Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Vatican Diaries - John Thavis - Penguin

John Thavis is a journalist, an author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is known in the trade as a “Vaticanista” - it's a 'calling' that became clear only after a circuitous career path. He is a Catholic, so that's useful. He has a background in archaeology, also good to know and he's been writing on the Papal City and it's many aspects for many years. You can read all about him on his website:

As a seasoned reporter Thavis takes us straight in through the tradesmen's entrance, on a Vatican visit that no regular tourist or amateur art historian would undertake. In the first chapter he's inspecting the Sistine Chapel and analysing the 'techno-chimney' - a high fallutin' gadget that ensure the right smoke is produced when a new Pope is elected. In fact the first chapter gives us the whole behind the scenes gossip, fact and reality of what happened that time around. You can imagine similar goings on during the latest pope-vote.

Often his info comes from the vantage of the reportorial fly on the wall. Thavis, who's now retired as the Rome bureau chief of the Catholic News Service, takes a candid and, I found anyway, agnostic look at the goings-on at Saint Peter’s. A good example is the problematic events that occurred at the Vatican Bank. This is a wonderful case study in mismanagement and ego-induced blunderings. We are talking major scandal! The Bank is a considerable worldwide enterprise with 400,000 priestly representatives. Thavis doesn't say it but the need is obvious to have some kind of overarching governance structure that holds the Bank's leader's to account. But of course No - this is the Papacy. Secrecy and Mystery also mask the fine balance between regular incompetence, egos and corrupting influences. This, Thavis always hints at but always leaves the reader to ultimately conclude for themselves that all has never, ever been right in the state of Vatican. Never is, never will be.

Now, much history resonates throughout all church events but Thavis only concentrates on the history he has witnessed firsthand, including the process of bell-ringing on the naming of a new pope and the work of various functionaries in the organization. There's also the fight to save a unique ancient cemetery against the need for more underground parking and how the matter of the Legion of Christ was bungled when their founder was exposed as a con artist. Also there was the matter of His Holiness turning a blind eye to an anti-Semitic bishop. Thavis also talks about his time on the road with the Pope, and mentions the ridiculous and futile visit by George W. Bush a couple of years back.

He also reviews, in much laboured and dedicated detail, the stalling of the canonizing of the late John Paul or Pius XII, whose dodgy wartime antics are still up for debate and scrutiny.

And, especially provocative are the chapters dealing with the mismanagement of a host of diverse sex scandals which just never seem to end and an appraisal of the opaque personality of Benedict. This is a man who seems, at least in public to be detached, disengaged and often distracted. Now, with the benefit hindsight, we know that his resignation was the thorough revelation of the character flaw. Essentially, Thavis will conclude, Benedict was not the man that should have become pope and when it all became too much he took to diving under the pews of the first monastery. Of course, like many in political life, a pope’s remarks are subject to considerable spin, “part of the great communications disconnect at the Vatican.” (Yet now, His Holiness has acquired the Twitter handle “@pontifex.” How it’s used remains to be seen.) We wonder how much of a seat warmer he really was. Thavis doesn't ask that question. I wish he had. Who's really running the VC and the Catholic world. Why do Catholic leaders, especially in Africa still promote abstinence over sexual education and protection methods? Why does the church still, still, still retain the vast riches, when it's flock remain poor, destitute in the third world, the second and now after the economic crisis the first world as well?

Given the recent papacy elections Thavis's book is timely, provocative and illuminating plus it's fully accessible to members of the faith and doubters alike. Unlike this reviewer he stays down off the high moral horse, which in retrospect, is the best way to travel!

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