By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer
— John Thavis, a Mankato-born journalist who spent 20 years covering the Vatican for the Catholic News Service, was visiting Rome recently when the biggest papal news in recent years broke.
Thavis was in Rome to touch base with the sources he used for his new behind-the scenes book, “The Vatican Diaries,” when Pope Benedict stunned the religious world by announcing he’d was resigning — and the first pope to do so in 400 years.
No one outside the pope’s inner circle knew this news was coming.
But Thavis said he suspected this was coming.
“I had thought for more than a year that the pope might resign,” he said. “He had said, in certain circumstances, it’s your duty to resign.”
Plus, the 85-year-old pope had been frail. He’d recently topped off the college of cardinals, filling its vacancies with fresh faces. And, Thavis observed, there wasn’t a lot on the papal calendar.
So the signs were there.
Now begins a process that Thavis, 62, has witnessed personally several times: the conclave, the world’s oldest known tradition of selecting a religious leader. It is steeped in tradition — not to mention a fair amount of secrecy — and its every move is watched around the clock by observers outside St. Peter’s Basilica and on televisions all over the world.
Thavis worked for The Free Press in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He left to return to Italy, where he found temporary work with news agencies for several years until landing a permanent gig with the Catholic News Service. His beat: the Vatican.
Covering that beat meant cultivating sources in one of the most intriguing establishments in the world. He said whether it’s covering a city council meeting in Mankato or the latest controversy at the Vatican, the process is roughly the same.
However ... “Covering the Vatican gave me a little more to sink my teeth into.”
Indeed. He said the upcoming conclave, with all its grand secrecy, is the kind of thing people love to watch.
“There’s a fascination because it’s still a closed process in an era of transparency,” Thavis said. “Americans coming off an electoral campaign are used to seeing the candidates ad nauseum. The opposite happens in Rome. Cardinals come, meet behind closed doors, and they don’t talk to the press. They make sure they don’t say anything that would tip their hand or make it sound like they’re running for pope.”
Even behind the scenes, Thavis said, cardinals don’t outwardly campaign for pope. Any campaigning is on this very subtle level with cardinals approaching each other to advocate meekly for the vision of another cardinal, but never for themselves. To do so would result in a de facto elimination from consideration.
So why would the cardinals not choose someone with ambition, someone with the desire to lead?
“If the church were choosing a CEO, they might want raw ambition. But they’re not. They’re choosing a spiritual leader, a father figure. They want someone who can communicate well, someone who can teach the younger audience.”
The cardinals will meet daily for two weeks to discuss Pope Benedict’s successor. After that, they’ll vote via written ballot. If they fail to come to a consensus, they let the world know by burning the written ballots. The black smoke puffing out of the chapel smokestack tells the world they’ve failed to choose a new pope. When the do arrive at consensus, the smoke that emerges is white.
Ideally, Thavis says, they like to reach consensus prior to the vote.
“The last thing they want is for the world to be watching and they can’t make a decision,” Thavis said.
Thavis attended St. John’s Elementary School and Loyola High School, graduating in 1969. He then attended St. John’s University in central Minnesota.
A lifelong Catholic, he said Catholics around the world do pay attention to the pope.
“Catholics pray for the pope every week at Mass, they have him on their mind,” he said. “Catholics experience the church at the local level. But the pope represents the church at a universal level.”
Thavis said he thinks Catholics will remember Pope Benedict as a fine teacher of the faith, as a man who took the church back to its roots. But the world — and the media — will remember him as a pope they never really understood.
As a thoughtful academic, Pope Benedict had the difficult task of following Pope John Paul II, one of the most charismatic figures in all of religion.
“He was more connected to the world than Benedict,” Thavis said. “When he arrived, he was young, vigorous — he captured people by force of personality, whereas Benedict depersonalized it.”
As they decide whom to choose next, the College of Cardinals will have to decide whether to stick with an academic, or perhaps return to age where the papacy was driven by a charismatic figure. And as the world continues to be transformed by technology, they’ll need to decide if they want a pope who knows his way around a Twitter feed.
“They’re going to be looking for skills in communication, someone who can speak many languages, someone who uses social media,” Thavis said. “Pope Benedict was tweeting, but it was someone else doing it. He still writes his documents in long hand.”
They’ll also be wrestling with the changing demographics of the Catholic Church.
While much of the College of Cardinals remains European, the church’s biggest growth areas are South American, Africa and Asia.
As is tradition, the followers who gather to await the outcome of the conclave will be mostly Italian. They’re likely to want an Italian pope. But in the 1980s, when Pope John Paul II was chosen, he was Polish.
“I was in the square when they announced it,” Thavis said. “The Romans in the square were stunned and disappointed — until he came out and spoke to them in pretty good Italian.”