Tag Archives: Viking

Take a peek inside the Vatican

March 8, 2013

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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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Don’t expect to learn about marriage from an author who thinks she’s written the book about it

February 19, 2010

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Committed cover“Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage,”

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Since her last book — “Eat, Pray, Love” — sold 7 million copies, I hoped for something worthwhile out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s supposed “making peace with marriage.”

What a waste of time.

If she hadn’t been an author with a  recent success, I wonder if any publisher would have bothered with this 280-page memoir that’s part pity-party, part narrow-minded opinion-spouting, anti-Christian, too much about her birth family and not enough research about the marriages of real people outside her circle of friends or Third-World villages.

Dozens of therapists, priests, counselors and pastoral ministers have written much more useful works about the sacrament, and they didn’t have to consistently bash organized religion over and over and over in order to do it.

Gilbert’s obviously writing for those who haven’t use for anything so trite as religion or church. Her consistently going back many centuries to bring up outdated views held by some church leaders in the distant past gets annoying, especially when she rarely quotes the sources of the “facts” she’s spewing upon the public.

Selective history

She attacks the concept of marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman, spending page after page proclaiming the rightness of her belief in same-sex marriage. She claims marriage hasn’t historically been between one man and one woman, but it took all of six minutes for me to flip through Paul’s first letter to the people at Corinth to find in the seventh chapter of his letter, “every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband.” That’s something he wrote in the first century, which to me makes one man, one woman marriage pretty historical.

Lord knows the Catholic Church through the ages wasn’t perfect, that abuses occurred, that religion was used for power by some. But Gilbert misses the point when she charges that churches are trying to “rule” when it comes to defining marriage; rather, churches and church leadership are working extremely hard to inform, advise and help society see the wisdom of one man and one woman as a relationship expressed by the word marriage, and that it is so much more than just a commitment.

Gilbert seems to get that when she finally works her way — painstakingly for the reader through her personal journey — to the contribution of a community to marriage.  There is a “collective accountability” about marriage that is supportive. As Gilbert puts it, “Maybe all our marriages must be linked to each other somehow, woven on a larger social loom, in order to endure.”

She seems to get it, too, when she makes the connection that a person can be happy in marriage because they know they are indispensable to somebody else’s life, because they have a partner, because they are building something together, something they both believe in.

Then she goes and ruins it again by male bashing — which I suppose an author is supposed to do in order to be published by someone like Viking and make it with the in crowd. Men, the claim goes, get more out of marriage than women do. What a one-sided, pessimistic point of view!

The world is bigger than Gilbert’s world

Perhaps it’s that attitude about “Committed” that bugged me the most. This is a writer who is so into her own world — her own issues — that’s she’s pulled together a bunch of research to fit her own views.

She’s ignorant of the views of one helluva lot of other people and makes leaps of judgement about the rightness of her own views.

My journalism professors in college would have graded work like “Committed” a “D” at best, marking it up in red with the questions, “Why so few sources?” and “Where’s your attribution?”

The single piece she writes that hit home was her analysis of the result of the intimacy of a long marriage: “It causes us to inherit and trade each other’s stories. This, in part, is how we become annexes of each other, trellises on which each other’s biography can grow.”

Other than that, isn’t until page 214 that Gilbert gives readers much of value when she quotes true experts on marriage — John Gottman and Julie Schwartz-Gottman — about conflict resolution.

My advice? Google Gottman and you’ll get good stuff on marriage from folks who one, know what they are writing about, and two, aren’t so self-absorbed as Elizabeth Gilbert. And, if you want to read a worthwhile memoir, try Patricia Hampl’s “The Florist’s Daughter.”  (see the review at http://bit.ly/cGydew) — bz

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Keillor brings Lake Wobegon’s Fourth of July to hilarious life

March 20, 2009

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“Liberty,”

by Garrison Keillor

Before another Fourth of July comes around, give Garrison Keillor permission to tickle your funny bone.

“Liberty” will test your housemates’ willingness to allow you to laugh aloud for extended periods without calling for the men in the white jackets.

It’s the story of an Independence Day celebration — and the preparation for the big event — in Lake Wobegon, the fictional Minnesota hamlet Keillor has made famous on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” show.

Those familiar with Keillor’s weekly monologue will recognize many of the characters.

The hero of this fun read is mechanic Clint Bunsen. He’s the architect of one of the most successful Fourth of July parades in the nation, but he’s bruised a few egos along the way, and some of the townsfolk are out to depose him.

Some don’t like, for example, that he’s thrown out the cavalcade of farmers driving their John Deeres down Main Street and replaced them with more exciting acts — the St. Cloud Shriners Precision Rider Mower Unit, for example — and they are out to get Clint even though he’s made Lake Wobegon’s Fourth so spectacular that CNN is sending a crew to cover it for the second straight year.

No good deed goes unpunished

In typical Lake Wobegon fashion the culture of the town won’t allow room for an individual to enjoy too much success, and no idea is ever allowed to be presented without its downside casting a dark shadow over any potential good outcome.

Keillor has the naysayers down pat.

In a lovely passage that describes those who accuse Bunsen of being a tyrant as he chairs the parade committee, Keillor’s familiarity with Scripture and his insight into human frailty burst off the page:

“If they had been at the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus brought forth the miracle of the loaves and fishes, they would’ve thought, ‘Did he wash his hands. Where are the napkins? How long was that fish cooked?'”

Sound familiar?

Fair warning: Keillor’s imaginative libido has his hero stumbling off the marital-fidelity track, and some readers may be offended by some of the frank and explicit language in this Viking book.

On the whole, though, “Liberty” offers a commentary on humanity that points society in the right direction by shining a spotlight on those times when we and our neighbors fail to be all that the creator gave us the potential to be.

And it’s hilarious. — bz

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