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.

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
Swiss Guards on duty at the Vatican, 2013

The Vatican’s difficulties in dealing with the Internet age became painfully evident in the clumsy attempt by Benedict XVI to heal the rift with the breakaway Society of Saint Pius X, the traditionalist group founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who wanted not only to keep the Latin mass but to reject practically all the changes of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul excommunicated Lefebvre when, acting on his own, he ordained four bishops in 1988. Thavis writes a fascinating chapter about the “cat and mouse” game involved in trying to bring the “Lefebvrites” back into the fold during the Ratzinger papacy.

Within hours of Benedict lifting the excommunication from the rebel group, the story broke of a recent interview with one of the Lefebvrite bishops, Richard Williamson, in which he denied the Holocaust. An elementary Google search would have revealed a string of hateful statements by Williamson going back many years. The pope acknowledged the Vatican’s failure:

I have been told that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.

The questions posed by the reconciliation with the Lefevrites raise even more disturbing questions that Thavis prefers not to explore. How could Darío Castrillón Hoyos, the cardinal who was negotiating and meeting with these hard-line dissidents, not know with whom he was dealing? After all, he had to keep track of only four bishops ordained by Lefebvre. In 1989, it was discovered that Lefebvre had helped hide Paul Touvier, a French war criminal who had helped to deport Jews under the Vichy regime, for nearly a decade. Was it really so surprising that one of Lefebvre’s bishops should be a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite? Perhaps more importantly, what does this tell us about the quality of leadership in the College of Cardinals and the way in which they are selected?

The last few chapters of Thavis’s Vatican Diaries are perhaps the strongest. He has an excellent chapter on “Sex” and the Vatican as well as a quite moving final one on Benedict XVI. These chapters make fascinating reading and often contain penetrating insights, but Thavis’s picture of the Vatican mainly as a series of individuals leaves unanswered many larger institutional and doctrinal questions. Is the Vatican’s highly informal, medieval-style governance adequate in today’s world? Can priestly celibacy and the ban on the ordination of women survive what has often been described as a worldwide crisis in priestly vocations? Is the hard line established by John Paul II and continued by Benedict necessary to hold the church together, as they seemed to believe? Can it be reversed without causing a deep split in the church? What are the opportunities for change and reform available to the new pope, Francis I? The wealth of Thavis’s sources and the nuances of his understanding of the Vatican are so impressive that one hopes he will want to take on some of the larger issues his fascinating stories raise.


Tim Parks’s Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo has many of the same virtues and defects as Vatican Diaries: charming and fascinating anecdotes, scenes, and observations, together with an excess of detail and smallness of scope that sometimes feels narrow. Like Thavis’s book, Italian Ways has trouble finding its narrative groove but picks up speed and power. Early on, Parks spends many pages describing his frustration as a regular commuter between Verona and Milan. He recounts in painstaking detail the infinite complications of trying to buy a year-long pass for a regional train while also trying from time to time to buy supplements for the fast intercity train without wasting too much time waiting on long, slow lines. We learn more about the intricacies of Trenitalia’s complex fare system than we ever wanted to know:

To recap, then, while in the past one had maximum flexibility for price X at the slight risk of not finding a seat, something you could nevertheless sort out if you knew you were traveling at a busy time by adding a reservation for price X+Y, now you always pay X+Y and always have a seat but no flexibility unless you pay price X+Y+Z, when you have your seat and a little flexibility, but nothing like what you had years ago just paying X.

Too often, the narrative seems to concentrate on pet peeves that a frustrated commuter might accumulate over the course of many years. There are too many passages like the following from a railway station café:

All this stuff was going through my head when an elderly man who sat heavily on the chair beside me was emitting a smell so powerful that I stood up at once and took my cup and remaining crumbs to another table, where two students were amazingly finding the energy to kiss and fondle at seven o’clock on a freezing Monday morning. I wondered for a moment if I should check the departures board again—for there is no information inside the bar, no announcements, no screens—but I had plenty of time.

