Life on the Papal beat: Francis may rewrite the role of Pope but maybe not the Vatican

Rachel Donadio was a Vatican reporter while Benedict was Pope. Things are a lot different under Francis she discovers.
Life on the Papal beat: Francis may rewrite the role of Pope but maybe not the Vatican

IN the two short years since his election, Pope Francis has managed an unusual feat: He has become as beloved by the international news media and the secular intelligentsia as by his own flock of 1.2bn.

I got a taste of what has been called “the Francis effect” when, on a sweltering July day, I watched dozens of mayors from around the world gather at the Vatican for a two-day conference on climate change.

Just weeks before, Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, had landed with an impact rarely seen from a 40,000-word papal document. The New York Times and other news outlets covered the encyclical as a developing story, posting continual updates online as reactions poured in from environmentalists, industrialists, and from the faithful around the world.

The conference had been hastily organised by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences and Jeffrey Sachs, the prominent economist and director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Such a collaboration would have been rare in the past but represents the kind of bridge Francis is building between the church and the wider world.

The conference was being held in a small amphitheatre upstairs from the 1970s-era Paul VI audience hall, just to the left of St Peter’s Basilica. There was more security than usual — two sets of metal detectors — most likely because of the visiting politicians. (The Vatican tries not to put barriers between the faithful and the Pope.)

Inside the auditorium, a few dozen journalists had gathered: Veteran reporters and photographers for wire services, some of whom had spent decades covering the Vatican. I chatted with an Argentine journalist for a Latin American news wire. His star had risen with the new Argentine pope, who has drawn many new arrivals from Latin America into the Vatican press corps.

This influx has made getting a coveted seat on the papal plane even more difficult. Competition was especially fierce for the Pope’s imminent trip to Cuba and the US, not least because of his role in facilitating a private meeting at the Vatican last year between US and Cuban officials, which helped finalise the détente between the countries.

For the first time, some regular Italian outlets didn’t get spots. Francis would not be addressing the press that day — popes never give news conferences and don’t take questions in public; the only time they speak directly to the press corps is on the papal plane. Reporters were there mainly to document the politicians eager to be in his orbit.

Francis finally appeared at the end of the day, with little fanfare and without an entourage. As people applauded and began filming him with their phones, the Pope took his seat.

He wore a simple cross over his white robe. He seemed a bit fatigued — temperatures were nearly 37C — but he spoke off the cuff in Spanish for a long while. He warned of “the idolatry of technocracy”, which he said leads to unemployment.

He spoke of the exploitation of children, of migration, and the risks of deforestation, especially in the Amazon, which he called one of the “great lungs” of the world. He told the mayors he was very glad they had travelled to the Vatican to discuss environmental issues, because change has to start from the grassroots. “The most serious and profound work,” he concluded, “starts at the peripheries and moves toward the centre.”

I hadn’t been back to the Vatican in two years, and it was immediately clear how much had changed. When I covered the Vatican as the Rome bureau chief for The New York Times, from 2008 to 2013, conferences and encyclicals were generally not seen as developing stories.

My tenure began three years into the troubled papacy of Benedict XVI, a conservative German theologian ill at ease with his public persona, whose most transformative act may have been his surprise resignation. He spoke often about “logos”, which can mean “reason”, and how to reconcile it with faith, and he seemed most preoccupied by encroaching secularism, not pressing global issues like climate change.

Benedict, with his careful shuffle of a walk, his tremulous voice, his insistence on intellectual rigour in Catholic practice, seemed to suggest that the Church might just have lost the culture wars. Francis, whose folksy joviality deflects attention from his sharp political instincts, presents the Church as fully engaged in a battle that there may still be a chance of winning — for souls, yes, but also for the planet.

In 2008, on my way to the Vatican press office for my first meeting, I stopped in St Peter’s Square. Part of the square is an ellipse designed by Bernini, the master of the Italian Baroque. From most points, the colonnade’s four rows of thick columns are visible, but at a precise spot on either side, they align and fuse into one.

In the years to come, I would think often of that spot as key to so much about the Vatican, this ancient institution built of solid stone and optical illusion, where perspective is all.

You cannot understand the Vatican without understanding the Baroque — a movement that relied not only on

complexity for complexity’s sake but also on trompe l’oeil and perspectival techniques to represent multiple angles of vision simultaneously. And you cannot understand, or govern, Italy without understanding the Vatican, whose most abiding lesson is: Time is power.

How else to make sense of the endless and elaborate delays, the delicate art of manipulating the interlocking gears of the machine, the tug of war between Rome and the local dioceses — all of which produces a perpetual displacement of responsibility that often erodes the line between willful obfuscation and benign incompetence.

What providence wills, only bureaucracy can achieve. He who slows down time preserves power. I once asked Giulio Andreotti, the seven-time Christian Democratic prime minister of Italy, the enigmatic force at the centre of so many webs who never so much as flinched during the years of trials for associating with the Mafia — in which he was, naturally, acquitted — why Italy was so bureaucratic.

