‘Vatican Diaries’ gives timely insights into Catholic Church

BOOK REVIEW

July 28, 2013 

  • ‘THE VATICAN DIARIES: A BEHIND-THE-SCENES LOOK AT THE POWER, PERSONALITIES AND POLITICS AT THE HEART OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH’ by John Thavis; Viking/Penguin Group ($27.95)

John Thavis’ timing couldn’t have been better.

His book, “The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church,” was released in February just as Pope Benedict XVI announced he would be the first pope in 600 years to resign.

It was a stroke of luck that put Thavis’ book — the culmination of 25 years as a journalist covering the Vatican — in exactly the right place at the right time. His memoir offers a nuanced, intriguing and at times humorous look at the inner workings of the Catholic Church at an important moment in its long history.

As the former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, Thavis has insights on the seat of Roman Catholicism shared by few.

His book reveals that Vatican City’s public image of power, hierarchical authority and reverence for the past often masks a disorganized, inept and uncertain organizational culture.

From the book’s opening, which details the blundering of ancient rituals at the announcement of Benedict’s selection as pope, to its detailed accounting of the church’s dealings with Marcial Maciel Degollado, one of the church’s most notorious sexual predators among its clergy, Thavis shows a church culture that is “more medieval village than corporate headquarters.” With the pope often in the dark about decisions made regarding the church’s administration, the church’s image is often one of gaffes, miscommunication and mixed messages.

Thavis joined Catholic News Service as a reporter in 1983 and became CNS Rome bureau chief in 1996. He served three years as president of the Association of International Journalists Accredited to the Vatican — the only American ever elected to that position — and has won numerous journalistic awards for his work.

Last year, he retired from CNS and moved back to the United States to devote his time to writing. He travels frequently to Rome, continues to cover Vatican affairs and lectures on Vatican affairs in the United States and Europe.

“The Vatican Diaries” would have been a book of great interest for anyone interested in the church and its recent history before Benedict’s resignation. But as a new pope gets his bearings and works to move the church in a new direction, Thavis’ insight becomes even more valuable and appealing to a much wider audience.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Thavis, are online and available for podcast at boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.

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