Tim Russert the inspiration for this week’s ‘Today’ show Vatican Reports

By Chris Ariens 

The Russert family in the Vatican Library in June 2008. (Courtesy: Russert family/NBC News)

This morning, about an hour before the “Today” show went on the air, co-anchor Matt Lauer had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, a rare event for most anyone. But the groundwork for this reporting trip goes back more than three years.

“Today” show EP Jim Bell tells TVNewser the Vatican was “a particular passion of Tim Russert‘s.” Russert, the Washington Bureau chief for NBC News, had his own audience with Pope Benedict XVI just days before he died, three years ago this month. Russert died of a heart attack in the Washington Bureau. His family — wife Maureen Orth and son Luke Russert — were still in Europe concluding what had been a family vacation.

“Tim and I had been working on a trip for TODAY that he was going to be a part of,” Bell says. But the 2008 election started to heat up. “So we decided to hold off until after the election.” Russert died June 13, 2008.

“A trip to the Vatican and an audience with Pope Benedict still ranked high on the show’s ‘to do’ list,” Bell says. The show had been planning it for this past March, but the news cycle — the Arab Spring and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan — led to another postponement.

Lauer along with Al Roker were in St. Peter’s Square this morning, and afterward shared a private moment with the pontiff and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Today, Dolan will give Lauer and Roker a private tour through the Basilica including a look at Pope John Paul II’s newly installed tomb — the first look for an American broadcast. NBC’s Anne Thompson will examine how the church has embraced social media. Those stories air tomorrow on a split edition of “Today.”