’s could start its own parish. Her father, a factory worker, and mother, a baker, produced 12 children – seven boys, five girls. As the youngest, Jansing learned quickly how to navigate chaos. At mealtimes, for example, “get there first.”

Their house had three bedrooms –one for boys, one for girls, one for parents. For the first two years of her life, Jansing slept in a drawer in her parent’s room and a crib in the hallway, she says. Two of her brothers still live in the house.

For even more togetherness, the family shared one bathroom. Bathroom time “was horrible,” Jansing remembers. “You had to fend for yourself.” In desperate situations, you ran next door, to grandma’s house.

Back to the Vatican, Pizzey says the Papal election can’t be covered like a horse race because “we don’t know which horses are in the running.” Of course, that doesn’t stop correspondents from creating their own lists of possible hopefuls.

Unlike presidential candidates, however, the last thing a would-be Pope wants to be is a frontrunner, in Pizzey’s view.

“Frontrunners almost never win,” he says. “Anybody who wants the job doesn’t understand what it is. They’re thought of as too ambitious. An endless amount of politicking goes on behind the scenes.”

Pizzey and Jansing agree that one of the toughest parts of the story will be determining whether the smoke coming from the Vatican chimney is white (a new Pope has been elected) or black (no winner yet.)

In 2005, against a grey evening sky, it was hard to make out the color, they say. It wasn’t until the church bells began ringing that the world knew for sure the deal was done.