On Palm Sunday I joined 619 other people in the procession that led Pope Francis into St. Peter's Square. For this Protestant who has spent 33 years covering the Catholic Church, it was an unexpected highlight of a long, hard month.
I was awakened before dawn on Feb. 11 by a call from my editor, asking me to confirm a report that Pope Benedict XVI was resigning. By the time I ran downstairs and cranked up my computer, the Vatican website had crashed. When my husband came downstairs, I kept typing as I said, "I am thirsty. I am hungry." I then turned to him, waving my harms like a madwoman, and said, "And my brain is on fire!"
David Shribman, the executive editor of the Post-Gazette, told me I was going to Rome. That instant decision saved thousands of dollars as air fares and hotel rates quickly escalated.
Roberto Lombardi, who has been my guide, translator and friend in Rome since he took me to earthquake-devastated Assisi in 1997, booked me into a wonderful B&B just outside the Vatican. Our longstanding bond was a shared devotion to St. Francis, despite the fact that I'm Protestant and Roberto had become a Buddhist.
I arrived in Rome Feb. 26. Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh invited me up on the roof of the North American College as the seminarians waved farewell to Pope Benedict's helicopter on the day of his abdication.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, whom I have known since he was Monsignor Dolan and rector of the NAC, was also on the roof. "Ann!" he boomed. "Someone was just telling me that you're the Helen Thomas of the Vatican press corps!"
It's not that I'm wrinkly or anti-Semitic. It's that I often get the first question at the bishops' press conferences.
My work days averaged 18 hours. I lost weight because I didn't have time to eat.
March 13 was a cold, wet, miserable day in Rome. My feet were soaked. I had logged at least six hours in St. Peter's Square and was shivering when white smoke billowed in the dusky sky above the Sistine Chapel.
People screamed and cried. The crowd surged forward. The bells of St. Peter's tolled. The rain stopped.
I was one of the few people in my area who recognized the name "Bergoglio" after "Habemus Papam." But the name "Francis" moved the crowd to ecstasy.
As soon as I finished interviews in the square I ran to the NAC to await cardinals. Most arrived close to midnight. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, kindly let me finish writing in her room at the NAC. I filed my story at 2 a.m., walked back to my B&B and filed video until 7 a.m.
With a pope named Francis, one of my next steps was obvious. I e-mailed Roberto: "Do you want to go back to Assisi?"
When we met to buy train tickets, Roberto told me he had recently returned to the Catholic Church. He was thrilled about Pope Francis.
We began our visit at the Carceri, a mountainside retreat where St. Francis would pray. We walked several miles to San Damiano where he had heard Jesus' call to "Go repair my house."
We had trouble finding a priest to talk on the record. Then Roberto learned that a friar he had known for 30 years was stationed at an Assisi church. We found his name on an active confessional. Roberto went in and, I think, started telling some whopper of a tale in Italian before the priest recognized him, started laughing and embraced him. It became the only interview I've ever done inside a confessional.
My last day in Rome was Palm Sunday. I went early to the square with Adam Potter, a Pittsburgh seminarian. Then a priest handed Adam a yellow card and told him he had been chosen to carry a palm in the procession that would lead Pope Francis into the Mass. Adam said he couldn't do it because he needed to translate for me.
I was weighing the moral dilemma of letting him go and trying to work with my limited Italian when the priest handed me a yellow card. "She can go, too," he told Adam.
This multiplied the dilemmas. "Is it OK for a Protestant to do this?" I asked. He assured me it was. I hastily pondered whether I was breaking any conflict-of-interest rules or sacrificing my independence as a journalist. I decided that since it wasn't a reward for anything and it wasn't even my church, it was probably kosher (so to speak).
Later, I sent an after-the-fact "here's what I did" e-mail to my editors. Their response was to ask me to write this column about it.
Hundreds of us, from laity to cardinals, lined up in the Apostolic Palace. Most carried enormous palm fronds. I had a large olive branch.
Music swelled as we processed into the square under bright sunshine. On every side thousands of people cheered, and waved their olive branches -- the Italian standard for what they call Passion Sunday. I felt elated. The sleep deprivation and tension of the previous month evaporated.
Slowly we formed a circle around the obelisk. It stood directly between Pope Francis and me, so I couldn't see a thing as he blessed everyone's branches.
We were given primo seats just below the altar. I was the only person in the section who didn't go to communion. I respect the house rules.
The airport taxi collected me at 5 a.m. the next day. I had given most of my blessed olive branch to the seminarians, but bagged a few twigs to bring home. I squirmed over the declaration about agricultural products on the customs form. Figuring it was doubly bad to lie about blessed twigs, I checked the "yes" box.
An agent questioned me in Atlanta. I told him the story.
"We'll let you keep them," he said.
Ann Rodgers is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1416).