What I love about substitute teaching is that I get to be a fly on the wall during kids' conversations. And last week, I overheard three eighth-grade boys arguing about all the media attention being given to the new pope. In so many words, one young man said that he couldn't figure out what the big deal was. "It's just the pope, after all."
I immediately recognized a "teachable moment" and moseyed over to the art table (they were working with clay). I excused myself for interrupting and said the pope's election is big news -- in a global sense, bigger than the election of a president or crowning of a monarch. The pope is like the king of the Catholic Church. He merits the coverage.
The newspapers and broadcasters wouldn't be doing their jobs, I said, if they didn't report every item of the papal conclave, election, first greeting and, finally, installation -- all of which happened March 13.
I could tell the boys understood what I was saying. I'm not sure they agreed about the pope's importance, but I think they appreciated my input.
Just two days earlier, this news junkie, albeit not a Catholic, had been glued to the car radio and reports of that special moment when the black curtains in the Vatican were parted and a French Papal emissary announced to the world, "Habemus papum" -- "We have a pope."
We were told that a figure now emerging from the doorway, dressed in the traditional white vestments, was the new holy father. The roar of the crowd in St. Peter's Square was nearly deafening.
Commentators said Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, a Jesuit and the archbishop of Buenos Aires, now was Pope Francis -- a name chosen for St. Francis of Assissi.
Just hours before he had been a quiet and humble participant in the papal enclave. Now he was the pontiff -- leader of billions of Catholics around the world -- and the media was trumpeting it.
As Pope Francis stepped forward, "the faithful," as the media traditionally people crowding St. Peter's Square at such moments, were screaming, dancing, falling to their knees, waving tiny flags and clutching rosaries. All that mattered to these devout followers was that things in the church would be whole again and a new Holy Father would carry on the work of Pope Benedict, who made equally big news when he became the first Pope in 600 years to retire. This was an exciting media moment.
Within a day I was reading in The New York Times that the pope has a reputation for being a simple, humble man who shunned pomp and fanfare. He even slipped out of the Vatican on the morning after his announcement to pray with regular folks.
"He stopped to pay his hotel bill a day after becoming pope," the Times' Rachel Donadio reported. "He wore simple black shoes and an ordinary wristwatch with a thick black band to his first Mass as pontiff. He rode in a minivan with the cardinals who elected him , affectionately telling them, `May God forgive you for what you've done.'
"Already," Donadio added, "they are praising his warmth and common touch. `He almost brought me to tears when he asked to be blessed by us before blessing us,' said Fabrizio Venanzoni, 21, an engineering student, as he stood in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday evening holding a sign that read, We'll follow you, @pontifex, referring to the papal Twitter handle."
The explosion of tweets and e-mail blasts and "likes" on Facebook, connected to this papal election, reinforces how much of a role social media played in this latest enclave and announcement of a pope. Now the people are getting into the act by sending tweets to the Pope, each other and hundreds of thousands worldwide to express their feelings of joy, hope and concern about the future for this humble man of the people.
And for the media, the news is definitely not about just the pope, after all.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.