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Saturday November 22nd 2014

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Book Review: The Vatican Diaries


By Terri Schlichenmeyer

You and God had a little talk this morning.

You told Him about your day ahead: what you wished for, the people who needed Him especially today, the ideas you had and troubles you carried. The two of you talk often; in fact, He’s a friend of yours from way back. You’ve even been to His house.

Sometimes, you wonder what He thinks about the events that have happened at His headquarters. You’d love to know more yourself, actually, and when you read “The Vatican Diaries” by John Thavis, you’ll find out.

In the early 1980s, when he started covering the Vatican for Catholic News Service, John Thavis quickly learned something surprising: Vatican “secrets” aren’t secret at all. As it is in every small town, everybody knows everybody else’s business in the Vatican , gossip and rumors are everywhere, information doesn’t always come directly from the top, and it’s rare that everybody gets along.

When it comes to the Vatican , says Thavis, what the world sees is one thing, and what really goes on inside is “quite another.”

The Vatican itself is a treasure, with a basilica made of masonry that breathes “like a lung” and expands by as much as five inches a day.
Some of the buildings are ancient, while others bow to 21st-century consumerism, which many residents Vatican City hate to see happening. Others, however, want progress so much that they’ll destroy priceless artifacts and tombs to get it.

It’s no surprise that there’s a ferociously protected hierarchy inside Vatican ’s walls, and it starts, in a way, with a puff of smoke that signifies a new leader and (usually) ends with his death and his unfinished business – much of which, to the consternation of supporters, is tabled. That smoke, incidentally, delights Thavis in its incongruity: in 2005, the Vatican informed the media via email that one pope died, and informed the world via smoke that another was chosen.

The Vatican is where reporters often take matters into their own hands to get a good story. It’s a place where celibacy is demanded but sexuality is widely discussed. It’s where residents learn that the “style” of a beloved leader isn’t always carried forth to the new guy on the block. It’s where controversy lies, scandals fester, and where the Pope “knows how to put on a show.”

So is the Pope Catholic?

Indeed he is, and with sensitivity and smarts, author John Thavis shares anecdotes about that man, his predecessors, and those who surrounded them.

I was pleased that “The Vatican Diaries” easily explains what goes on behind papal walls, especially that to which pilgrims usually aren’t privy. Thavis’s stories of desecration, scandal, and politics are eye-opening, and you’ll laugh at his tale of being tardy on the tarmac.

This is a lively book that’s steeped in history and personality, and I loved spending time with it. If you’re rather fascinated by that which has been happening in Rome for the past few decades, then “The Vatican Diaries” is a book you’ll be talking about.

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“The Vatican Diaries” by John Thavis
c.2013, Viking
$27.95 / $29.50 Canada
321 pages