When President Bush came to Rome last week, the Washington press corps discovered an institution that's even harder to penetrate than the battened-down Bush administration: the Vatican.
Having covered both Washington and Rome for my former paper, the New York Times, I can attest that it's at least as difficult for a reporter to get into the office of the lowliest Vatican official as snag an interview with Bush. Mystery surrounds even the most mundane operations here, in keeping with centuries of tradition. (At this point, the Curia seems less afraid that somebody might glimpse their top-secret plans than they are eager to obscure the reality that once you get past the grandeur of St. Peter's Basilica, the place is understaffed, down at the heels, and running mainly on the fumes of an ailing pope's fading charisma. Of course, Bernini and Michelangelo plus a little incense go a long way.)
At the Vatican, out-of-school, on-the-record quotes are probably even rarer than in the White House, in part because certain officials at the Holy See are required to take oaths of silence before God. Some, thankfully, get around this by insisting that their remarks can be used as long as they do not appear in direct quotes—a line in the sand that I always found slightly Clintonian, though no one I know at the Vatican would appreciate the comparison. This formula certainly requires more contortions for American than Italian journalists, who can always fall back on "si dice in piazza'' attributions: "The talk on the street is …''
But all Vatican reporters have developed strategies for covering one of the world's most secretive institutions. First and foremost, they stick together.
Unlike their Washington counterparts, the pope's press pack seems downright competitive about who can be the most helpful to colleagues: Did you get that full quote? Want to hear it again? Anybody interested in my phoner with Monsignor Such-and-Such?
This is probably not due to the pastoral influence of the Holy Father; the Italian journalistic culture that naturally dominates here encourages a uniformity of thought that goes beyond even the who-we-hate/who-is-great lock step of the Washington press corps. And with so few hard facts available, sharing is a matter of self-preservation. At the Vatican, press pools are set up by a committee of journalists, so if you don't work and play well, you may find yourself in a lonely post outside the pope's early morning mass.
Just this week, one well-known writer was denied entree to the president's meeting with Pope John Paul II. This was his penalty for having tried to turn an interview with a cardinal, poached during pool duty in Armenia a year ago, into an exclusive story. "We have a long memory, and for people who stray, this is the punishment," said one long-time Vatican reporter, who wasn't in on the decision but enthusiastically concurred with it.
Still, traveling with the Vatican press corps is quite a pleasant culture shock after Washington. For one thing, the papal charter is a regular party plane compared to Air Force One. Flight attendants pass out cartons of cigarettes at the beginning of papal trips, rosaries blessed by John Paul at the end—and drinks pretty much throughout.
A number of reporters have been on the beat since the beginning, or near the beginning, of this papacy 24 years ago, and they have been through a lot together. So, for many, watching the pope's decline is much more than just another story.
Some of their favorite tales involve Vic, the former Belgian cop assigned to keep the press in line and on time, and in his gruff way he, too, is a unifying force. Introducing himself to me last fall, Vic leaned in close and whispered, just before a papal mass in Astana, that I shouldn't even think about leaving before the end. "I don't care if you're hot," he said, drawing out each word for emphasis. "I don't care if you have to go to the bathroom. In fact, the more miserable you are, the happier I am." When I began to board a bus with a cup of contraband coffee—who knew?—several reporters instinctively ran to surround me, to keep him from noticing. For a newcomer, this is an awfully welcoming bunch.
In Rome, everything is as intensely personal as in Washington it is all business. Vatican officials almost never talk unless they know you, no matter who you work for, and news conferences frequently meander off into little testimonials from reporters, like one who recently expressed his heartfelt anguish over the fact that priests hardly ever wear their stoles in the confessional any more.
Though the papal press corps has at least lately been far more critical of the Curia than White House correspondents have been of Bush, Vatican reporters tend to fault the Church on its own terms, in a way that rejects the usual assumption that every decision is part of a perfectly orchestrated political strategy. We know they're not that organized.
Most, though by no means all, Vatican reporters are some kind of Catholic, probably because we find the arcana and inside jokes more interesting than others might. Though Bush is no slouch when it comes to "God talk," correspondents offended by such references would be uncomfortable at the Vatican, where officials say grace over every business lunch and end interviews with "God bless you." If you run a little late, your source might say, "That's OK, I had time to get in a rosary."
And quite unlike Washington officials, Vatican types hardly ever bother correcting either their own misstatements or news stories that turn out to be wrong. After all, there is always room for redemption tomorrow.