NEW YORK — NBC came up with what might be the ultimate television promo when its "Today" show signed off Wednesday with a greeting from a guest on one of next week's programs: Pope John Paul II.
He didn't exactly say tune in Monday, but he did say, "I am particularly pleased to welcome the group from the American television network NBC, which will be broadcasting directly to the United States from the Vatican during Holy Week."
Without extensive fanfare, "Today" carried the message, which the Pope made during his general audience Wednesday at Nervi Hall in the Vatican.
The Pope, who is considered very savvy in media matters, added that "it is my hope that your work will bear much spiritual fruit." Then he sent "warm and cordial greetings to all the people of America."
The unprecedented papal message served to call attention to the "Today" show's weeklong stay in Rome next week. The visit coincides with Holy Week, the intensely religious period between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.
A highlight of NBC's stay will be a private Mass that the Pope will hold Monday for the "Today" show crew and staff, including hosts Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley. The Mass will be shown on tape from the Pauline Chapel, where Michelangelo's last two paintings, "The Crucifixion of St. Peter" and "The Conversion of St. Paul," are on the wall.
The NBC coup resulted from aggressive legwork and artful negotiations by Timothy J. Russert, an NBC vice president. "My background as an altar boy helped," he said.
Russert's idea was to cut through the stack of material on the Pope's desk by writing to him in Polish.
"When you're in Rome you realize the uniqueness of a Polish Pope in a strictly Italian setting," Russert said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Rome. "My thinking was that it was important to do something to capture his attention."
NBC's news bureau in Warsaw translated Russert's letter, which he hand-delivered to the Vatican. He requested that the letter go directly to Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope's private secretary.
As a backstop, Russert met with Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia and gave him a copy of the letter to deliver to the Pope. Krol later told Russert that it was unnecessary. "The Pope had already seen it and said he enjoyed it," Russert said.
In the letter, Russert outlined the secular, political and religious coverage for NBC's visit and made "one special request--to have the opportunity to pray with you."
The Pope agreed and also consented to greet Gumbel, Pauley and weatherman Willard Scott after the Mass. They will be allowed to wear microphones. Half the NBC contingent of 18, including Gumbel, are Catholic, Russert said.
NBC also asked for an interview with the Pope but was told that "the Holy Father does not grant sit-down interviews," Russert said.
It will be the Pope's first televised Mass from the Pauline Chapel.