Wednesday, August 21, 2013

John Thavis' "The Vatican Diaries": Book Review

Nearly three decades of reporting from the Vatican, spanning the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, enliven this insider’s account. Close enough to introduce us to the intrigues, scandals, and idealism mingled in Rome, distanced enough as a Catholic layman, John Thavis fluently interprets the diplomatic phrases and nuanced customs which characterize its clerisy. The Vatican Diaries, despite its somewhat sensationalist title, provides a thoughtful meditation on recent papal administrations, and the bureaucrats, functionaries, and emissaries who advance or thwart Rome’s global ambitions. 

Very readable, Mr. Thavis’ narrative favors opening vignettes that feel more fictional than factual, as he documents everyday life on 110 crowded and ancient acres. Whether discussing bells rung to signal a new pope’s election which contend against human error and technological snafus, the rowdy camaraderie of the volo papale of the jet-age press corps in an age of Internet competition, or the increasingly sordid sexual and financial abuse by the founder of the controversial Legionaries of Christ, Mexican priest Marciel Maciel, Mr. Thavis relates dissension vividly, with telling quotes and thought-provoking asides. 

For instance, he contrasts the need for the press to “eyeball” the Pope for hints of non-verbal as well as verbal confirmation of a particular Vatican affirmation or denial. Expert in such interpretations, Mr. Thavis reminds readers how in a networked age, the need for physical contact persists—not only among those who flock to an audience with the pontiff, but those skilled in unmasking clerical imposters eager to finagle their way to a hearing with John Paul or Benedict. This aspect enriches the behind-the-scenes detail and it humanizes the teeming crowds, and the watchful employees tasked with keeping an eye on the millions.

“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. It’s a place where the pope’s choice of a particular hat can become the raging controversy of the day, and where an American cardinal hell-bent on underground parking can evict a two-thousand-year-old necropolis. It’s a place where the carefully orchestral liturgies and ceremonies sometimes become unglued.” 

Unpredictability, with a new pope, challenges the clerics and staff accustomed to a predecessor’s steady style. John Thavis contrasts the two natures of the last two popes. Benedict XVI prefers a detached, perhaps resigned air, while John Paul hosted folk Masses filled with guitars, Third World adaptations of ritual, and sing-alongs with youth. Determined to “shore up the base” rather than embark on globetrotting, Benedict appears to have “zero interest” in glad-handing. 

Whether the fading European core of the Church can revive appears doubtful. A pair of chapters demonstrates this artfully. Tridentine and traditionalist efforts of the Lefebvrist revanchists who oppose Vatican II’s reforms appear to flounder. The Church tries to lure back the reactionaries, but the recalcitrant faction digs in. As one informant, a Vatican official code-named the “Warbler” chortles: “I’m convinced they’re a sect, and when they do come back they’ll need deprogramming, because otherwise they’re useless. They’re troublemakers.”

Ironically, another troublemaker champions Latin against an ebbing interest in the ancient liturgical and diplomatic language once common to all in the Vatican. Fr. Reginald Foster’s profile provides a case study in how a fat Carmelite friar in overalls, a true iconoclast, can anger both conservatives and liberals.  He’s funny and on-target, but it’s sobering how Latin’s erosion undermines continuity among scholars, clergy, and now hierarchy who come to Rome ignorant of its heritage.

Another priest, Jesuit Fr. Peter Gumpel, emerges in a nuanced portrait of him as an “investigating judge” charged with the debate for the prosecution, against a firm front pushing the cause of Pius XII’s beatification forward. The telling detail stands out, under Mr. Thavis’ careful eye: “His vast wooden desk was a landscape of books and mementos. At its center a small wooden crucifix was laid flat, surrounded by porcelain figurines of dogs that looked sadly upon the crucified Christ, a bizarre and touching little tableau.” The comparison with Gumpel’s German family’s fate under the Nazis and the complicated contexts surrounding Pius and his tenure under fascist rule during the same war in Rome offer valuable reflection on the political and ideological currents swirling around the decisions mortal men must make when confirming the canonization of other men and women, now departed, as saints.

More politics crashes in, as in a deadpan recital of George W. Bush’s meeting with the current pope. Despite the “secret” archives attributed to sinister Catholic plots, the fact is that the records are kept closed except to qualified researchers, and the decorum that perhaps President Bush failed to appreciate in the Vatican persists as a manifestation of those quixotic guardians of Rome’s heritage, jealously guarding a two-thousand year legacy. Poignantly, an intricate chapter on an underground parking lot shoved through a Vatican hill by a bottom-line Michigan cardinal demonstrates the efforts of archeologists to preserve remnants of a truly ancient Roman cemetery, already cut in two by impatient bulldozers. 

Often, one reflects on tension between tradition and progress in the Vatican--as throughout the Church. Mr. Thavis listens to how clerics and popes issue statements, and he masterfully explains how a 2009 “condom study” in its theological suppositions belies the popular, anti-papal caricatures post-Humanae Vitae and its unpopular 1968 ban on artificial birth control. Mr. Thavis finds “wiggle room” in one application of condoms, and he keeps this and related topics lively in a chapter on sexuality. While Mr. Thavis’ own sympathies can be discerned, he fairly presents the practical as well as philosophical reasoning on both sides of hot-button issues. 

He also watches the pope when he strolls down the aisle to a wary press corps, the volo papale, in coach class, mid-flight. “As always in his off-the-cuff comments, Benedict spoke rapidly and without much expression, as if he were taking dictation directly from God.” This moment typifies the care with which this veteran bureau chief for the Catholic News Service (a humbler outfit than his title or placement may suggest), assembles telling moments. This sums up the Church’s leaders and the staff who assists and outwits them. One closes John Thavis’ perceptive study reflecting on the Vatican’s challenge: to persist in a secularizing world sometimes fascinated by the pomp and pageantry of St. Peter’s--but often hostile or increasingly indifferent to the Church’s determined mission to harmonize warring factions and bickering enemies, even if both are on the same Catholic side. (P.S. When I reviewed this for the New York Journal of Books 2-21-13, I cited Benedict's "resigned" attitude towards the papacy. Talk about prescient.)

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