Veteran Vatican journalist Cindy Wooden’s professional career started with The Catholic Northwest Progress
There was the frenetic writing pace, trying to post stories as soon as possible during major events. There were the six cups of coffee a day, the 21 stories filed from six cities and the papal plane, and the countless tweets.
And then there were the chills. As Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau chief Cindy Wooden described her coverage of the Sept. 19–28 papal visit to Cuba and the U.S., she almost didn’t need caffeine when feeding off Pope Francis’ “energizing and hopeful” message.
“The pope’s homilies and speeches were so good and so many of them were historic that finishing one story and moving on to the next was not that much of a challenge,” she said.
Pope Francis’ speeches at the White House and the U.S. Congress were especially memorable for Wooden. “I just kept thinking, ‘He’s 78 years old and this is his first-ever visit to the United States.’ Imagine what it must have been like for him!”
The U.S. visit marked the 25th such overseas papal trip for Wooden in her 26 years working from Rome for Catholic News Service. Today, she is well-established among the vaticanisti, or veteran reporters covering the pope and the Vatican. Her expertise was rewarded in July when she became CNS’ Rome bureau chief, the first woman in that role.
Rome had been in Wooden’s sights from the very beginning of her journalism career, which started in the Northwest.
From Idaho to Rome via Seattle
Wooden and her five siblings were raised three miles outside of the town of Sandpoint in North Idaho. There were horses, a couple of cows and a few pigs on the family’s five acres. She loved to read and was active in the church. It was a quiet childhood.
Like many a future journalist, Wooden said she was a curious child who had a penchant for asking questions. She worked on her grade school and high school newspapers and spent a year at Boise State University before transferring to Seattle University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies with a minor in journalism, “the perfect combination to do what she has done,” said Catholic writer and former Catholic Northwest Progress editor Bill Dodds.
Dodds hired Wooden as a reporter for The Progress (the archdiocesan newspaper that preceded Northwest Catholic) in 1984, shortly after Wooden completed a post-college internship and temporary position at NC News (now CNS). Dodds said that even at age 23, Wooden was a bright, adept and quick news writer “with a tremendous interest in the Catholic Church.”
These were essential skills as Wooden became the primary reporter on an in-progress Vatican visitation of then-Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen. He and the archdiocese were being reviewed in areas including outreach to homosexuals, seminarian training, Catholic hospital contraceptive sterilization, general absolution and the use of laicized priests.
In her Archbishop Hunthausen coverage in particular, Wooden “could really get to the meat of it and present it very clearly and accurately, objectively,” Dodds said.
After four years at The Progress, Wooden got a reporting job at CNS’ Washington, D.C., headquarters. But her five-year plan was to get to Rome. So when a position opened in CNS’ Rome bureau in 1989, she jumped at the chance because, as she put it, “if you’re going to write about the church, Rome’s the place to do it.”
Wooden arrived in the Eternal City knowing no Italian and thinking she’d be there three years. More than 25 years later, she hasn’t left. She’s now fluent in Italian and has worked her way up from staff reporter to senior correspondent to her recent appointment as bureau chief.
“My job allows me to meet hundreds of people — literally hundreds of people — who are doing amazing, beautiful, courageous things all over the world in ways that are having a huge impact or a teeny-tiny impact,” Wooden said. “It’s a reminder that any change in the world has to start with individuals who have a good heart and who love others.”
“It’s pretty humbling and amazing,” she added.
Cindy Wooden talks to Pope Francis on the papal flight to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013. Photo: Courtesy Cindy Wooden
Her time at CNS so far has spanned three papacies: Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Wooden remembers the active earlier years of Pope John Paul II’s papacy and his jam-packed schedule. And she remembers when health issues and age began slowing him down. But “there was always that sparkle, and you could tell he drew energy from people.”
Between Pope John Paul II’s death and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, Wooden remembers working for close to a month straight with no breaks. She said that Pope Benedict was “always the professor.” If he saw that he was losing the crowds at his audiences, he would stop his prepared texts and break down what he was saying in a clear way. His resignation in 2013 shocked even the vaticanisti.
“I never thought I’d see a pope resign,” she said.
When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the next pope, Wooden knew little about him. Since he’s become Pope Francis, she said, there’s “never, never, never a dull moment.” She works more hours under the Pope Francis papacy because he doesn’t take a traditional summer recess like previous popes and because he seems to always be making some new news.
“He’s open and he’s disarmingly honest in answering questions and he’s funny,” Wooden said. “Even though he’s been pope for more than two years, all of us feel like Pope Francis is leading us in new directions, and so staying on top of that is a really important task.”
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The perfect reporter
But how do you sift through all the Vatican news? “Cindy, better than anybody, could always sense when something was truly important and when it wasn’t,” said Wooden’s former boss, retired CNS Rome bureau chief John Thavis.
She is disarmingly friendly with interview subjects and highly respected by colleagues and Vatican officials alike. “Cindy’s among the best-trusted of journalists, not because she’ll do propaganda for the church but because she gets the news right,” Thavis said.
She’s so trusted, in fact, that Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, refers to Wooden as “our Cindy,” according to Tony Spence, CNS’ director and editor-in-chief.
Spence praised Wooden’s ability to write on interfaith and ecumenical relationships, her knack for accurately interpreting Pope Francis to the general public and her agility in “explaining both simple and complex Catholic beliefs in very digestible ways.”
Wooden is known for her strong work ethic. “I’m always worried she’s going to work herself into an early grave,” Spence said.
As Rome bureau chief, Wooden oversees a staff of five while also continuing to report and write like she did on the U.S. papal trip.
In the last year she’s co-published a book on Pope Francis with CNS photographer Paul Haring, "Pope Francis: A Guide to God’s Time," and she wrote a biography of the Philippines’ Cardinal Antonio Luis Tagle called "Leading by Listening."
Wooden is the longtime coordinator for the International Association of Journalists Accredited to the Vatican, organizing reporters’ pools for official government visits at the Vatican and on foreign papal trips. Plus she is a lector, a eucharistic minister, a Lenten retreat organizer and a hospitality committee member at her parish in Rome.
She hopes to retire to Sandpoint someday, but sees herself covering the Vatican for many more years. She said with a chuckle that, so far with her Vatican reporting, “I keep having this thing where I feel like I need to see this papacy to the end. And then another one starts and I need to see that one to the end.”
Northwest Catholic - November 2015