It’s not every day one sits 20 feet from a cardinal as he freely extends his knowledge to you and your colleagues.
But there was Cardinal George Pell of Australia, the prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, talking to a roomful of journalists at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome about the state of the Holy See’s finances.
And he was spinning gold — great quote after great quote. He did an amazing job of boiling down the monumental task the secretariat faces as it has been charged by Pope Francis hold accountable the entities at the Vatican.
And halfway through his hourlong talk, before he began answering questions from around the room, Father John Wauck of the university, who helped moderate the discussion, said the words dreaded by journalists.
“Cardinal Pell informed me that this is all off the record.”
Throughout his incredibly frank talk, the room seemed to inflate with his every breath, like a child’s balloon. After the announcement, it was like the balloon was let go, rapidly deflating as it skittered from one corner of the room to the next.
And personally, I found myself in a bit of a pickle.
At the beginning of the journalistic conference, Father Wauck noted that some speakers might with to have their comments remain off the record, but over the course of the first 2 3/4 days, nobody had invoked that right.
Not until Cardinal Pell. And not until I had tweeted a handful of the pearls he was tossing about the room. But because journalists live by a code of honor, I deleted the tweets and maintained my integrity (for that day, at least — one day at a time).
The rest of Day 3 of the conference, titled “The Church Up Close: Covering Catholicism in the Age of Francis,” couldn’t have more soul-filling.
The group — there are nearly 40 of us from across the world — started out by walking through St. Peter’s Square to attend the pope’s general audience. And then we kept walking, closer and closer to the Holy Father’s podium just underneath the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica. Unbeknownst to me, the organizers of the conference had arranged for special tickets, and our group sat adjacent to Pope Francis. Seeing him up close — not on television or through clips on the internet — and being able to view his mannerisms gave me a greater appreciation for his gentleness and soft-spoken nature. It was a moment that will stick with me.
Following the general audience, we met with Greg Burke, director of the Vatican Press Office, who explained his journey from being a secular reporter to Pope Francis’ spokesman.
Burke, a St. Louis native who was a Vatican correspondent for Time magazine and Fox News, went from covering Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to being the spokesman for perhaps the most free-wheeling pontiff in history.
“It’s a lot easier being a reporter than it is on this side of things,” he said (on the record).
Members of the conference also learned about the structure and mission of the Roman Curia as well as the various Eastern Churches in communion with Rome.
But aside from Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell’s insights into the ongoing financial reform was the highlight.
I just wish I could tell you more about it.
Scott Warden is OSV's associate editor for content. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Warden