Peering Through the Pageantry:
Pope Benedict XVI in America
May 2008

by Chip Somodevilla

With skyscrapers reaching into the sky like the spires of a secular cathedral, I dropped to a knee on 5th Avenue as the nun lowered her head and gently kissed her prayer book. I held my breath and released the shutter. She closed the book after praying and singing with her sisters and turned her eyes back to the street in hopes of catching a glimpse of the holiest man she knows. Like tens of thousands of other Catholics, both everyday faithful and clergy alike, they had come to New York to experience and pray with Pope Benedict XVI.

© Chip Somodevilla / 2008 Getty Images
Nuns move through the crowd at Nationals Park Stadium in Washington, D.C., ahead of the papal mass on April 17, 2008. Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a Catholic Mass for an audience of 45,000 people at the ballpark.
When my editors offered me the opportunity to cover the pope both in Washington, D.C., and New York City I gladly accepted. I knew that covering Pope Benedict XVI would be just like covering any head of state: there would be layers and layers of security, bureaucracy, public-affairs people and hours of boredom punctuated by that one fleeting moment. All the opportunities where the press and the people were able to see the pope were staged, packaged and predictable. The pope would arrive on time, move with steady purpose from pre-marked spot to pre-marked spot. He would cruise along in the back of the Pope-mobile waving like an animatronic holy man behind bulletproof glass. The uniformity of vestments and religious procedure combined with the scale of the events would make it all a predictable pageant. Knowing that, I decided to put energy into finding people who hoped this visit would be a holy experience. I wanted to find photographs that spoke to a beautiful combination of the personal and the public: the spiritual privacy within the public religious pageantry.

© Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
A nun from the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity in Seattle, Wash., kisses her prayer book after praying with her sisters while waiting for Pope Benedict XVI on 5th Avenue in New York City, April 19, 2008. The pope made a historic visit to the former site of the World Trade Center and celebrated Mass in Yankee Stadium before departing New York on April 20.
So, meeting the nuns from the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity in Seattle, Wash., was a blessing. They were friendly, offering me food and conversation, as well as humorous, snapping my photo while I took theirs. One moment the nuns circled together under Manhattan's hovering towers and prayed. The next moment, as Pope Benedict XVI rolled by, they were screaming and hopping like 1960s Beatles fans shouting, "We love you, Holy Father!" and "Viva el Papa!"

More experiences like that helped me pull back the pomp from the papal visit. In a stadium filled with 45,000 worshipers in Washington, I sought out a woman with hands clasped, head bowed in prayer. As pilgrims from around the world poured into the nation's capital ahead of the pope's arrival, I found a light moment when a boy high-fives a life-size photo of the pope. After 60,000 people filed into Yankee Stadium, I photographed the woman locked outside the gates shouting for the pope to save and bless her. And, with a little luck and fleet feet I found the subway car carrying a dozen nuns joyfully singing, "We are praying for Pope Benedict!"

The "official" coverage was not without its logistical challenges either. Call times for security sweeps were amazingly early. Buses would leave from the "media hotel" in the wee hours of the morning to carry groggy journalists to Nationals Park, Yankee Stadium and Ground Zero. Because I cover heads of state in D.C. every day, I'm used to invasive screening applied to our bodies and our gear. Shooters not accustomed to this got a real lesson in what is public and what is private at the hands of the Secret Service. All pockets were turned out and metal removed, bags emptied, laptops had to be pulled from bags and booted up, lens caps removed, cameras turned on and shutters tripped. And, finally, a clumsy, wet-nosed K-9 stepped all over our gear, sniffing for bomb-making material and leaving a mess behind.

© Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Rosa Rodriguez of Queens, N.Y., wears a scarf with the image of Pope Benedict XVI on her head while singing and praying across the street from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, N.Y., April 20, 2008. The pontiff celebrated Mass for about 55,000 people at the stadium.
There was also the constant pressure of deadlines. The New York Police Department informed us that no stepladders or backpacks were going to be allowed along 5th Avenue as the pope moved up the street past thousands of adoring fans. To satisfy the 24-second news cycle and instant deadline world, Getty Images reserved a hotel room near the pope's route from which we could transmit images quickly. But, as with all massive and ever-shifting events on the streets of New York, I saw plenty of backpacks and more than a handful of ladders on the avenue. However, I did talk to a photographer who was threatened with arrest for opening his laptop on the street even after the pontiff had long passed.

The prayer service at Ground Zero posed a real challenge because our preset shooting position changed several times. Our original position in the pit was two stories up, 100 yards away and behind the pope. Secret Service didn't like us there and moved us closer and in a position to see the pope in profile. "Great!" we thought until we realized that the ceremony's attendant would block us from seeing the pope during most of the ceremony.

But at the end of the visit, I felt my best images were of the least fortunate and most faithful. These included images of the worshippers who didn't score the much-coveted tickets to see the pope's Mass, milling around outside the stadium, buying bootleg buttons and Bibles with the pope's image not because it was the officially sanctioned memorabilia but because they love him. My cameras focused on the crowd that stood for hours for a chance to see the Pope-mobile from half-a-mile away simply because it carried a man, though small in stature, who carried the hope and faith of millions of people.

© Chip Somodevilla

Chip Somodevilla is a staff photographer working for Getty Images in Washington, D.C. A 1995 graduate of the University of North Texas, Somodevilla worked for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Detroit Free Press before moving to the nation's capital in 2004. He was twice named Michigan Press Photographer of the Year and was awarded the Political Photo of the Year by the White House News Photographers Association in 2007. His work has been honored by the University of Missouri's Pictures of the Year International and the National Press Photographers Association's Best of Photojournalism competitions. Chip's photography has been published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and many other publications. He lives in Washington with his wife and daughter.

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