An insider’s look at the Vatican

John Thavis, now-retired Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, removes any doubt that The Vatican Diaries would, in fact, live up to its entire title, when he writes in the introduction: "The real Vatican is a place where cardinals crack jokes and lose their tempers, where each agency of the Roman Curia jealously guards its turf, where the little guys and big shots may work at cross-purposes and where slipups and misunderstandings are common."

When it comes to power, personalities and politics, Diaries is reminiscent of Father Andrew Greeley's Making of the Pope 1978 and Peter Hebblethwaite's The Year of Three Popes, both published in 1979. However, where they differ is that the people to whom Thavis introduces readers go beyond "papabili," i.e., those who could be elected pope.

There are Carmelite Father Reginald Foster, an expert in Latin, who freely spoke his mind anywhere and to anyone while working at the Vatican, and Vik van Brantegem, overseer of reporters on papal flights, termed "warden" by Thavis.

By themselves neither is a great story - although the chapter on Father Foster will elicit laughter - but seen in the context of how the Vatican functions or doesn't function, they are an important part of the "behind-the-scenes look."

Much of the book features events and personalities with whom readers of Catholic publications are familiar.

There are Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, as well as cardinals who are or have been "players" in how the Vatican operates: Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state from 1991-2006; his successor, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone; and Cardinal Edmund Szoka, former archbishop of Detroit who served in a number of posts, including almost nine years as president of the government of the Vatican City State. Each is an integral part of the stories Thavis relates.

Readers also learn about the Vatican's relationships with former President George W. Bush and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Thavis puts readers in the adjoining seat on the papal plane, on the back of his motor scooter and inside the Vatican press office. Whether it is a chapter about ringing bells following the election of a pope, or an even more telling one about the cause for canonization of Pope Pius XII, each illustrates how the power, personalities and politics are intertwined.

In his coverage of the Vatican for CNS - first as a reporter when he joined the news service in Rome in 1983 and later as its Rome bureau chief, from 1996 until his retirement in January 2012 - Thavis witnessed the worldwide impact of Blessed John Paul II during the '80s and '90s, and the physical decline he suffered in the early years of the new millennium. He was there during the first seven years of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate.

Anecdotally he shows how the pontiffs were different, e.g., the Polish pope's "spiritual pep rally" approach to World Youth Day vs. the German pope's somber, prayerful style; John Paul's Christmas concerts featuring internationally known performers vs. discontinuation of the concerts by his successor.

The final chapter, titled "The Real Benedict," provides one of those behind-the-scenes looks that Thavis promises. It is a profile of the pope that shows, with supporting examples, how and why this pope is noticeably different from his predecessor. It helps in learning who Pope Benedict is - and isn't.

Vatican Diaries is an important book in that it provides readers with a realistic look at the Vatican. Some readers might be uneasy with just how realistic that view is; most will welcome it. Further, as Pope Benedict approaches his 86th birthday, speculation grows about his successor. While not filled with the papabili profiles of the aforementioned books, it could be part of the discussion when one asks, "What will the Vatican be like under the next pope?" and "What kind of leader does the church need?"

Thavis doesn't necessarily provide answers, but he provides a context in which one might find them.

Olszewski is general manager of the Milwaukee Catholic Herald, a publication serving the Catholic community in southeastern Wisconsin.

Get the book

"The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church" by John Thavis. Penguin Group (New York, 2013). 321 pp; $27.95.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970