“It’s a certain guarantee,” Andreotti answered, sitting in his Senate office and speaking in his clipped monotone, his shoulders slightly hunched.

“Yes, it’s a weight, maybe something flat and opaque, but it’s also a guarantee to go one step at a time, not to take big curves. If you take big curves fast, that can be very risky.”

At the Vatican, the Apostolic Palace is the seat of power. Francis keeps his office here, but he has chosen not to live in the papal apartment. Instead, he sleeps in a more humble residence inside the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where he takes his meals in a communal cafeteria. (This, conspiratorial Italians will tell you, is out of fear of being poisoned by his enemies inside the Vatican.)

He insists on riding in a Ford Focus, not the usual Mercedes, much to the dismay of some Vatican officials who have grown accustomed to luxury. He disarms Vatican officials by phoning them directly. Time is power, but unpredictability is power, too.

Francis may rewrite the role of pope, may even change the world, but he may not be able to change the Vatican, where for centuries the Roman curia, career Vatican bureaucrats, have bedeviled efforts at reform.

To reach the Apostolic Palace, which dates from the 16th century, you enter through St Anne’s Gate. Past the Vatican bank and beyond a fleet of Vatican City State fire trucks, a Swiss Guard points you to a wood-panelled elevator.

The brass plate marking the floors reads ‘I Loggia’, ‘II Loggia’, ‘III Loggia’. The Secretariat of State, the Holy See’s foreign ministry and Home Office, occupies the third loggia. Here, a seemingly endless hallway with a wall of windows and soaring, coffered ceilings begins with a wall-size map of the globe. It is one of a series of frescoes depicting maps of the known world, painted between 1560 and 1585.

There are Greece and Turkey. The Holy Land and Italy are rendered in gold. It was from here, the centre of the centre, that the Catholic Church brought the periphery under its sway. I have been in this hallway only once — the only time an official ever invited me inside — and it is one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.

At the Vatican, the aesthetics are generally more rewarding than the access. At best, you might succeed in talking to someone who can tell you he has seen the shadows on the cave wall.

In Italy, Vatican coverage relies on the phrase “si dice che” — “it is said that”, or “voci di corridoio” — “rumours in the hallways”, as if news were not so much reported as mysteriously revealed. You have many meetings in anterooms.

An usher — the job is a sinecure often passed from father to son — shows you the way. You wait. Sometimes there is a copy of the Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica on the table. Your interlocutor arrives. He — and it is always a he — is cordial. He speaks full and often eloquent sentences in response to your questions but rarely answers them.

At least since the invention of the stained-glass window, the Vatican has embraced new technologies to help the Pope communicate with the faithful. In 1931, Pope Pius XI was the first pope to make a radio broadcast.

In 1954, Pope Pius XII was the first to appear on television. In 2012, under Benedict, the Vatican opened the first papal Twitter feeds, which have grown to more than 23m followers in nine languages under Francis and are managed by the Secretariat of State.

But the Vatican press office is designed mainly to get the Pope’s words out, not to let the press in. The press office holds frequent news conferences with Vatican officials — never the Pope — and issues nearly daily bulletins announcing the Pope’s meetings with Church and secular officials and nominations or retirements of Church officials around the world.

Few institutions yield so many stories that can be reported without leaving your desk. The trick is understanding the stakes. A news bulletin arrives via email. Is it a tiny blip or something of vast importance?

Benedict announces that he will make it easier for disaffected Anglicans to find a home in the Catholic Church. Is this a small thing or the largest setback in Catholic-Anglican relations since the Protestant Reformation? The Vatican insists on one interpretation. The Anglicans on another. It is always a question of perspective.

The Vatican may be hierarchical, but it is also decentralised. If you wish to speak to a particular official, you bypass the press office and contact him directly.

It helps if someone can vouch for you. A Catholic journalist from a small outlet in a Vatican official’s home country will almost certainly encounter more open doors than a reporter from an international news operation.

Being part of the fold is seen as an asset, not a conflict of interest. That is why the best-sourced Vatican reporters are all practising Catholics — and mostly men — and why, with a few notable exceptions, all are Italian. That is also why these best-sourced Italian reporters did not predict that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires would be chosen as pope. It was outside their field of vision. It was outside almost everyone’s field of vision.

The expectation was that a Jesuit who must promise not to seek higher office in the church would not prevail. But once the voting began, “it was said that” the Latin American cardinals rallied around Francis. We may never know for sure. All takes place behind closed doors, when the cardinals are locked — ‘con clave’, ‘with a key’ — inside the Sistine Chapel. During the conclave, the Vatican press office tried to make the process less opaque. It showed a video of a ghostly hand opening and closing the lids of the urns in which the cardinals place their secret ballots.

Of all aspects of Vatican coverage, the papal trips were my favourite. The Vatican organises them down to the minute. The atmosphere is somewhere between a presidential campaign and a medieval pilgrimage.

