One year ago this month, Vatican analyst John Allen Jr. was a staple on CNN, covering the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI. He combines intelligence and skepticism and a bit of faith while covering one of the least understood institutions in the world. He shared his story with Quill via e-mail from Rome.
Q: What role did religion have in your childhood?
A: To be honest, I was not an especially pious child. My religious education was heavily influenced by the post-Vatican II euphoria in the Catholic Church, so that I received large doses of social concern and compassion, but relatively little in the way of solid content about the Catholic faith. Hence, I spent much of my young adult years rebelling against something that I really didn’t understand. Most of the doctrinal, liturgical and canonical knowledge I have is essentially self-taught.
Q: Tell us about your career path? Did you set out to cover religion or was it accidental?
A: I never set out to be a journalist, let alone to cover religion. I went to the Claremont Graduate School in Los Angeles with the idea of earning a doctorate and going on to a career in teaching and scholarly publishing. I decided to take a “part-time” position teaching religion at a Catholic high school. This school also needed someone to advise the student newspaper, and despite my lack of background, I got stuck with the assignment. Over time, I ended up being seduced by journalism …
The National Catholic Reporter offered me a job as opinion editor. I took it in 1997 because I liked the paper, not so much the job, since I wanted to write and report rather than edit. At roughly the same time, they were looking for someone in Rome to cover what they, along with every other media outlet in the world, believed would be the imminent death of John Paul II. From my vantage point, covering the Catholic Church and being asked if you want to go to Rome is like playing baseball and being asked if you want to go to Yankee Stadium — a no-brainer.
Q: What’s it like living abroad and writing for an American news outlet?
A: In some ways, covering the Vatican for an American outlet is an advantage. The Vatican, like many overseas institutions, has something of a love/hate relationship with the United States, but at bottom it is profoundly convinced of the importance of America’s role on the world stage. Hence, Vatican officials will often make time for American reporters they wouldn’t necessarily give to Austrians, Dutch or Japanese outlets. …
The main challenge is that reporters have to be terribly self-disciplined, with a strong internal editor, because the kind of fact-checking and question-raising that normally goes on in newsrooms on other beats just doesn’t happen on this one. If you were covering the president of the United States and wanted to write a story saying he was about to drop dead, you’d have to fight through a dozen editorial layers with their own contacts and perspectives before your story saw the light of day. Write the same thing about the pope, and it can sail through to A1, because nobody back home knows any better.
Q: Americans, including some Catholic Americans, often view the Vatican as a great monolithic entity. How has your work shaped your view of the Vatican, and how do you cultivate sources there?
A: This is not an organism with a unified intellect and will, but a complex bureaucracy that encompasses many different temperaments, visions and policy positions. Hence, sentences such as “the Vatican wants …” or “the Vatican is afraid that …” can make nice leads, but they’re almost always misleading over-generalizations.
As far as cultivating sources, Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is showing up, and I’m a great believer in that. I go to a lot of conferences, book presentations, embassy receptions, symposia, and so on, all in order to make the personal connections that are the lifeblood of a beat like this.
Q: You described the two weeks of John Paul’s funeral and the election of Ratzinger as “the longest running infomercial for the Catholic Church in prime time in the history of the planet.” Nearly a year later, how do you think the events of April 2005 have shaped the world’s view of the church?
A: First, especially in places such as the United States, it reminded the world that as important as the sexual abuse crisis story undoubtedly is, it’s not the whole Catholic story. Second, it reminded a very secularized media that religion still has a powerful hold on a vast cross-section of humanity, and not just narrow-minded fundamentalists. I remember sitting with Aaron Brown at 5 a.m. Rome time, after a live broadcast to the States, on a Roman roof looking down at the vast rivers of humanity that had formed to catch a glimpse of the pope’s body lying in state, and Brown said simply: “There’s something here I don’t understand, but I know now I need to understand it.” I think that summed up the reaction of a lot of media people over those days.
Q: What is your most vivid memory of John Paul II?
A: During the April 8 funeral Mass, I was part of CNN’s coverage team … I remember very clearly when the papal gentlemen lifted John Paul’s coffin at the end of the ceremony to take it inside St. Peter’s Basilica, and just before they passed through the main doors, turned it around for one last salute to the crowd. I described on television how appropriate this was, as this was a space John Paul had towered over in life, and now in death he had one final opportunity to enjoy that special magic he always enjoyed with crowds in the square. As I finished the sentence, I became emotional, because it flashed in my mind that this was the final sentence I would ever write or speak about John Paul II in the present tense.
Q: How did you become CNN’s Vatican correspondent? Does offering commentary on television compromise your objectivity in print? Is it difficult to maintain your objectivity given that you also are Catholic?
A: I was hired by CNN in 2001 and have been under contract as a Vatican analyst for them since. I don’t think it compromises my objectivity, because they don’t bring me on for opinion but for insight into why the Vatican does certain things, what certain Vatican formulae mean, and so on. I do think some reporters struggle with it. Some become defensive on behalf of the Church and end up acting as an apologist. … It’s a fine line to walk between being close enough to understand, but far enough away to be objective.
Q: Many people who have a brief papal audience talk about their inability to speak in his presence. What was your reaction the first time you met the pope?
A: The pope very rarely grants interviews, so journalists don’t often have one-on-one access to him. I suppose I met John Paul maybe a couple dozen times over the course of covering him for six years. I knew the current pope relatively well in his previous position as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and have met him now four times since his election.
The first time I met John Paul was on the papal plane during the trip to Kazakhstan in 2001. As I was preparing for the encounter, I ran through all sorts of things I could say, since by that stage I had written maybe a million words about his pontificate. When the time came, however, all I could croak out in Italian was, “Nice to meet you!”
Q: Does Rome ever become tiresome? What do you miss most about the States?
A: The work isn’t tiresome, though Rome itself can sometimes be frustrating, especially for ex-patriates with American expectations about efficiency and customer service. Yet going to one of the city’s magnificent restaurants, over fine wine and a four-course meal always eases the pain.
In recent years I’ve been doing so much speaking across the (United States) that I’m never more than a few weeks away from my next trip home, so I don’t really have time to miss it. I can say, however, that when I’m in Italy, the two things I crave from the States are real American breakfast and barbecue. When I’m in the States, however, after about 48 hours I get the shakes from withdrawal from bucatini all’amatriciana, my favorite Roman dish.
Q: What kind of readership do you have for your weekly online column, “The Word from Rome”? Was it your idea?
A: We conventionally use the number of 50,000 (subscribers). Before I came to Rome, I had suggested to my editors that I do a weekly reporter’s notebook-style feature on the Internet, since I would be gathering all sorts of material that for different reasons would not make it into the paper… I had initially expected that maybe a few dozen Vatican junkies around the world would follow it, and I’ve been utterly astonished at the following the column has developed.