'Covering Religion' Journalism Class Reports From Rome During Papal Investiture

Thanks to a bit of providential timing, Columbia Journalism had a large news bureau at the installation of Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square in Rome in mid-March. Sixteen students covered every aspect of the historic event: the pilgrims, the dignitaries, the trinket sellers, the faithful and the protesters.

Ari L. Goldman
April 25, 2013

Some say it was just luck that we were there. Others saw good Vatican sources. In truth, it was because it was spring break, a time when students in my “Covering Religion” seminar can travel without its interfering with other courses.

For more than a year, I had been planning to bring my students to Rome to examine the state of the Roman Catholic Church as well as minority religions in Italy. A month before we were set to leave, Pope Benedict resigned. On the eve of our departure, white smoke rose from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was named pope.

We arrived just in time for the new pope’s first public audience. He chose to meet journalists on his second day in office. We didn’t have formal Vatican press credentials but we did have cameras, video and sound recorders, and notebooks. We joined the line of journalists that snaked around the walls of the Vatican and—much to my surprise—were ushered past the Swiss Guards into a grand reception hall.

“You help us see what reality is like,” the new pope told the media.

Over the next few days, we visited not only the Vatican, but the Great Synagogue of Rome, the main mosque, and several Protestant and Orthodox churches. And we were back at the Vatican a few days later to cover the installation of Francis.

My students were pinching themselves at our good fortune. Aside from expressions of wonder, they had practical questions. “So what are you wearing for the pope?” they asked each other.

That morning dawned bright and sunny after several rainy days. A choir on the basilica’s steps sang Latin hymns as 150,000 people crowded into St. Peter’s Square for the new pope’s first mass. When it came time for the sign of peace, “I was incredibly moved to see thousands of people from all different parts of the world shaking hands,” said Jordi Oliveres (J’13). “I wouldn’t say the experience made me more religious, but it showed me a beautiful and powerful side of religion I hadn’t understood before.”

We posted our spot news stories on the class website, www.coveringreligion.org. In coming weeks, we’ll add the longer feature and enterprise stories that students worked on in Rome. The website also has links to reports of previous class trips to Israel, India, Ireland and Russia. The study-tours are made possible by a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation at no cost to students.

Graduates of the course have gone on to become religion writers at the "Chicago Tribune," "The Miami Herald," "The Baltimore Sun," "The (Raleigh) News & Observer" and numerous international newspapers and websites. Others have become foreign correspondents for major media outlets.

I taught this year’s course with Alexander Stille, the San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia, who joined us on the trip. While I have a background as a religion writer, Stille has written numerous books about Italy and its politics and, while we were traveling, covered the pope’s installation for "The New Yorker."

“Being with and truly working very hard with a team of great reporters was the best thing about the trip,” said Mustafa Hameed (J’13). “The whole experience of reporting in a new country was a daily reminder of how exciting and rewarding the life of a journalist can be.”


Ari Goldman (J’73), a former religion reporter for The New York Times, is the director of Columbia Journalism School’s Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life. He has been teaching at the Journalism school since 1993.