It was said that ABC, to atone for despoiling Holy Week with "The Thorn Birds," would calm protests from Catholic groups with "The Pope and His Vatican," a documentary at 7 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 7.
An unruffling of pious feathers may result. But ABC News, promoting this special as "an hour of extraordinary television," has broader intentions: "This is a program for all people, whether Catholic or not, who want to understand the aims and attitudes of the man who rules the Holy See."
The Vatican allowed camera crews into parts of its 104 acres previously cloistered from outsiders. The pope was followed for more than a year. ABC calls it "unprecedented access."
Much of the footage is beautiful--John Paul II meditatively walking in the verdant papal gardens overlooking Rome. Much is striking: a view of the pope from behind as he stands in a Vatican window to address the crowd in St. Peter's Square. And much is historically rich: a look at basement tombs where some bones are said to be those of St. Peter, the first pope.
As a travelogue through one of the world's best-known but least-examined states, the documentary is entertaining. In bright colors--red-sashed cardinals and bishops seem to be everywhere, either to praise or gaze on the pope--the cameras capture the enigmas of Catholicism's headquarters. Another men's club--perhaps the world's most exclusive--has been penetrated.
But a grand emptiness persists. This is billed as a news special, yet no news is presented. Cameras catching the pope buttering his own toast at breakfast or closing his eyes during prayers or footage of curia cardinals shuffling papers at their desks may fulfill ABC's statement that the program includes "scenes never before recorded in the history of the papacy." No Easter bells, though, should be pealed proclaiming that this is journalism.
Rome bureau chief Bill Blakemore, allowed into the holy quarters, appears to be paralyzed by the fear of blasphemy. In the past year, the Vatican has been messily entangled in an international banking scandal. Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus, the Chicago prelate empowered in the Vatican to count and invest the church's money, is neither interviewed nor mentioned. Marcinkus also once served as the advance man for the pope's trips. Now he is off the scene. What happened? How do heads roll at the Vatican?
No such questions are asked by Blakemore. The closest we get to Vatican finances is the observation that Michelangelo's dome over St. Peter's required a century to build, "nearly bankrupting the church."
Blakemore takes one step up to controversy but then jumps two steps back. He discusses the canonization of Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish priest who gave his life in Auschwitz in place of a man with a family, and focuses on whether the pope pushed through Kolbe's canonization too fast. Some unnamed cardinals, apparently faithful to the often centuries-long process of conferring sainthood, have been grumbling about the speed. Blakemore, however, says nothing about the greater and more significant controversy--the charges that Kolbe once had an anti-Semitic strain in his thinking.
ABC also has a little problem with balance. The pope, for example, is shown in Nicaragua, in the now famous scene of the receiving line where the Rev. Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaragua's minister of culture, kneels to kiss the papal ring. Instead, John Paul withdraws his hand and wags a finger in the face of the priest. The pope lectures, "You must straighten out your position with the church."
Why wasn't Father Cardenal, who studied under Thomas Merton at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, interviewed about the pope's visit?
Cardenal is not alone; the Rev. Robert Drinan is also ignored. The Boston Jesuit, head of Americans for Democratic Action, was ordered out of Congress by the pope. Drinan is shown on the program and his bouncing is mentioned, but he wasn't asked for his reactions.
The "unprecedented access" ABC touts turns out to be Blakemore's catching the pope on the wing--once in a crowded airplane aisle and another time in a packed corridor. Blakemore is as daring as an altar boy when he asks the pope: "When you see these millions of people cheering for you, how does that affect you?" And John Paul is ready: ". . . I don't think they cheer for myself but for the successor of Peter, Christ living in the church."
The Vatican, it is clear, is giving away nothing except the scenery. The pope's thoughts about such current controversies as American bishops' disarmament stance or the pleadings of married priests to be allowed to return to their ministries are left as unexplored as the curia's views of power sharing.
Things should have been reversed: one hour for "The Thorn Birds" and 10 hours of the pope and the Vatican. Instead, ABC gave us a surfeit of Father Ralph and only the surface of John Paul.