03.06.13

Inside John Thavis’s ‘Vatican Diaries’

Longtime Vatican reporter John Thavis’s new book is full of revelations about the last papal conclave, on the pope’s jet, and the sex scandals under Benedict’s reign. By Barbie Latza Nadeau.
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On February 18, 2005, black smoke rose from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, meaning that the cardinals failed to elect a new pope in the first ballot of their secret conclave. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty )

Vatican insider John Thavis always had a hunch Pope Benedict XVI would retire.  But he had no idea it would coincide with the release of his book Vatican Diaries, which was published on February 21. “I’d like to say I had planned it that way,” he told The Daily Beast in the Vatican’s press office days after the papal resignation. “But it was just a happy coincidence.”

Thavis’s book is a notebook dump of sorts gathered from 30 years working as a Catholic News Service Vaticanista—the official term used for Rome journalists who have personal cellphone numbers for cardinals and high-ranking Roman Curia prelates. While his book would have been interesting for Church watchers before Benedict’s resignation, it will surely become a veritable handbook on all things Vatican now that the world is watching who the cardinal electors choose as a new pope. 

“[W]hile the Legion was admitting to the founder’s extramural heterosexual affair…it re­fused to touch the more serious allegations that Maciel had turned his own seminary into a pedophilia camp.”

The book begins with a bit of behind-the scenes gossip about the last conclave eight years ago, when Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. As is the practice, the cardinals vote in secrecy in the Sistine Chapel and burn their ballots after each vote. When they have not reached a conclusion, the smoke that comes from the chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel is black; when they have elected a new pope, Thavis describes how a chemical substance is added to turn the smoke white. That signal, in conjunction with the ringing of St. Peter’s bells is how the cardinals announce “Habemus papam.” But, as Thavis describes, not only did the cardinals have a difficult time lighting the stove, making the scene akin to a bunch of men around a barbeque, but at one point the back draft filled the ancient chapel with thick smoke, no doubt a secret they were hoping to keep from the art historians who monitor Michelangelo’s ceiling masterpiece. Then, once they got it lit, the white smoke did not coincide with the ringing of the bells, which sent mixed signals to the masses who were expecting the chimes to confirm that the smoke was white. Thavis went to the bell ringer in Vatican City to find out just why there had been a long delay. Turns out, the jamming devices in the Sistine Chapel to prohibit electronic eavesdropping on the cardinals had actually made it impossible for anyone to call the bell ringer to tell him the smoke was white. Thavis writes how there was a moment of panic while Archbishop Piero Marini, the head of the liturgical ceremonies, tried to find a landline to call the bell ringer: “Find a telephone!” he ordered the guard. “Tell them to ring the campa­none! Habemus papam!” But when they finally did reach the bell ringer, he wouldn’t ring the bells unless Marini himself told him to, according to Thavis. That meant an even longer delay until the bell ringer could trust that indeed they had a pope. All the while clerics were working to vest the new pope and there was a growing concern that Ratzinger would come out on the balcony to greet the world before the bells had rung. The explanation of the bell-lapse fiasco is a little-known detail that was certainly on the minds of those waiting in St. Peter’s Square that day and watching it on television, but now it means so much more in the context of the impending conclave that is starting soon.

Thavis also takes his readers on the papal plane, describing in rarely heard detail what it’s like to fly on the Vatican chartered flight with the pontiff. But rather than focusing on the pope’s public appearances, he gives details about the very unglamorous life of a Vaticanista and the often contemptuous relationship between the media and the Vatican warden, who Thavis describes as sardonic in his control over the press, effectively getting them up at the crack of dawn and herding them like cattle to waiting pens and shuttle buses. He also spotlights the pressure the Vatican press corps is often under to walk the fine line between interpreting the pope’s message without becoming a true bullhorn for the church. He gives context to the miscommunication that has dogged Benedict’s papacy by explaining how this pope’s handlers spent more time correcting “what the pope meant” than previous popes. On one papal trip, the Vatican press spokesman actually reworded a statement Benedict made on abortion and excommunication that Thavis felt crossed the line. “Editing Pope Benedict’s extemporaneous comments had been a com­mon practice from the very first day of his pontificate,” Thavis writes. “Vatican officials jus­tified it on the grounds that the pope’s Italian might need cleaning up, and an imprecise or inelegant phrase should be quickly amended. The idea of a midlevel bureaucrat fine-tuning Pope Benedict’s language may sound strange, but it reflects a deeply entrenched conviction that the actual words a pope pronounces are not definitive until the ‘official version’ is published. Usually the editing was merely annoying, but in this case it was an attempt to rewrite reality.”

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“The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church” by John Thavis. 336 pages. Viking. $27.95. ()

Thavis wastes no words on his condemnation of the Vatican’s handling of the various sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the church in the 30 years he has been covering the Vatican beat. He dedicates several chapters to the unsavory sex-abuse cases the Catholic Church has been involved in, and manages to explain in laymen’s terms the very complicated Legions of Christ scandal by walking through a series of investigations and interviews by high-ranking church officials including the Vatican’s promoter of justice. He focuses on the lurid life of Legions founder Father Marcial Ma­ciel Degollado and paints as vivid a character profile of the disturbingly strange man as has been written to date. Father Marcial, as he is referred to, was a favorite of Benedict’s predecessor Pope John Paul II, despite a myriad of allegations of sexual improprieties and financial corruption. Benedict, as pope, finally put an end to Marcial’s reign amid his apologies to seminarians he sexually abused and his admission that he had fathered several children with different women. “Nowhere was there any hint that the order itself bore any responsibility for a cover-up; on the contrary, the Legion’s highest officials were portraying themselves as victims of Maciel’s duplicity,” Thavis writes. “And while the Legion was admitting to the founder’s extramural heterosexual affair—he was human, after all—it re­fused to touch the more serious allegations that Maciel had turned his own seminary into a pedophilia camp.”

Thavis may not have known that his book would coincide with Benedict’s sensational resignation and a historical conclave when there is still a living pope, but he certainly was prophetic in his last chapter, which is a succinct and unapologetic tribute to the former pope. He wades through the various incarnations of Benedict’s papacy, from his gaffes to his more meaningful moments, painting a human portrait of a man who shocked the world with his resignation. “When an organ is tuned and well played, he said, it produces wonderful music,” Thavis recalls of Benedict’s trip to Regensburg. “Dissonant notes are a sign of problems. In both cases, he explained, “an expert hand must con­stantly bring disharmony back to consonance.” This was the real Benedict. A man who saw himself as maestro. Faith was the music that never disappointed. He knew this music well, and he knew the consolation and satisfaction it offered.”