In January 98 the on-line version of the Chicago Tribune beat all other media when it published its obituary of Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately it also beat the ailing Frank who hung around for another six months.
It was an embarrassing error -- it still contained a “fill in the blank” part for the actual day of his demise -- but it wasn’t like they were alone on the deathwatch: Sinatra’s various record companies had been gearing up the previous year for posthumous album releases, and in this country Real Groove published a premature obit five months before the Chairman of the Board left the building.
I know about this because I wrote a piece about it -- and of course was myself also writing a thinly-disguised obituary for old Blue Eyes. Frank stayed on another four months. Boy, did I feel foolish.
It is unwise to predict a demise, so it is understandable the media caution that surrounds the illnesses of the Pope which started some months ago.
Even the cynical secular media isn’t wanting to be too presumptuous and insensitive as to start running big stories about his papacy, legacy and possible successors.
Very wise in the case of this pope as I learned some years ago.
In late 2001 when he was on his 95th foreign tour and was taken ill I wrote a lengthy piece about how his successor would be chosen. In that story I quoted the Guardian which said, “He could go tonight”. The paper had said that in 99.
And people describe Winston as the comeback kid?
At the time of writing this the Pope seems to be okay again, but what journalism has taught me is that the second you say something with certainty, the opposite is bound to happen.
Or some damn thing will happen which will make you look stupid. (And everyone remembers that ocassion, they don't remember the times you were right or prescient.)
So, even though I have already written a piece about the Pope in anticipation of his demise (I wrote it three years ago and have just had to keep updating it) I still wouldn’t want to be taking bets on a timeframe.
But right now you do -- again -- feel like the wheel of history is about to turn and so you can guess that television documentaries about the rituals of the Catholic Church will follow. They will be fascinating.
The curious thing is how television -- a medium which thinks nothing of stalker-like door-knock interviews, reducing people to tears for ratings and asking the newly widowed “How do you feel?” -- has kept a respectful distance in matters pertaining to the Pope’s health.
There have been a few discreet suggestions that the next pope might come Africa or South America, but as New Zealand’s Cardinal Tom Williams said to me all those years ago when I was writing about what we all thought was the Pope’s impending demise, the person who goes into the conclave of cardinals as the most favoured Pope comes out a cardinal.
This is an interseting time to be living through. The Catholic Church has taken a hammering under this Pope's office -- declining numbers in the developed world, child molestation and contraception controversies, the abuse in schools -- yet such times galvanise people of a faith.
Especially when that faith has it roots in the distant past. That throws the present into perspective.
The arcane rituals which surround the election of a new pope seem medieval and mysterious in the fast-pace of the 21st century, but there is still a place for ritual and religion.
And when it comes to picking a new pope Williams said something that really struck me: Never discount the possibility of divine intervention.
Oddly enough even though we were talking about religion I hadn’t thought of that.
But it seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it?