Covering a sick pope

Shortly after Pope John Paul II came home from his first February hospitalization, my NBC colleague, Keith Miller, sent me an e-mail. A foreign correspondent for decades, Keith has seen a lot in his time. But even he found “the level of speculation, rumor, and innuendo that surrounded the Pope’s bout of ill health…amazing.”

What accounts for all this? Is it the press (as the Vatican would insist), or the Vatican’s mishandling of the press (as the media would insist)? Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Two false assumptions continue to blur the vision of a lot of journalists (although not, I’m happy to report, the people in charge at NBC or my friend John Allen, whose CNN commentary was level-headed and perceptive, as usual). The first false assumption is captured in a default phrase we’ve heard since 1994: “the frail and failing Pope” — a phrase so common that it’s assumed it must be true. Yet these ubiquitous adjectives obscure far more than they illuminate. The Pope isn’t “failing,” if by “failing” we mean someone who’s likely to die at any moment. As for “frail,” when you touch John Paul II today, he still feels like the sturdy athlete he once was. Of course he’s got a serious neurological problem and terrible arthritis in his knees; twenty-six-plus years in the papacy have taken a considerable toll. But if “frail” connotes a porcelain figurine ready to shatter at any moment, that isn’t the Pope. A lot of the press corps believed its own “frail and failing” story-line — and overly excited reporting (not to mention groundless speculation) followed.

The second false assumption that distorts reporting from Rome is the widespread conviction among reporters that the Vatican lies, or at least dissembles, about everything. Like every other institution of consequence in the world, the Holy See “manages” the news, in the sense of putting out the story it wants told. In this instance, though, as in previous cases when John Paul II was hospitalized, the story was, in the main, accurate — if sometimes delayed longer than makes sense in a global 24/7 news environment. Still, if you believe “they’re always hiding something important” or “they’re always spinning,” it’s hard to see the facts for what they are. (At the beginning of the first February frenzy, I was trying to calm an interviewer who, following the “failing”/dissembling script, asked, “Well, then, why did they take the Pope to the hospital so late at night?” “Because,” I explained, “that’s when he was feeling poorly.”)

It’s certainly true that the higher echelons of the Curia could be more disciplined in their interactions with world press; ill-advised comments from one senior figure triggered a month-long sub-frenzy to the main frenzy, this time about a papal abdication being under active consideration among senior churchmen. On the other hand, that sub-frenzy was also the product of a media machine that, having been revved up to maximum RPMs, had to find something to justify staying at fever pitch for a while longer.

I hope some lessons were learned in recent weeks. It’s entirely possible that John Paul II will make many more trips to the Gemelli before he’s called home to glory; it would be ridiculous if every future papal hospitalization triggered frantic speculation and rumor-mongering. By the same token, the codicil to this first lesson is that people really do care; the outpouring of concern for the Holy Father bore global witness to the unique place he holds in the hearts of men and women around the world, many of whom aren’t Catholics. So attention should be paid — if it’s serious, sober-minded attention, not fevered, groundless speculation.

The other lesson to be taken from last month’s drama is that is that the cast of characters isn’t necessarily in place for the next conclave — at least not yet. Don’t be surprised, for example, if John Paul II creates new cardinals at some point this year.

All of which brings to mind a truth neatly articulated by that great metaphysician, Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.