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Behind the Headlines: a Journalist’s Memoir of the Holy See

Caitlin Bootsma - published on 03/03/13

A review of The Vatican Diaries: A behind-the-scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church

With all of the media buzz about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s resignation and the upcoming conclave, the release of a new book on one journalist’s experience of the Vatican couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. John Thavis, the Rome correspondent for the Catholic News Service (CNS) for 30 years, provides a detailed, introspective look at the inner workings of the Vatican in The Vatican Diaries: A behind-the-scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church.

If you’re not a Catholic, a journalist or a vaticanista, then the details included in this memoir of Thavis’s years in Rome may at first seem overwhelming. The minutiæ involved in the ecclesial offices, the layout of the Vatican City State and the daily operations of the Holy See may not appeal to everyone. But it is here, in the daily details of the heart of the universal Church, that Thavis reveals a side of the Vatican that mainstream media often miss: the humanity of those that work there.

“One reason I wrote this book,” explains Thavis, “is that journalists tend to focus exclusively on the Vatican’s power and its institutional impact. I wanted to chronicle the human side of the Vatican – warts and all – that makes it such a fascinating place.”

And indeed, for those of us who hunger for an insider’s look at longest-standing institution in the world, the Vatican Diaries does not fail to enthrall. From the bell ringer called from his bed to announce the death of Bl. John Paul II; to “Vik,” the rule-enforcing minder of the papal journalists; to those in the Legion of Christ who worked closely with Fr. Maciel, but never suspected he was a liar and a criminal, the Vatican comes to life in little ways not often captured by the sensational headlines of secular newspapers.

The Vatican Diaries is not, however, an academic study on the Vatican. Rather, it is a lively memoir of the decades that Thavis covered the pontificates of Bl. Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Thavis developed sources with both anonymous and public figures in the Vatican, allowing his readers to see the Church through the eyes of those most intimately involved with its functioning.

Thavis divides the book into chapters on the major stories or themes that he wrote on as a journalist during the last thirty years. Some chapters center on coverage of the Pope: the suspense of the conclave, papal visits around the world and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s media faux pas. Others explore difficulties in the Church: the sex abuse scandals, the relationship with the ultra-traditionalist Society of St. Pius X and the controversy over Ven. Pius XII’s role during World War II. Some chapters delve into the quirks of life around the Vatican, such as one that describes in detail the talented Latinist Fr. Reginald Foster – a priest who didn’t hesitate to speak his mind; wore blue coveralls rather than the clerical black; and conversed regularly in a “dead language.” Rather than lay out in black and white the conclusions he came to during his time in Rome, Thavis conveys his impressions through the journalistic art of storytelling.

Readers should not come to The Vatican Diaries expecting a theological explanation of Church teaching nor a defense of the hierarchical Church’s every move. Certainly, however, Thavis’s own Catholic faith adds to what is an insider’s understanding of the Church in Rome. The errors or misinterpretation of events that come from some reporters’ lack of familiarity with the subject matter is not an issue with Thavis; a fact which only adds to the accuracy and the impact of his book.

Indeed, anyone – Catholic or not – could read this book cover to cover as a thoroughly enjoyable jaunt that takes them into the world of the Vatican. However, for the Catholic who sometimes wonders at the media’s coverage of the Church, one of the greatest contributions of Thavis’s memoir is explaining the perspective of journalists. While certainly some members of the media may be looking only for sensational headlines, others are looking for the facts, for the real story. Thavis gives life to the complexity of some publicly visible ecclesiastical issues that are difficult for even Catholics to understand: did the Pope say that condoms can be used sometimes when HIV infections are involved? Is it possible that the higher-ups in the Legionaries of Christ didn’t know that there was something fishy going on with Fr. Maciel? When the reader follows Thavis’s experiences with these topics, they may come away with a greater understanding of the quest of journalists to find the meat of a story.        

For example, in his last chapter, “the Real Benedict”, Thavis particularly explores how the media grapples with how to portray public figures such as Pope Benedict XVI. Thavis writes of Benedict “his low-key approach to the papacy, which guaranteed that the media would ignore him, also seemed part of his strategy; to preserve the Church from the superficiality of the media culture (p. 300).” While it is easy to claim that the media has been somewhat unfair to Pope Benedict, Thavis explains that part of the issue journalists faced is that Pope Benedict was not an easy personality to portray or to characterize in a way that was understandable to the public.

Since a new pope will be elected any day now, it is clear that many of the pages on the Vatican have yet to be written. Yet by giving us an in-depth look at three decades of the intricacies of life in the Vatican, John Thavis offers the average layman a chance to read into the future news headlines and to see the dynamism of a two thousand year old institution at work in the modern world.

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