FRANCIS X. Rocca has met Pope Francis at least 15 times.
That’s the number of international trips he has made as a member of the Vatican press corps aboard the Pontiff’s plane.
“Every time we go on a papal trip he comes down the aisle and greets everyone, one by one,” Mr Rocca, the Vatican correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, said during a short visit to Australia recently.
“You always get the feeling that he is looking at you and listening to you. I must say that is very striking.
“You don’t get the feeling his gaze is just wandering and he’s thinking about the next thing and just shaking your hand mechanically.
“You get the idea he is listening intently and saying ‘do you have something to tell me?’
“It must be very tiring to go and greet 75 journalists one-by-one.
“Frequently people give him things, show him pictures and ask him for blessings.”
As well as travelling with Pope Francis, Mr Rocca regularly meets the Pontiff, (albeit fleetingly) during formal events and press conferences in Rome.
He says it’s exciting work reporting on the leader of the Church with 1.2 billion followers.
“There’s no figure like the Pope. He’s a unique figure in the sense that even non-Catholics listen often to what he says … it’s a privilege to be chronicling that,” Mr Rocca said.
“Long and philosophical conversations I haven’t had unfortunately.”
A native of Washington D.C., an Italian speaker, and with great grandparents from Italy, Mr Rocca has worked in Rome since 2002, and covered the Vatican for the past 13 years, first for Religion News Service, then running the Rome bureau of the Catholic News Service and then with The Wall Street Journal for five years.
Interestingly, he completed a doctorate in Renaissance studies from Yale University with a dissertation that explored the fascinating world of 16th century Spanish King Philip the second, who built El Escorial – a palace and monastery pantheon, where the Spanish court co-existed with the life of its monks.
“In a sense, without realising it, it was good preparation for what I am doing now… it is a historical perspective that relates to the Vatican, a court, that has its spiritual side and is very much involved in the real world,” Mr Rocca said.
“It engages in the politics of the Church and of the wider world.”
On covering the Vatican on a day-to-day basis, Mr Rocca said he “can’t imagine a better ‘beat’”.
“You never stop learning more. The Vatican has a very steep learning curve,” he said.
“If you’re writing about the Church there’s more than 2000 years of history, there’s a precedent for almost everything, so you have to be very careful about saying ‘for the first time’.
“For example, when former Cardinal McCarrick was laicised last year, I asked an eminent Church historian ‘is this the first cardinal to have been de-frocked’, and he wasn’t sure.
“So we (journalists) said, ‘in modern times’, just to be safe, because it would take a real historical investigation and can’t be checked very quickly.”
During his years reporting the Vatican, Mr Rocca recalls the first papal tweet (that came from Pope Benedict XVI in 2012), a shift to more media conferences and rapid translations of news content in multiple languages.
Mr Rocca was visiting Brisbane and interviewed Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge.
Yet he still found himself writing news about Pope Francis’ highly-anticipated apostolic exhortation Querida Amazon (”Beloved Amazon”), a response to a three-week-long meeting of bishops at the Vatican last October to discuss the Amazon.
For Mr Rocca, it was an opportunity, from a distance, to analyse reaction to the papal document, which deals extensively with environmental problems and the plight of indigenous peoples, but was silent on the subject of ordaining local married men as priests, recommended by the bishops.
He said he and other observers were “surprised” Pope Francis did not address the idea of ordaining married men in his document.
“I just assumed it would happen,” he said.
“I think it just surprised people so much. And also the women deacons.
“That was probably less of a surprise that he’s not for that because he really threw cold water on that last year – he made it pretty clear the women’s deacon thing wasn’t going to happen.
“But then it came up at the Synod (on the Amazon) that more than half the bishops in the room were in favour of admitting women to the diaconate.
“And you’ve seen people reacting to that; people who are in favour and people who are against women deacons.”
Mr Rocca said he expected the idea of ordaining married men ”will keep on coming up”, and he points to Australia where the issue had been raised during the early stages of Plenary Council 2020, and in Germany where the issue was on the agenda for a two-year series of meetings of bishops and laity that began last month.