John Thavis’ book The Vatican Diaries was released ten days after Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013. (Interestingly, the author suspected from the beginning of Pope Benedict’s papacy that he would resign.) It went straight to the NYT best-sellers’ list. John Thavis’ name became a Catholic household name (at least in my cyber-neighorhood) and I discovered his blog, which I enjoy and follow.
A year later, the paperback version has just come out and I have read it. The Vatican Diaries has to be a treat to those fascinated by the Vatican and the strange folks who inhabit a world somewhat out of time and space. For a Feminist like me, it leaves a bittersweet taste since women there shine by their absence (even though I saw a great number of religious sisters from all over the world everywhere in Vatican City when I was there). A few women are mentioned in the book: a Vatican employee, some journalists, and a religious sister lobbying for the canonization of Pius XII.
Putting my Feminist sentiments aside, I have enjoyed The Vatican Diaries greatly. My interest was awakened when I read in the Introduction
Over the years I’ve also met a number of Vatican employees whom I would place in the “faithful servant” category. Like most major bureaucracies, Vatican has its share of quiet heroes, people working silently against the odds to make the church more responsive and more transparent. (7)
I feel drawn to quiet heroes. We rarely hear about them in the media.
I did not expect to laugh along with the author. Still, I did on several occasions. For example:
In Azerbaijan, the government put us in a newly purchased, oversized motor coach that promptly had its roof ripped off at the first underpass outside the airport; the driver kept going at a full throttle, thinking it was a terrorist attack. (41)
In fact, the whole Chapter Two, “Up In The Air”, is hilarious. Entirely focused on the Volo Papale, i.e. those journalists lucky enough to accompany the Pope on his various trips abroad, it shows the many frustrations journalists have to deal with and how they manage to obtain the news they are there to follow and write about. I also found the story about John Allen, with NCR until recently, quite entertaining.
John Thavis weaves great tales about the Vatican and the Roman Curia. Having spent thirty years of his professional life in Rome (he went there as a student of archeology and stayed on), he knows the Vatican inside out, his people, the nice ones and the not-so-nice ones.
His first Chapter, “The Bells”, reveals the etiquette around the announcement of a new Pope and the unexpected hurdles laying in the way. It takes us on a walk around the Vatican, has us follow employees (with great Italian names and titles) to their work. We cross doors, we come upon Swiss guards…
In Chapter Four, “Bones”, the story of the underground parking must be a good example of the frustrations urban planners in Rome have to live with for any development in the ancient city and of what bureaucrats will do to get their way.
Chapter Six, “Latinist”, introduces us to an eccentric and iconoclastic American Carmelite who translates official documents into Latin in a barren office next door to the Pope’s apartments. His passion for Latin is contagious; his knowledge of the Latin and Roman worlds inexhaustible; his outbursts on the state of the Vatican both entertaining and refreshing.
Chapter Seven, “The Pope That Would Be Saint”, is about Pius XII and a certain Roman elite, all in their 70s (ten to twenty years ago) who want his canonization. By the end of the chapter, I nearly came to believe that indeed he deserves to be canonized.
Chapter Eight, “Hemlines And Banana Peels”, is about “style and class” the Vatican way. How to sit when visiting the Holy Father (don’t cross your legs); what to wear (no synthetics, please); how to address a Cardinal… But all this is written with the reader in mind. Once again, we are taken behind the scenes, we become Vaticanista flies on the wall. It feels so normal somehow for us to be there, unnoticed while noticing everything.
Chapter Ten, “The Real Benedict”, comes as a final description of someone we have followed throughout the book, Pope Benedict, as well as his predecessor Pope John Paul II. The juxtaposition of the two Popes and of their differing personalities is fascinating — to a point. To a point, because neither man knew nor liked “women” (except the Blessed Virgin, their own mother, — and Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and even then, who can be sure). But women are not talked about in this book anyway. What struck me in this last chapter is the acknowledgment that Joseph Ratzinger and Pope Benedict saw their respective jobs in a different light. Same man, different focus. From what I read, I wonder whether Pope Benedict ever liked being Pope, as he seemed to be a brilliant introvert who preferred his books and classical music.
You may notice that I have skipped three chapters. I found their topic difficult to handle:
◇ Chapter Three, “Nuestro Padre”, focuses on Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Legionaries of Christ, and the people supporting them within the Vatican. It is where I found out that
The Legion’s media tentacles spread in other ways, too. A Legionary priest was named in 2005 to head the Internet Office of the Holy See, a prime piece of Vatican turf. And the free online news agency Zenit, with half a million subscribers around the world, was secretly overseen by the Legion and its lay affiliates at Regnum Christi. (82)
Yikes. This chapter is the only one I did not finish. It got too much for me. The abuse of young seminarians, the chosen blindness of the hierarchy for years…
◇ Chapter Five, “Cat and Mouse”, is about the relationship, or lack thereof, between the Holy See and the Lefebvrists, with people within the Vatican wanting a reconciliation between the two. I am no fan of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). Like many European Catholics, I followed Pope Benedict’s minuet with SSPX with a touch of dread: these folks are still decidedly anti Vatican II. This chapter, while not one of my favorites, did reassure me, however. Pope Benedict was no dupe.
In this particular chapter, I found two interesting bits of trivia about the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, “a strange and beautiful place… the best preserved of Rome’s ancient basilicas, built in the fourth century…“
First, “The basilica honors the Virgin Mary and was constructed upon the site of a former pagan temple dedicated to the fertility goddess Cybele, whose male followers would ritually castrate themselves, dress in women’s garments and take on female identities” (164).
Second, Cardinal Law, “who had resigned in disgrace from the Archdiocese of Boston… was named the archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore, a comfortable and prestigious position in Rome“ (166).
◇ Finally, Chapter Nine, “Sex”. When it says Sex, it means homosexuality within the Vatican, the Roman Curia, and the priesthood at large. This reminded me of a conversation I had with a lovely man, an ex-priest, who had left his Order having discovered that he was gay and in love with a young man. There are lots of homosexuals in Rome, he told me. But, because they cannot acknowledge their sexual orientation and live it out in the open, they become perverts.
This chapter is not entirely about perversion. It addresses of course the sexual abuse of children and teenagers by priests. It talks of the decision of preventing homosexuals from joining seminaries. It reveals sexual perversion in plush Vatican offices. It also shows how the hierarchy tried to deal with the problem (maybe as in “the enemy is us”).
I felt toward the topic as I did when handling my children’s dirty diapers — keeping it as far from my nose as I possibly could. John Thavis writes about it in a clinical and distant manner, avoiding self-righteous indignation and judgment. Just stories written matter-of-factly. But how twisted can one get when not taking into account one’s sexuality.
A fascinating section closes the paperback edition: “The Afterword”. There, I had my teary moment when it recalled how the newly elected Pope Francis had asked the people on St Peter’s square and everywhere in the world watching the event to pray for him.
I have very much enjoyed The Vatican Diaries. It reads fabulously well, with never a boring moment. We meet people seen in NCR and about whom we either rave or rant in our Catholic blogs. These folks are right there in front of you, in their natural beauty or well-tuned Machiavellianism…
Oh, the surprise and delight of coming upon Monsignor Georg Gänswein (Pope Benedict’s handsome secretary) in Chapter Two or Monsignor (now Cardinal) Pietro Parolin at the beginning of Chapter Seven…
Look at me dropping names… Shame on me!