But all Vatican reporters have developed strategies for covering one of the world's most secretive institutions. First and foremost, they stick together.
Unlike their Washington counterparts, the pope's press pack seems downright competitive about who can be the most helpful to colleagues: Did you get that full quote? Want to hear it again? Anybody interested in my phoner with Monsignor Such-and-Such?
This is probably not due to the pastoral influence of the Holy Father; the Italian journalistic culture that naturally dominates here encourages a uniformity of thought that goes beyond even the who-we-hate/who-is-great lock step of the Washington press corps. And with so few hard facts available, sharing is a matter of self-preservation. At the Vatican, press pools are set up by a committee of journalists, so if you don't work and play well, you may find yourself in a lonely post outside the pope's early morning mass.
Just this week, one well-known writer was denied entree to the president's meeting with Pope John Paul II. This was his penalty for having tried to turn an interview with a cardinal, poached during pool duty in Armenia a year ago, into an exclusive story. "We have a long memory, and for people who stray, this is the punishment," said one long-time Vatican reporter, who wasn't in on the decision but enthusiastically concurred with it.
Still, traveling with the Vatican press corps is quite a pleasant culture shock after Washington. For one thing, the papal charter is a regular party plane compared to Air Force One. Flight attendants pass out cartons of cigarettes at the beginning of papal trips, rosaries blessed by John Paul at the end—and drinks pretty much throughout.
A number of reporters have been on the beat since the beginning, or near the beginning, of this papacy 24 years ago, and they have been through a lot together. So, for many, watching the pope's decline is much more than just another story.