My Greatest Journalistic Moment

3 April 2005

My Greatest Journalistic Moment

By Gwynne Dyer

In the days to come we will be hearing a great deal about Pope John Paul II’s impact on the Catholic Church, the candidates for the succession, and what kind of straw they burn with the ballots to get that black smoke. This is also the first time that a pope has died in the past 27 years, however, and that finally gives me a hook for my story about how the last pope died. Or rather, about how I covered the last pope’s death. Or actually, how I didn’t cover it.

It was late September of 1978, and we had been driving across the Alps all night from Germany, three hot-shot young journalists who were all destined for medium-sized things. We were doing this radio series on war, and we were just passing through Italy on our way to Ciampino airfield and an aircraft carrier out in the Mediterranean, but we were planning to stop in Rome for a day or two, so I’d arranged for us to stay at a friend’s flat up in Trastevere — quite near the Vatican, in fact.

We stopped at a service area an hour north of Rome to phone her, because we needed to get the key before she left for work. We left Mati sleeping in the car — and when we came back he told us this weird story about how a truck-driver had tried to tell him something. Mati hadn’t understood a word (the only languages he spoke were Estonian and English), but he was a great mimic, so he just parroted what the man had said.

“Il papa e morte,” the man had said, and Mati had looked blank, so he’d repeated it in German: “Der Papst ist gestorben.” Then he’d put his hands together and sort of laid his head on them, as if he were going to sleep — or dying. “That means The Pope is dead’,” I said, and we all laughed at the poor truck-driver. How could anybody be so out of touch? The pope had died over a month ago; Luciano Albino had already been chosen in his place, and had taken the name John Paul.

So we drove on into Rome. (There was nothing on the radio but hymns, so we switched it off.) We got to Trastevere too late to catch Fareeda before she left for work, so we went to the centre of town and had a second breakfast, then sat in a café and had some wine.

Meanwhile, back in London, they’re frantic to get in touch with us. They know we’re due in Rome today, and we’re just about the only English-speaking radio journalists in town. There were hundreds of them here last month, when the new pope was crowned, but they’ve all gone home again. However, this is well before the age of mobile phones, so we sit there in blissful ignorance and have some more wine. And some more.

It was about three in the afternoon when I noticed a man walking by with a paper folded under his arm and the headline showing. It read: ‘Il papa e morte.’ Oh bugger. The new one has died too. We’re in trouble now.

So we sent Tom off to phone London with some cock-and-bull story about how we were trapped all night in an Alpine pass and had just arrived in Rome, while Mati and I dashed over to St. Peter’s Square to get some vox pop. By the time we got there, alas, everybody was long gone. Earlier the square had been full of weeping old ladies on their knees, but then they all went home to make lunch and they didn’t come back. People do love an excuse to mourn together in public, but there was a limit to what you could do with a man who had only been pope for 33 days.

There was nobody around except a few desperate journalistic stragglers interviewing each other, so we did the same and “pigeoned” the resulting sorry effort off to London with an obliging Alitalia stewardess. (Yes, technology was once that low.) Mercifully, it got lost in transit. Then we solemnly vowed that we would never tell anybody else about the day, and sealed the pact with another bottle of wine.

The only thing I learned from all this was the real source of the Beatles song “Maxwell’s silver hammer.” The chorus had always seemed a bit obscure: “Bang, bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down on her head. Clang, clang, Maxwell’s silver hammer made sure that she was dead.” But Paul McCartney had been born Catholic, and soon the media were once again full of trivia about Vatican rituals — like the deathbed one where a cardinal bangs the late pope on the forehead five times with a silver hammer, while calling out his real name, to make sure that he is dead.

Luciano Albino didn’t reply, so the brief reign of Pope John Paul I was declared over and Karol Wojtyla got the chance to remake the Catholic Church in his own authoritarian and ultra-conservative image. His rock-star charisma deflected attention from the collapse in church attendance, the haemorrhage of priests (an estimated 100,000 quit the priesthood during his papacy), and the breaking of the Catholic monopoly in Latin America (where up to a quarter of the poor have converted to evangelical Protestant sects in the past quarter-century). But how different it might have been if Albino hadn’t had his heart attack.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Meanwhile…more”; and “There was…wine.”)