And yet, Parks is right that there are important and revealing larger insights in some of his details. The Italian train system reflects some of the deep contradictions that Italy is facing in trying to balance the larger public good with the pressures of reducing its national debt. Unlike Great Britain and the United States, Italy has never asked its train system to make money or even break even. It regards this capillary network of trains reaching into almost every small town as a service that is worth paying for. When he was in power, Mussolini made regional trains extremely accessible and inexpensive, one of his strategies for building consensus without political freedom.

To this day, as Parks points out, you pay only several dollars for travel that would cost several times more in many other countries. At the same time, facing a national debt that has forced the country close to default, Trenitalia is under pressure to improve its balance sheet; it does so by jacking up costs on the newer, faster trains, creating a bifurcated system—leading both to the double fare system that drives Parks nearly mad as well as reflecting the growing inequalities of Italian society as a whole.

As Parks writes, it is not coincidental that Italy began its push for unification in the 1840s and 1850s as trains began to physically connect parts of the country that had previously been several days’ travel apart. Railroads, Parks tells us, forced Italian cities to synchronize their clocks, and other cities placed themselves on Rome time in 1866, four years before Rome was actually joined to a unified Italy. Thus railways and their timetables had already unified the country before it became a political reality.

Particularly interesting is Parks’s experience of traveling by train through southern Italy, a part of his adoptive country he knew very little. Perhaps because he has set off on an adventure he is less cranky and his book has the tone of a picaresque tale. The conversations of his fellow travelers offer us something of the life of contemporary Italy: the lively and slightly invasive behavior of his compartment-mates who manage to create the sense of a traveling community among strangers.

Parks travels south initially on the fancy new (more or less) private train known as Italo—one manifestation of the ways Italy is being pushed by the European Union to introduce more competition into some of its monopolistic markets. But as Parks shrewdly observes, the competition is limited: Italo is not allowed to stop at Rome’s main train station and even in the peripheral station where it does stop, the national Italian train agency has erected a fence that forces Italo’s travelers to take a very roundabout route from the station’s entrance to the train platform.

As Parks’s trip descends below Naples the speed and quality of the trains drop dramatically, reflecting the substandard public services of southern Italy. He has to take a bus in Sicily because train service there is extremely spotty and inconvenient. “Perhaps an efficient train system requires the presence of a strong central state determined to integrate all areas of a country into its communications network,” Parks observes. “The absence of state authority that has allowed the Mafia to flourish runs parallel with the weakness of the train service.”

Parks’s minute account of his train experiences is based on the premise that “all Italy could be teased out” from any small detail, “if we examined it carefully.” He is certainly correct that some of Italy’s train system is a metaphor or reflection of the country itself. But there is too much that is missing from this picture—politics and historical analysis in particular. The rules and folkways of Italy’s train system have always been arcane and irrational and yet this doesn’t help us understand why the country seems at such a point of crisis now rather than thirty or forty years ago. Italy’s economy has shifted downward from one of the world’s fastest-growing between the late 1940s and the 1980s and has had virtually zero growth for about a decade. What has changed? Millions of young Italians can’t find decent full-time jobs and are leaving the country, deciding that Italy holds no future for them. Italy’s birthrate is one of the world’s lowest and its population is set to decline significantly during the next thirty years unless it compensates with mass immigration (as it has begun to do), and yet it is unprepared for such a large-scale demographic shift.

After World War II Italy achieved a degree of shared prosperity that was unprecedented in its history, allowing the country to enjoy both a high material standard of living and a great deal of security (job protections, generous unemployment benefits, and free health care and education), while leaving intact many idiosyncratic yet often inefficient national habits and institutions—millions of small stores, often run by families, with beautiful products but impossible hours and high prices, as well as Parks’s cheap regional train system. And yet this equilibrium is now at risk of falling apart. Here and there in Parks’s book we can glimpse some of these forces at work, but they do not add up to a full and satisfying portrait of Italy at this singular juncture. Yet that is not the book that Parks chose to write and so we should enjoy Italian Ways for the pleasures and surprises it does provide, particularly his sense of the Italians he comes to know on one train after another.

  1. *

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