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Behind the Scenes: Thrilling day covering the pope

  • Story Highlights
  • Correspondent Ed Henry conveys personal connection to papal Mass
  • Well-connected Catholics have worked political connections to get invitation
  • Baseball star Mike Piazza says Benedict is starting to "come out of his shell"
  • For Henry, this is an assignment "that will be hard to top"
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By Ed Henry
CNN White House Correspondent
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry, who describes himself as "not a perfect Catholic," describes covering Pope Benedict XVI's Mass.


CNN White House correspondent Ed Henry describes the scene at Pope Benedict's Mass in Washington.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Covering the White House is a thrill for a political junkie like me, but nothing prepared me for the euphoria of reporting on Pope Benedict XVI's Mass at Nationals Park for about 46,000 worshippers here on Thursday.

I woke up at 2:45 a.m. in order to drive to a downtown hotel to catch a 4:30 a.m. bus with other journalists to the ballpark in time to make it through the massive security and get prepared to do live shots for all of CNN's platforms. It was still dark outside when I arrived but the sky was lit up by an incredibly large moon glowing over the ballpark -- a baseball cathedral transformed into a church thanks to a 50-by-50-foot altar in centerfield.

By 6 a.m., worshippers were already starting to trickle in. There were even 100 priests here to hear confessions from the early risers, part of a total of 1,300 priests, 250 bishops and 14 cardinals attending Mass.

Part of my excitement came from the fact that I am Catholic -- not a perfect Catholic, but someone who tries to take my faith seriously and is still thankful to my parents for sending me to a Catholic high school that I am convinced put me on a path to the profession I love so much today.

In my coverage I did not want to overdo my personal connection, but I didn't want to leave it out either. So in my first live shot with anchor Adrian Finnegan on CNN International, I mentioned that I'm Catholic and how excited I was to be a part of this day.

To his credit, Adrian saw an opening to press me a bit on my own perspective and I told him that some of my friends had entered lotteries at their local parishes to try and get a coveted ticket to the Mass.

Every well-connected Catholic in the nation's capital has been working all their political contacts to snag an invite.

After that first live shot, a producer in the control room surprised me by telling me that he too was Catholic and was mesmerized by seeing the late Pope John Paul II. The producer said he was glad I mentioned my religion because it added just a little more insight to the scene.

A few minutes later I was startled again to receive a very nice e-mail from a colleague overseas that I have never met.

She wrote, "I thought the personal reflection was lovely. I went to Battery Park [in New York] in 1979 to see JP2 [John Paul II] on his first U.S. visit. Enjoy today."

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A short while later at the ballpark I spoke to a man from Maryland, Gary Williams, who is a chef for the priests at St. Mary's Church. Williams doesn't have any political connections so he had been reading the newspaper the last two weeks dreaming of landing a ticket to Mass.

He had given up hope until Wednesday, when the priests at his parish surprised him by saying they had landed an invite for him.

Williams, who only converted to Catholicism a year ago, spoke movingly about the chance to participate in the Mass, now just a couple of hours away. The gaze in his eyes reminded me again how lucky I was.

Then I met baseball star Mike Piazza, a prominent Catholic, who agreed to an interview. He told me a funny story about how he had met Pope John Paul II years ago and the pontiff said in that low but distinct voice, "God Bless You Mike Piazza, baseball great." Video Watch Piazza talk of the 'true meaning of being Catholic' »

Piazza laughed about the experience and then told me he thinks Benedict, who has a scholarly background, is starting to "come out of his shell" and embrace crowds more like his predecessor.

"He was so entrenched in the academic and scriptural part of being priest -- that was his job so to speak -- and now that he is on the stage as Pontiff I see him enjoy it a little bit more," Piazza said. "He is letting go. He is being more relaxed and enjoying the interaction with people."

That was on full display 30 minutes before the Mass began, when the pontiff did a lap around the ballpark in his famous Popemobile.


People in the crowd were on their feet, absolutely screaming at the top of their lungs, as they got their first glimpses of the Holy Father. He would wave and another roar would ripple through the throngs.

It was electric. Simply put, this was an assignment that will be hard to top. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Pope Benedict XVIThe Roman Catholic ChurchMike Piazza

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