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 Adult, $27.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Popes come and popes go, but John Thavis had a longer tenure in Rome than many of them. Now retired, Thavis won prizes for his reportage, which began in 1983 when he became the Rome bureau chief of Catholic News Service. The Catholic Press Association awarded him the St. Francis de Sales Award, named for the patron saint of journalists, in 2007. It is the highest honor given by the Catholic press. He now lives in Bemidji, Minnesota.

What is this book about?

The Vatican is a city-state, an enterprise that employs thousands and influences the beliefs and politics of Catholics (and non-Catholics) the world over. Still, its rituals and intrigues remain a mystery to many. Thavis undertakes to explain it all to us, delving deep into his more than 25 years of covering the Vatican. This rich background enables him to be a sort of fly on the Sistine Chapel’s wall, bringing us stories both humorous and disturbing.

Why you’ll like it:

“I’m convinced that the backstage reality at the Vatican is infinitely more interesting than the caricature of power and authority that dominates the mainstream media,” writes Thavis, and he has the anecdotes to prove his point. His book is both amusing and serious, and it opens the door to one of the most magnificent and mystifying of organizations. Thavis can be irreverent without being insulting, revealing without being a gossip and wise in his interpretations. The ascendance of Pope Francis, after Pope Benedict’s surprising resignation, makes this book both timely and informative.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “Recently retired Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service, Thavis feels that the Vatican, while globally known, is misunderstood by many. His journalistic obligation to cover the city-state, as he did for more than 25 years, makes him the ideal author for this book. He dedicates the first few chapters to a discussion of the selection of Pope Benedict XVI, presenting the events and characters surrounding this important change with clarity and human detail. He addresses controversial topics in the Catholic Church, from sex—a chapter is devoted to nuances of private opinion on abstinence as compared to using condoms—to sainthood, with relative ease. VERDICT Thavis’s anecdotal presentation will appeal to readers seeking understanding of or connection with the Catholic Church’s heart. This book is recommended for anyone who would like to challenge their own notions and perceptions of the Vatican.”

 Kirkus Reviews

A seasoned reporter on the Vatican beat takes us for an irreverent and revealing visit. …His report, even without comment on the problematic events at the Vatican Bank, serves as a case study in management–and mismanagement–at a considerable worldwide enterprise with 400,000 priestly representatives. Though much history resonates throughout all church events, Thavis concentrates on the history he has witnessed firsthand, including the process of bell-ringing on the naming of a new pope and the work of various functionaries in the organization. We learn …how the matter of the Legion of Christ was bungled when its founder was revealed as a thieving predator and why His Holiness didn’t deal with an anti-Semitic bishop. Thavis also relates his time on the road with the pontiff and notes a futile visit by George W. Bush. He reviews the stalled drives to canonize the late John Paul or Pius XII, whose wartime role is still debated. Especially provocative are the chapters dealing with the mismanagement of diverse sex scandals and, finally, an appraisal of the opaque personality of Benedict, who seems, at least in public, detached, disengaged and often distracted. …Not only provocative, this report is illuminating and fully accessible to members of the faith and doubters alike.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “…entertaining and readable…. Focusing on the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (neither of whom come off well here), Thavis reveals a great deal about how the Vatican bumbles along. Each chapter focuses on a particular mishap, so readers are sure to be intrigued, whether by “Bones”-the story of how a priceless archeological find almost fell to the expansion of the Vatican’s parking spaces-or a profile of Father Reginald Foster, the Vatican’s rebellious, mouthy (and deeply gifted) chief Latinist. The controversies surrounding the sainthood of Pope Pius XII, the ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius X, and the Catholic church’s struggles with birth control, AIDS, homosexuality, and celibacy are also all included, revealing just how political the Vatican really is. Given such insight, readers may wish that Thavis had provided his own perspective on if, and how, he kept his own faith while working in such an environment.

 “In this highly readable memoir of being a journalist at the Vatican, John Thavis follows the conclaves, sex scandals, internal backstabbing and Olympian nature of the popes with a sense of comic relief at the caravan passing through his viewfinder,” says Jason Berry, author of “Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.”

When is it available?

“The Vatican Diaries” is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight branch.

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