Watch Your Tongue, Hands, and Eyes

A Swiss Guard standing at attention before a row of Cardinals during a ceremony in St. Peter's Square. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dear Blog Readers:  I am gearing up to cover a Consistory at the Vatican on February 18th and 19th during which Pope Benedict XVI will create 22 new cardinals.  Eighteen of these new “Princes of the Church” will be eligible to vote for the next Pope in the next conclave.  A Consistory is always a colorful event to cover with the Cardinals receiving their new red hats and Cardinal rings but it is also a moment when people around the Vatican begin predicting and plotting for the next Conclave.  This renewed attention to Cardinals and Conclaves has brought back some memories of the challenges I faced when I first began covering the Vatican.

Watch Your Tongue, Hands and Eyes. Challenges to Covering the Vatican.

Any journalist based in Rome has to spend considerable time covering the Vatican. When I moved to Rome in 1993, I was clueless about this male-dominated world. The Vatican is not an easy place for an aggressive, American, female journalist who expects answers with a few quick phone calls to the appropriate officials.

For months after I had begun to cover the Vatican, I visited the press office every day and would get the daily “Bolletino” with all the official information about the Pope’s activities, meetings, appointments, and speeches.

The Press Office, known as the ‘Sala Stampa della Santa Sede’, is a lovely place. One of the few things that Romans generally agree on, is that Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini did the right thing when he had the entire neighborhood leading up to St. Peter’s Basilica razed to the ground so that they could build the wide avenue, Via della Conciliazione, providing a spectacular view from the Tiber River leading straight down to St. Peter’s. The entrance to the Sala Stampa della Santa Sede is the last entrance under the portico on the right just before the Via della Conciliazione opens into the piazza. There are sliding glass doors and I love rushing up the steps with all my Vatican press badges around my neck. I feel terribly important sliding my Vatican badge through the detector and having the doors slide open.

At the front desk there are two Vatican employees wearing suits and they often will greet me, smiling, “Buongiorno, Dottoressa Thomas,” which I eat up. In Italy it is enough to have a university degree and you get the ‘Dottore’ or ‘Dottoressa’. For someone who is used to getting a fair amount of back-talk from three kids at home, a smiling Vatican official calling me ‘Dottoressa’ goes a long way.

A little aside here, an Italian barista (coffee bar-tender) always makes a big deal of calling a woman, of almost any age, Signorina (Miss), instead of Signora (Mrs.). It is an Italian way of flirting a little and trying to make middle-aged women feel younger. But if a middle-aged woman goes into a coffee bar with her husband, it is always, “Buongiorno Dottore, Buongiorno Signora.” I have never been called ‘Dottoressa’ in a coffee bar.

My problem was that the “Sala Stampa della Santa Sede” was a nice place, and the “Bolletino” was useful, but I had to get beyond that, and it was not easy.

Once at the Vatican, I would make dozens of phone calls to individuals who worked inside the Vatican, seeking information. I was stonewalled over and over again. Finally, a friendly Vaticanista, a journalist who had been covering the Vatican for decades, gave me the name of a priest who worked in the Vatican Office of the Secretary of State who might be willing to speak to me in person on an off-the-record basis. I called the priest and was able, for the first time, to set up an interview inside the Vatican walls.

One quickly learns, when covering the Vatican, the strict code of attire. One must wear dark clothing, preferably black or navy blue. Women must wear skirts that fall below the knee, and their shoulders must be covered. Men must wear ties. When journalists are covering the Pope, these rules are strictly enforced. On one of my first occasions in this capacity, I made the error of wearing a conservative, navy blue skirt that stopped just above my knees. My legs, I thought, were appropriately covered by thick, navy-blue tights. To my great humiliation, I was mercilessly scolded by Sister Giovanna, a Press Office official, who ordered me to stay at the back of the crowd of journalists.

Given the rules, I was very cautious when I dressed for my first interview inside the Vatican. I wore an ankle-length, navy-blue skirt, dark stockings and black shoes. On top I wore a dark shirt covered by a dark sweater. I felt qualified for a nunnery. I scooted up to the Vatican’s ominous bronze door and told the Swiss Guard wearing blue and yellow bloomers and carrying a spear-length battle-axe, that I had an appointment with an official in the Secretary of State’s office. He double-checked my name on a list and sent me off up a large staircase.

The stairs were so long and flat that they were awkward to walk up. I tried to walk normally but first I was hitting every step up with my right foot, so I took a little jump step so the next step I would get with my left foot. Fortunately, there was absolutely no one in the enormous stairwell to see me hop-stepping my way up. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was walking up the famous Scala Regia designed by the Italian architect-sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century. At the top of several flights of stairs I found another Swiss Guard who glanced at my pass and opened the door to the third floor of the Apostolic Palace. The long corridor was deserted and I walked slowly, gazing at the marvellous walls on all sides. There were paintings of ancient maps on all the walls, centuries old Euro-centric perceptions of the shape of the world. One could stay there all day just absorbing the magnificence.

I trotted on and at length found another Swiss Guard who let me through a door to where a Vatican official stood at a desk. After checking my pass he let me into a darkly furnished room with no windows, a few chairs and a coffee table. I sat there in total silence and went over my list of questions. Eventually the priest entered, shook my hand and sat down.

Hand-shaking is vitally important to Americans. My husband, always a quick learner, picked up the habit immediately upon arriving in New York. Americans often judge others on a handshake. A firm, confident handshake, combined with looking the other person right in the eye, goes a long way in the USA.

Handshakes are more subtle and open to interpretation at the Vatican. This priest gave me a wet fish hand, and looked at something, somewhere, way off above my head. We sat down for the interview and I began firing away. His answers were short and to the point, a “yes” or “no” whenever possible. The entire time he looked everywhere else but at me. I would have understood if we had been in that fabulous corridor I had just traipsed through, but we were in a small, darkly furnished room with nothing on the walls and no windows.

