Tag Archives: cardinals

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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Sex and a 17th century pope? More innuendo than facts, but lots of interesting facts, too

September 15, 2008

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“MISTRESS OF THE VATICAN,”
by Eleanor Herman

When I’m at the bookstore or library I tend to pick up anything that has “Vatican” in the title, so I couldn’t pass up something as titillating as “Mistress of the Vatican” when publisher William Morrow offered a review copy.

The jacket cover suggested hanky-panky with the bare-shouldered portrait of a beautiful woman with a painting of St. Peter’s Basilica and Square covering her, uh, feminine charms, and a subtitle, “The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope.”

The adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover still applies.

Author Eleanor Herman offers no real evidence that 17th century Pope Innocent X had a sexual relationship with Olimpia, his sister-in-law, as the term “mistress” would suggest.

She offers no facts that Olimpia was pope, although she apparently was extremely influential in papal decisions.

Even the cover artwork is misleading: You’d think that the beautiful woman depicted is Olimpia, but no; the jacket painting is of “Venus at the Mirror,” by Tiziano.

Despite that, this book was hard to put down.

She’s done the research

Herman has culled the diaries and papers of Vatican officials of the period and the works of commentators during the mid 1600s, and what she’s come up with are some things about our church at the time that today we’d consider unthinkable. The nepotism, the bribery, the selling of church offices, the misuse of church funds — they saturate these 419 pages, and that’s without the bibliography and index.

Even those of us who love our church ought to know that at times in the past some pretty ridiculous things have been done in the name of our faith. Herman points out the silliness of some of the practices surrounding relics, for one thing. An Italian church claimed to have preserved the umbilical cord of Jesus, another drops of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.

What gets tiresome, though, is the author’s tendency to slip into extended “filler” — background information that seemingly has little or nothing to do with the story of Donna Olimpia and her brother-in-law the pope.

Early on she extrapolates the cultural mores of the era and presumes much. While there is no factual evidence that Olimpia did this or that, women of the times did things this way, so Olimpia must have as well, she posits. It’s a bit too much innudendo for my taste.

Evidence shows Olimpia’s influence

There seems to be little doubt, though, that the widow of Pope Innocent X’s brother was extremely influential in day-to-day decisions concerning the Papal States. The evidence author Herman brings to light shows that Olimpia’s fingerprints are on the appointments of cardinals, on the finances of the church, on the church’s relationship with the governments and royalty of nations such as France and Spain, among others, and much, much more.

Be ready to read a boatload of language pointing out how anti-woman the Catholic Church is and has been through the ages. And the author uses some misleading descriptions that makes you wonder if she made this stuff up or is actually quoting some 17th century theologian or document.

Take Holy Orders: She writes that priestly ordination was “a sacrament that was thought to tattoo the human soul with an invisible but ineradicable seal that prevented marriage.”

Tattoo the soul?

I hadn’t heard that one before. But then, I really hadn’t been up on some of the less-flattering history of our church, like the regular elevation of papal nephews to rank of cardinal although they might still be in their teens, the regular practice of popes to appoint their relatives to jobs in the Vatican, the fawning of European royalty to curry the pope’s favor with expensive gifts, etc.

The saving grace is that at some point Innocent did have a crisis of conscience and put the dignity and integrity of the church first, and that many of the laughable practices of those times are long gone.

So read this. It’s not sexy. It promises one thing and delivers another, but it’s still a good read. — bz

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