Television took viewers on a remarkable journey early yesterday -- not just to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, but into an elevated, spiritual space rarely visited by the overly commercial, often crass and always noisy medium of network and cable news.
Standing in St. Peter's Square right after the Mass and clearly still feeling the intense emotion that radiated through those around him, NBC correspondent Keith Miller described the mood by saying, "At least, for the hours of the Mass, it felt like this was the center of the universe."
It felt like that watching at home too.
By and large, the anchors, commentators and correspondents at all the major networks and cable channels followed their marching orders to rein themselves in and let the images and sounds of the funeral Mass and the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered in the square carry the day.
There were moments -- when words or choreographed movements at the open-air altar on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica met with spontaneous eruptions of clapping and chanting from the crowd -- that can be described only as transcendent. Sitting there in the pre-dawn darkness in front of the TV screen, one forgot about everything else except the magnificent tableau of love and worship that seemed be to captured from every camera angle imaginable -- and the jumble of powerful feelings within that the pictures evoked.
Even before the Mass began, the images playing across the TV landscape were dazzling: the flags atop the Apostolic Palace snapping in the wind, street-level views of pilgrims shoulder to shoulder in the square holding aloft and waving flags from countries around the world, and the overhead shots capturing the magisterial geometry of Vatican City and the throng of believers pressing against barricades to get a glimpse of the altar that would hold the remains of Pope John Paul one last time.
Visually, it was almost too much to take in, but then when the Mass began, shortly after 4 a.m., with the Papal Gentlemen emerging from the basilica carrying the cypress coffin, the panorama found its focus. And every network and cable channel covering the Mass -- ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC -- knew it from the moment the coffin was set in place with the Book of Gospels laid open upon it.
The wind blew the book's pages back and forth until a gust rose up and closed it just before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke his first words in celebrating the Mass. Each of the cable channels and networks cut to cameras that caught the moment in a close-up shot.
With the start of the funeral Mass, the experience became as much a feast for the ears as the eyes -- the minor-key chanting inviting one to close one's eyes and ride the melody all the way to Rome. The networks and cable channels varied in how they dealt with the Latin spoken by Ratzinger, along with 11 other languages used during the Mass. Each network and channel offered some form of simultaneous translation in voice-over, and outside of NBC's failing to offer any translation during the first part of Ratzinger's moving homily in Italian, there was no problem keeping up with what was happening at the altar.
The homily brought forth more applause, chanting and clapping from the crowd, and this time there was such fervor and joy in the swelling call for Pope John Paul's sainthood ("Santo! Santo!") that one could feel it even on this side of the screen. But nothing could top the pope's last moment on that sacred stage as the Mass ended and the Papal Gentlemen lifted his coffin onto their shoulders and headed back into St. Peter's Basilica for the trip to the grotto under the papal altar that would be his final resting place.
At the top of the steps, just as it looked as if the coffin was about to disappear into St. Peter's, the pallbearers stopped and reversed direction until they were facing the square -- offering the hundreds of thousands who were on hand one last chance to embrace this beloved pope. The groundswell of chanting and clapping as the funeral bell tolled made for an exquisitely sad, joyous and grand moment of television.
Coverage was not perfect, of course. On CBS, anchorman Harry Smith began talking at the end of the consecration, the most sacred moment of the Mass -- when Catholics believe the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ.
On NBC, Katie Couric interrupted the crowd's outpouring of emotion at the homily, saying: "Let's talk about the spontaneous applause." Brian Williams skillfully cut her off: "Let's listen to the spontaneous applause."
Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith, the anchorman who had prematurely pronounced the pope dead by 25 hours last week, needlessly overstated the service by telling viewers before the start of the Mass that they were about to see "what may be the most spectacular event ever put on television."
As silly as such antics might be, in the end, they were minor annoyances compared with the way television collectively transported viewers to Vatican City.
Describing what he felt standing at the altar as Pope John Paul's coffin was held aloft and tipped one last time toward the crowd before being carried into the basilica, Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said: "It was a very emotional and prayerful moment."
It felt like that watching at home, too.