Tag Archives: Catholic News Service

Take a peek inside the Vatican

March 8, 2013


Vatican Diaries coverJohn Thavis, who covered the Vatican as a journalist for 30 years, betrayed his Minnesota roots when he wrote, “Attending these Rome academic conferences was like fishing on a slow day — you waited a lot and hoped something would bite.”

Thavis, a native of Mankato, Minn., and a graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville, hooked an author’s dream: His book on the inner workings of the Vatican was ready to be released when Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly announced his decision to retire.

Viking moved up the release date, making “The Vatican Diaries” as timely a read as a writer might hope for.

Thavis, whose byline ran in The Catholic Spirit for many years, retired just last year as Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service.

That post and the many friends and sources he made in and around St. Peter’s often put him in unique position to observe and hear of any number of interesting goings on, some foolhardy, some machiavellian, some scandalous.

Anecdotes, even atrocities

There is, for example, the blatant disregard for an ancient cemetery by one Vatican City functionary, who is intent on bulldozing the monuments and the remains to add more parking to the cramped tiny space.

A lengthy chapter on the finally denounced, cult-like Legion of Christ gives a vivid picture of how power works in the Vatican, and it’s not a very nice portrait.

Thavis details how the once-revered founder of the Legion of Christ was protected by people in high places who refused to believe accusations made against him over the course of decades, and it was only when Father Marcial Maciel Degollado’s double life was revealed — that he had fathered children by two women, sexually abused his own son and hidden secret assets of nearly $30 million — that the Vatican finally intervened.

The incident has left an obvious black mark on the late Pope John Paul II’s record, but Thavis presents insight here that echoes in other Catholic locales around the globe.

He writes, “To a good number of Vatican officials, the calls for transparency and full accountability [in the Maciel case] were typical of moralistic (and legalistic) Americans, but not necessarily helpful for the universal church. . . As one Vatican offical put it, ‘We have a two-thousand-year history of not airing dirty laundry. You don’t really expect that to change, do you?’ ”

Thavis dives into the ongoing squabble over the ultra-conservative, breakaway Society of St. Pius X, sharing probably more than the typical Catholic would want to know about the battle over the validity of Vatican II by this hard-core group of naysayers.

Superb reporting, writing

There’s a terrific chapter that’s really a personality profile of the American priest who was one of the Vatican’s top Latin language experts — the fun, enlightening and eccentric Father Reginald Foster.

Foster — Thavis eschews his title throughout — is a reporter’s dream, someone on the inside who knows a lot, isn’t afraid to share and shares in colorful language. The chapter on “The Latinist” is of the quality of a piece you’d expect to read in the New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker.

Thavis went along to some 60 countries with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and “The Vatican Diaries” includes hilarious anecdotes about life as a reporter on papal trips. There’s plenty about life covering the Vatican to enjoy reading, too, including the story about the pope’s preacher admitting he used Google as a source.

Readers will find that the halo they may have imagined above the heads of some high-ranking residents of Vatican City ends up, shall we say, “less glowing,” to describe it the way a Vatican official might, avoiding the use of the more accurate “tarnished.”

And that may be what Thavis does best here.

Important contribution

He offers sound reporting and analysis, to be sure. But he’s at the top of his game explaining how “The Vatican” sees things.

He translates Vatican-ese, putting in plain language what official statements really say, and in many cases what those statements say by not saying something directly.

Even when he gets into such minutia of a story that you wonder if all these details are necessary, Thavis seems to perfectly sum it up by interpreting the event’s significance. It’s as if, without using these words, he’s says, now here’s why this is important.

“The Vatican Diaries” is not only informative and entertaining. Published as the Catholic Church prepares to welcome a new leader, it gives us valuable insight into the organizational challenges the new pontiff faces.

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Stop mooning cuz there’s no Catholic joke. Here’s one for you:

August 10, 2011


Astronomers recently concluded that, if there ever was a church on the moon, it most likely closed because, while the silence was conducive to a reverent celebration of liturgy, the place just had no atmosphere.


We’ve stepped up the video presence on our website thanks to Catholic News Service.

Click on http://thecatholicspirit.com/videonews/ to get the latest news each day.

This page is the larger screen; a small screen is on the home page at http://www.TheCatholicSpirit. Good video piece in  “Survivor founds museum.” And for an interesting feature story, click on “Telling Time in Rome.” Bet you didn’t know all the cool stuff about Vatican City and St. Peter’s Square.

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So you think you know Pope Benedict

October 17, 2010


I tend to shy away from books that look like “Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy,” a new release edited by Mary Ann Walsh, because it looks like one of two things I don’t usually value: a coffee table book or a hagiography, the kind of puff writing that glorifies the subject.

Can’t judge a book by its cover.

If you want to know what the pope thinks about the critical issues of the day, if you want to give yourself a quick course in church teaching on those issues, read the essays Sister Mary Ann has gathered.

And, if you want to know a lot more about Joseph Ratzinger, the man, read the personal reflections that make the Holy Father not just human but someone you’d like to meet and know better.

Know, though, that you won’t find anything negative in the book about B16 (thanks, Adam Robinson, for the shortcut nickname!). I can live with that because this Sheed & Ward imprint does well what it aims to do.

Photos aren’t superb

If there’s a weakness it’s that, in a book with a lot of photos on its 224 pages, there aren’t a lot outstanding images. There are a couple that are gorgeous, some that capture history, but many are pretty pedestrian. There are just a few too many boring shots of B16 greeting dignitaries. However: A wise editor once said, all photos look better the larger they are printed, and the design of “Benedict XVI” gives even those average pictures the kind of play that is attractive if not stunning.

The excellent photos, for my taste, are a couple shots I’d never seen before: a shot from the air of what B16 sees out his window when leaving Vatican City, and a beautiful image of the pontiff resting on a garden bench, looking like your grandfather resting after a tiring day, alone with his thoughts and at peace.

The essay I appreciated the most was Stephen Colecchi’s insight into B16’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth) — summarized in almost bullet points. And I loved one by Don Clemmer headlined “Shepherding Cats.” Who knew the pope was a cat person?

Getting to know the pope

Just about every one of the personal reflections told me something I didn’t know about our German pope. Several American cardinals and archbishops — including Minneapolis-St. Paul’s own Archbishop John Nienstedt and native son Archbishop Robert Carlson of St. Louis — shared anecdotes about times they’ve come in contact with the Holy Father, and like all good anecdotes they give us an insider’s perspective and tell us something about the pope we might never otherwise know.

He plays the piano? He skis?

Sister Mary Ann, who is director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, adds one of the best anecdotes — telling about the time the pope made a mistake and how he acknowledge it with self-depricating humor. And Nancy Wiechec, a great photographer and the visual media manager for Catholic News Service, gives readers an insight about the Holy Father that only comes from numerous opportunities to view the pope through her camera lens.

Even the 16-page resource section is fact filled. Did you know Joseph Ratzinger entered the seminary at age 12? That was in 1939 — the same year the Nazis invaded Poland to start World War II.

It’s a book worth its $29.95 price tag. –bz

Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy

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