Journalists are used to occasionally interviewing people who prefer to answer in monosyllables or minimal sentences. One quickly adapts one’s questions and hones in on the earlier response trying to drag out more information. I did my best but there was no hope.

After about ten minutes, I gave up on acquiring information and set about trying to get him to look at me. I began to gesticulate as I asked a question and to wave my hands about to emphasize points. At one point I found myself waving my pen in front of my nose as I asked a question. I could not get him to bite. Despite all my attempted attention-grabbers, the maximum I could get was for him to switch his gaze from the upper right hand corner of the ceiling to the lower left hand corner of the coffee table. I began to think perhaps he was blind, but he was not. After awhile, I gave up, thanked him profusely for granting me an interview, fish-shaked, and left.

Several months later I was lamenting this interview to one of the best American Vatican experts, John Allen of National Catholic Reporter. “Oh,” he said, “that’s called, ‘Custody of the Eyes’.” Apparently, certain priests believe that, by looking a woman in the eyes, you risk being seduced by her. As a rule, these priests avoid looking a woman in the eye.

After my ‘Custody of the Eyes’ experience, it was with some trepidation that I went to a background interview with a powerful and good-looking Bishop inside the Vatican. I wanted to delicately squeeze some information out of him on how the Vatican was planning for the death of Pope John Paul II. He was one of the key figures involved in the preparations. Since it was a background interview, I was without a cameraman. To my surprise, his assistant escorted me into the Bishop’s office, shut the door behind me and the Monsignor rushed forward and greeted me with a big bear hug. I was astounded, from fish-shake to bear hug. The Bishop seemed quite comfortable with my presence and questions, and clearly had no problem looking me in the eye.

As we spoke, the noise of a crowd gathering became steadily more intense as the faithful filled St. Peter’s Square below his window for the Pope’s Wednesday Weekly Audience. Following our chat, the handsome Monsignor invited me to step out onto his private terrace to see the dazzling view of St. Peter’s Square below and across the Roman rooftops. As we stood there, a helicopter flew in low over our heads. The Monsignor explained that the helicopter was carrying Pope John Paul II back from his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo to the Vatican for his Wednesday’s weekly audience with the faithful. The Helicopter swooped down and landed behind us on the helicopter pad in the Vatican Gardens. As I stood there on that spectacular Rome spring morning, with the aristocratic looking Bishop, who was clearly enjoying the moment, I felt as if I were in the middle of a movie, though I was not quite sure whether it was “The Thorn Birds” or “The Da Vinci Code”.

One must be very careful with one’s language around the Vatican. Certainly you never refer to the Pope as plain old ‘Pope’. He is ‘His Holiness’, ‘His Sanctity’, or ‘The Holy Father’. In addition, a Cardinal has to be called ‘Your Eminence’, and a Bishop ‘Your Excellence’. It gets confusing. The key is if you make a mistake, err on the up. In other words, you boost a Bishop’s ego by calling him”your Eminence” or gain points with a Carinal by calling him “your holiness”, but don’t do it the other way around.

A half-hour before my first one-on-one interview with a Cardinal at the Vatican, I got myself worked into a tizzy over the business of ring kissing. I am not a Catholic, but, I wondered, was I going to ruin my chances of getting any information by not kissing his ring? Did Vatican journalists kiss Cardinal’s rings? If I were going to kiss his ring, would I actually put my lips on it, and risk slobbering on his hand or just bow towards the ring and let my lips hover above? As I sat there fretting, the Cardinal, an American, emerged from a closed door charged forward, hand-outstretched and gave me a hearty handshake. What a relief!!

9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Alan
    2012/02/07

    what a shame it was that men were able to usurp the eminently sensible worship of the Mother Goddess figure – the world has never been the same since!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Alan
      2012/02/07

      I have also heard it said that ‘When God created man, she knew she’d made a mistake!’

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Barbara Landi
    2012/02/07

    So they still have the Vatican rules about female attire. I remember being refused entrance back in 1969 with my mother because my dress was too short & my shoulders bare. How I wish my mother were alive to read your blog! She so loved Rome, in fact spent the war years there under the occupation. While attending Catholic boarding school, she also kissed a papal ring.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/02/08

      So your mother kissed a Papal Ring!! Years after my first interview with a Cardinal, I was invited up to the front of the Papal Plane (the journalists travel in the back) to meet Pope John Paul II. The thought of kissing his ring did not even occur to me. Instead I brought him some photos of my children. He took my hand immediately, and then did the sign of the cross over the faces of my children in the photos. He was quite old and unwell then so it was difficult to understand what he was saying, but he still had a powerful presence.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    AdriBarr
    2012/02/07

    I love it! What a terrific post. I just can’t imagine navigating all the rules, the dress code, the ring kissing, the proper way to address everyone. It seems like a lot to keep straight with plenty of opportunity to err. But how wonderful it must be to walk through the Vatican. It sounds like a cool assignment to me, Dottoressa.

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    jwthomas
    2012/02/08

    I found this a very interesting account both of the internal culture of the Vatican and how an enterprising journalist learns to gain trust and access to a vey closed institution!! Loved the Thornbirds / Davinci quandry. Oh the secrets those long silent halls must hold.
    L/D

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Elspeth Slayter
    2012/02/08

    Fascinating documentation of your experience…what a bastion of old.

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Kathleen Botsford
    2012/02/08

    We’ve just spent the last two days at the Vatican. I am still too overwhelmed to put appropriate words together.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Kathleen Botsford
    2012/02/08

    P.s. and me the pagan Godess devotee! Jeez. Who knew that ancient stuff would bubble up so powerfully?

    Reply

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