There are Masses and pageants; meetings with heads of state; visits to Marian shrines like the one in Fatima, Portugal, where I once saw tiny old women throwing wax models of ailing body parts into special ovens, offering prayers for healing. About 75 journalists — representing print, radio, and television — travel on the papal plane. The dress code is suits and ties for men, even in tropical heat, and applies especially to photographers, who get closest to the Pope. (Women often get away with a more casual look.)

A security detail travels with Francis, but in audiences in St Peter’s Square he likes to forgo the popemobile, with its bulletproof glass, and wander without warning into the crowd.

John Paul II walked the aisle of the papal plane and chatted with reporters. Francis does that, too, taking questions. On the way back from Brazil, his first foreign trip as Pope, Francis was asked about rumours of a “gay lobby” at the Vatican. He said he wasn’t aware of such a lobby and then added, speaking of gays, “Who am I to judge?” Those five words shook the Catholic world.

Benedict, by contrast, after a blow-up over his remarks that condoms could worsen the AIDS epidemic in Africa, would respond to questions only if they were submitted in advance, and then he read scripted answers.

The lingua franca on the papal plane is always Italian, although sometimes a pope will answer a question in a language spoken in a destination country. There is no simultaneous translation.

Under Francis, the press office tries to issue translated transcripts quickly, but it is always one step behind the news cycle. Handouts with the Pope’s greetings to the leaders of every country whose airspace the papal plane has traversed are distributed to the press.

The Pope flies first class; the journalists sit in economy. Until a few years ago, papal trips were run by a Belgian with a fierce temper who would shout at journalists to form a single-file line, as if we were unruly schoolchildren. The day’s embargoed speeches were distributed as early as 4.45am, with Mass at 5 o’clock for those who wished to attend.

Reporters tend to flock together by language — chiefly Italian, Spanish, English, and French. No one ever has the same idea of what the story is. On a papal trip to Britain, centred on the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the 19th-century Anglican convert, I was trying to write an article explaining how Newman’s intellectualism resonated with Benedict.

Nearby, a colleague from a British tabloid was hashing out his story. “What would you say was in that omelette that we ate on the plane,” he asked me. “Herbs?”

En route to France with Benedict in 2008, the journalists for Catholic news outlets were intrigued that his first speeches seemed to support a return to the traditional Tridentine rite that had been pushed aside with the Second Vatican Council.

Those of us from secular news organisations were framing the story around the pope’s inveighing, once again, against a world without spiritual values.

And then there was the reporter for a German tabloid, peering out the window onto the tarmac, where Carla Bruni was greeting Benedict with Nicolas Sarkozy, then the president of France. He shouted into the phone to his editors: “She’s wearing flats!”

Over the years, I met often with the Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit priest who runs the press office and Vatican Radio. He seemed to dislike spinning, a quality that endeared him to me.

When delivering bad news, he coughed nervously. He wouldn’t always answer a yes-or-no question — he preferred the formulation that something was “a cammino”, “a path”, and I often wondered where, precisely, we might be on the journey and what we might see at the end of it.

In 2010, in the middle of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis, I sent Lombardi a question about how the Vatican had handled the case of an abusive priest in Chile. Lombardi responded that appropriate measures had been taken at the appropriate time. I sent a follow-up question, the gist of which was, “Who knew what when?” His answer came back: “Respondit eis Pilatus: ‘Quod scripsi, scripsi’?” — “Pilate said to him: ‘What I have written, I have written.’?” (The Gospel of John: 19:22.)

In July, I stopped by to see Lombardi for the first time in a few years. He greeted me warmly with the informal “tu”, while I, as was our habit, used the formal “Lei”.

I sat on a worn leather sofa and he on a swivel chair. He was in good spirits. Francis’ trip to Latin America in June had gone very well. The encyclical on the environment, he said, had already become a best seller in some countries. Excitement was building for the pope’s trip to the US and Cuba. I asked him if it was challenging to keep up with Francis, who improvises constantly. He rolled his eyes. “Don’t even tell me about it,” he said. There was no nervous cough.

Under Benedict, Lombardi was forever trying to prevent the fallout from a crisis. Under Francis, his repeated message seems to be that the Pope, in spite of his focus on those on the margins of society, is not, in fact, a Marxist.

He mentioned the Pope’s speech in Bolivia, in which Francis spoke of the periphery as a catalyst of creativity and moral engagement. The speech “could be read as leftist revolutionary, because it largely makes an appeal to the poor”, Lombardi said. “But there was not a single word about class warfare. There’s not a single word about violence. It’s all about common good and love and responsibility.”

It falls on Lombardi to make clear that both Popes speak for the same Church. And it falls on the press to describe what we see. Four rows of columns or one?

As always, it’s a question of perspective.

Rachel Donadio is the European culture correspondent for The New York Times and is based in Paris. She was The Times’s Rome bureau chief from 2008 to 2013.

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