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Italy Under a Microscope

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
A train in Gravina, Puglia, Italy, 1991


An ophthalmologist visiting an exhibition of the artist Chuck Close spotted what he suspected was a serious condition in the eye of one of the subjects of Close’s larger-than-life, hyperrealistic portraits. The doctor left a note for the artist to urge the subject, Close’s own father-in-law, to have a checkup. Sure enough, Close’s father-in-law did have the condition that the doctor had observed. On reading about this incident, I immediately felt that it was a parable about journalism. In observing carefully and rendering detail closely, we may convey more meaning than we know.

Something of this spirit appears to animate two new books by writers who have spent most of their adult lives in Italy. Superficially at least, John Thavis’s The Vatican Diaries and Tim Parks’s Italian Ways have little in common. While both are set entirely in contemporary Italy, they describe two very different countries. Thavis, who was the Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service from 1996 until 2012, is concerned almost exclusively with the goings-on in the 110 acres occupied by the Vatican state in Rome, while Parks has written a book that chronicles his experiences riding the Italian train system, only occasionally mentioning the Catholic Church in his almost three hundred pages.

Yet both Thavis and Parks—extremely experienced and knowledgeable writers who have each spent approximately thirty years in Italy—have quite consciously resisted the temptation to write a big summation book about their chosen subjects. Rather than writing an “Inside the Vatican Today book that tries to assess where the Catholic Church stands at the beginning of its third millennium, Thavis has written a series of narrative chapters that capture one or another aspect of life within the Vatican—one about the bell ringer at St. Peter’s basilica, another about an archaeologist’s search for the tomb of Saint Peter, a third about the efforts to canonize the controversial Pope Pius XII, who ruled the church during World War II. “Journalists tend to focus exclusively on the Vatican’s power and its institutional impact,” Thavis writes on his website. “I wanted to chronicle the human side of the Vatican—warts and all—that makes it such a fascinating place.”

Similarly, Parks, a novelist and essayist who has lived in Verona for the past thirty years, offers a portrait of Italy as seen from the country’s railway system, and not a big “Whither Italy?” book. Toward the end he offers a kind of apologia for his method in a conversation he has at a dinner with a group of Sicilians who question his decision to write an entire book about Italian trains. “All Italy,” he tells them,

could be teased out from this [evening] if we examined it carefully, the clothes you are wearing, the way you’ve laid the table, the pleasure taken cooking, the wineglasses…. So if you’re stupid enough to want to write about a country, a people, the problem is where to start. You could start anywhere, because everything they do manifests that spirit…. You don’t want to write a book about a whole country… because there’s so much, and the secret is always in the details, and the way one details calls to another in a kind of tangle.

In both cases, the stories the authors tell yield considerable satisfaction and riches, wonderful scenes and quotes, and shrewd larger insights extrapolated from seemingly small moments. But their small-scale approaches also produce moments of frustration in which we long for an occasional aerial view so we can fit what they find into a larger landscape.


Thavis writes in his introduction that the Vatican

is a culture founded on hierarchical order, but swamped in organizational confusion. It is a culture in which the pope is considered immune from criticism, yet often is kept uninformed about the details of important decisions. It is, in theory, a culture of confidentiality—yet it leaks like a two-thousand-year-old boat…. I discovered that, despite its institutional façade, the Vatican remains predominantly a world of individuals, most of whom have a surprising amount of freedom to operate—and, therefore, to make mistakes.

The book begins with the election of Pope Benedict XVI but Thavis decides to tell it from a different angle. He ignores the conclave in 2005 that turned Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger into the pope and the reasons for and meaning of that choice—the more conventional move of a Vatican correspondent. Instead, he describes the election from the point of view of the bell ringer of St. Peter’s, Giuseppe Fiorucci. The massive bell that normally announces the election and death of the pope failed to send the news to the expectant crowd in St. Peter’s Square because someone forgot to alert Fiorucci, and he refused to sound the bell even when implored to do so by a Swiss Guard because the order had not come from the right person. Thavis’s point is that the Vatican is a supremely human institution and when someone fails to do his job, things break down—a point he could have made in a few pages, and not twenty-five.

Similarly, the second chapter gives us an overdetailed chronicle of life on the papal airplane, a kind of “Boys on the Bus” Vatican style. We are told too much about groggy early morning arrivals and the journalists’ repeated battles to get around their Vatican minders. But gradually, Thavis hits his stride and the patient reader is rewarded with many fresh insights. “One of the great ironies of traveling with the pope is that, because of the practical difficulties of moving us to and from his venues, we’re often the only people who can’t see him,” he writes, describing the highly manufactured nature of much Vatican reportage. The journalists often watch the pope on television away from the actual event.

