By John Thavis (Viking, 2013)
License plates on cars registered in Vatican City bear the abbreviation SCV for Stato della Città del Vaticano. The local joke in Rome is that the initials really stand for Se Cristo Vedesse, “If Christ could only see!” It’s a reminder that the Vatican might seem strange indeed to a poor Galilean carpenter.
If you are looking for a Vatican guide, however, you could do far worse than John Thavis, the recently retired Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service. In his new book The Vatican Diaries, Thavis assembles some of the most interesting stories from his 30-year tenure in the Eternal City.
Some of these stories are hilarious and often play on the contrast between the Vatican staff’s obsession with protocol and the freewheeling ways of various visitors—usually Americans—who commit faux pas without realizing it. One visiting American president accidentally saluted a Vatican elevator operator, whose snappy uniform would no doubt have put the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to shame.
Thavis’ good eye for the comical and incongruous doesn’t prevent him from delving into more serious issues. His chapter on the controversy over the canonization of Pius XII is a balanced treatment of a difficult issue that illustrates how a pope, far from being an absolute monarch, is often pulled to and fro by multiple interests seeking to influence his decisions. And Thavis does not shy away from the darker aspects of Vatican culture, as his chapter on Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the now-disgraced founder of the Legion of Christ, presents a disturbing portrait of Vatican officialdom.
One of the major issues in the recent conclave was the reform of the Roman curia, and Thavis’ book makes a convincing case that some reform is needed. Perhaps we will be able to read about the success or failure of that effort in Thavis’ next book.
This article appeared in the May 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 5, page 43).