Brandon's Notepad

August 28, 2014

The Vatican Diaries

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The Vatican Diaries
This is a short review of The Vatican Diaries, written by John Thavis, narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner.

John Thavis, a native of Minnesota, enjoyed a thirty-year career as a journalist covering the Vatican for Catholic News Service. He was first hired in Rome in 1978 as a headline writer, and after returning home for a brief time, he decided to relocate the family to Italy, where he soon found a home at CNS. He retired in 2012 and moved back to the States to focus on his own writing fulltime. The Vatican Diaries was published in early 2013.

What a book! Thavis shares his unique perspective on life in the Vatican, drawing from various events of two papacies, both mundane and spectacular. His main themes are these: that the Vatican isn’t the well-oiled machine that many people think it is, and that just about every news story that emanates from within its walls is usually backed by another, more obscure, and usually more interesting story.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this work. Early on, the sarcasm meter spiked so high that I started to wonder if this was an honest work or some sort of anti-Catholic rhetoric written by a particularly cynical insider. I had nothing to indicate that the author was even Catholic! He told of the frustrations that journalists face when following the Supreme Pontiff around the globe, and how even if the press corp misses an event altogether, the stories still get written, often using secondary sources like televised event coverage. After a while, though, it started to sound like this guy really knew his stuff. Some stories you just can’t make up. I eventually decided that the sarcasm was just a product of his style. After all, journalists are supposed to write provocative pieces, balanced or not, right?

Many of the topics covered will not come as a surprise to anyone who pays even mild attention to Catholic headlines. There is ample (and vividly frank) discussion about various scandals of course, particularly the recent ones concerning priestly abuse. Also covered are the schismatic foundation of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), impediments in the cause for the canonization of Pope Pius XII, and Pope John Paul II’s visit with the rock band U2. Some stories, however, cover very obscure topics and are not the stuff of mainstream journalism. These stories are intricately detailed and are admittedly interesting, but were surely included not for their widespread appeal, but because Thavis himself found them amusing. One such story (perhaps my favorite in the whole book) describes how a vast Roman burial ground was discovered during excavation for a new Vatican underground parking garage. Is it always this interesting when archaeology meets politics? Thavis’ admiration for John Paul II cannot be veiled, but you can tell he wasn’t quite so enthused with Benedict XVI; well, that is until he finally discovered what really made the German prelate tick…but, you’ll just have to read the book to find out what that is.

Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration is excellent. Non-fiction books are very often narrated by the author, especially those written by politicians, professors, or others whose professions require a high capacity in public speaking. I thought I was listening to Thavis reading his own work, and it was only after I noted the steady cadence in this recording that I looked to the jacket for verification that I was listening to a professional narrator. Hillgartner’s performance is in no way flat. He puts emphasis on all the right words and is able to keep the listener engaged, which is why I first assumed it was Thavis.

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