Thavis reveals that in order to avoid embarrassing incidents the Vatican repeatedly altered and airbrushed Pope Benedict’s extemporaneous comments with journalists when it released transcripts. “Vatican officials justified it on the grounds that the pope’s Italian might need cleaning up,” he writes. “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.”

The chapter ends with a sad and telling incident in which Pope Benedict travels to Jordan and moves with a large entourage to the banks of the river where the first Christian baptisms were performed. Some of the journalists and photographers were expecting to see the pope performing a baptism near where Christ asked John the Baptist to baptize him, or at least to observe the pope’s reaction to the place. Instead, nothing. “Incredibly, the convoy began moving again,” Thavis writes. “It was over. The pope came all this way and never got out of his golf cart. Never approached the water. Never moved into position for a photograph.”

The episode is revealing of one of Pope Benedict’s chief difficulties as pope: an introspective theologian, he did not really enjoy the public part of his job, as had his predecessor, Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II. In an era in which the church depends increasingly on modern media, Benedict came across as exceptionally shy and awkward in communicating with the wider world.

Thavis dedicates a chapter to the horrific story of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ religious order, and a sexual predator and fraud of the first rank. Maciel won the full support of Pope John Paul II because of his astonishing success at raising money and attracting new seminarians in an era of declining vocations. The pope chose to overlook that Maciel accomplished this by using the most unchristian of means: manipulating wealthy families and using tactics of isolation, intimidation, sexual abuse, and mind control much more suited to a personal religious cult than the Catholic Church. With no accountability and virtually total control of the Legion of Christ, Maciel forced his recruits to make a secret vow of silence: “No professed religious should ever externally criticize either by word, in writing or by any other means, any act of governance or the person of any Director or Superior of the Congregation.”

The account invariably owes much to the work of Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, authors of Vows of Silence. But Thavis adds something new by describing how the officials at the Vatican managed the scandal. “John Paul,” he writes, considered the Legionaries

the future of the church, the engine that could power his cherished “new evangelization.” …Even some Vatican officials now thought John Paul’s unquestioning support for the Legionaries of Christ had been reckless. He had personally ordained their priests, visited their university, brought them into important Vatican offices and, shortly before he died, given them control over an international pilgrim house.

Despite the accumulation of evidence of Maciel’s predatory and criminal behavior, he continued to have powerful defenders in Rome. As Cardinal Franc Rodé, who monitored religious orders for the Vatican, told Thavis: “If there’s anything dynamic left in the church today, it’s them!… They have the talent, the ideas and the means to carry them through.”

The case, as Thavis writes, “highlighted the failings of Pope John Paul II,” both in the handling of sexual abuse cases as well as in allowing the growth of highly secretive and unaccountable religious orders. “Under John Paul II, it had been unthinkable to criticize the ‘new’ religious orders and movements that had flourished in recent decades but that often operated with a hidden agenda in a cultlike climate of secrecy.”

Clearly, the Maciel story needs a more thorough analysis. Can this support of Maciel be mainly attributed to a misperception by Pope John Paul II, which was then corrected discreetly by Benedict, his more clear-eyed successor, who removed Maciel from his position and ordered him to spend the rest of his life in penance? A more systematic analysis would insist that the Maciel affair revealed deeper failings in the modern papacy, beginning with the monarchical, infallible papacy established by Pius IX.* John Paul II wanted to restore hierarchical authority and doctrinal orthodoxy within the church. Because Maciel unswervingly appeared to back the same kind of unquestioning loyalty, he was allowed to keep unchecked sway over his own order. Moreover, the scandal raises issues well beyond a particular papacy. As one of Thavis’s sources says: “We have a two-thousand-year history of not airing dirty laundry. You don’t really expect that to change, do you?”

Thavis raises the question but doesn’t attempt to answer it. In fact, the pressures of modern media, the Internet in particular, have forced the Vatican to abandon some of its traditional reticence and to at least acknowledge the idea of transparency. The sexual abuse scandals in several countries have made it clear that it is no longer possible to keep the dirty laundry out of public view. Now that groups representing sexual victims, plaintiffs, lawyers, and journalists from around the world can share information, scandals that were once kept local can no longer be hushed up.

  1. *

    See, for example, Garry Wills, “ God in the Hands of Angry Sinners,” The New York Review, April 8, 2004. 

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