A Visit to The Vatican

A fictional story about a local Italian news reporter, Giovanni Ballini, who interviews a Vatican representative about the sex abuse scandal which is plaguing the worldwide Catholic Church. He leaves the interview with an altered sense of God and the Church.

It was a hot, cloudless day in the Italian capital as Giovanni Bellini, a reporter from a local newspaper, started walking towards the piazza.  In the distance stood the old, austere Vatican buildings.   The young reporter squinted his dark brown eyes as he made his way through thin crowds of tourists taking pictures.  It suddenly occurred to him how unseasonably warm it was.   He considered what Angelo, the environmental reporter had told him earlier that week.  Climate change was causing the weather to act in crazy ways.  It was not only that Venice was slowly drowning as the sea level rose, or that the Arctic and Swiss glaciers were melting.  Some areas in the world were getting warmer, while others were getting colder.  No one knew what exactly was going to happen next.  What would be next?  Giovanni thought about the small garden that his girlfriend kept on her apartment balcony.  She carefully tended to each flower, each herb and vegetable.  They must be wilted away by now, he thought.  Giovanni asked Angelo when scientists think that the environment will turn around for the better.  Angelo shook his head.  Even if everyone in the work turned green right this moment, it would not erase that damage that has been done, he said.  People have been too irresponsible for too long.

But Giovanni’s mind was on happier things as he slowly made his way to the building to meet with representative.  He was glad for this new assignment.  Writing for a small paper, he wore more than one hat.  He was trained as a science writer and so he wrote many stories related to technology.  But he also had to write about business since, frankly, it was cheaper for the paper to have him do that then pay another person  more experienced for the job.  The reporter had lately grown tired of trying to pull answers from coy, lying businessmen.  He was looking forward to a straight-forward and honest interviewee, which, Giovanni had been told, clergymen were by nature.

Giovanni had never been a follower of the church, so he believed what people said, that his interviewee, Vatican representative Monsignor Carlo, would be an honest man.  When told of his new assignment by the editor in a group meeting, he took it in stride, but he noted how some of the reporters acted as if he had been given some divine, lofty task.  Interviewing a church figure was an important job and he did not take it lightly.  But he was not going to be any more deprecating toward his interviewee  than if he had been a lay person.  He gave no great weight to the Vatican representative since in every sense, Giovanni was a stranger to the church and to religion itself.  His father was a dedicated atheist and his mother was agnostic. They instilled in him good values, but without any spiritual foundation.  Religion was a burden that made people do crazy things, he was taught.  It is best to just work hard and be a good person.  For his part, consequently, Giovanni did not think much of religion.  If asked, he probably would have called himself agnostic.  God sounded just a little too good to be true.  He’d like to think that there might be something else higher than himself out there going good things in the world, but he could not be too sure.  He had never seen God before.

Giovanni was glad to have finally gotten some shade when he arrived at the covered doorway leading to the representative’s office.  His dark brown hair had started to stick to his face.  He quickly wiped his forehead with his arm before raising his hand to knock on the door.

However, even before his fist touched the door, it opened.   Monsignor Carlo opened the door and smiled slightly when he looked down at Giovanni.  Compared to the reporter with his average height and average build, Carlo was a tall, heavy-set man with black hair and wearing a long black robe with clerical collar.  He was a rather imposing figure.  “I was about to go on a brief errand before you arrived.  You’re a little early.”

 

“I can come back if you like.”  Giovanni said, non-chalantly looking up.

“No, this is a good time.  Come in.”  Mon. Carlo gestured for Giovanni to enter as he turned around and walked to a large thick table sitting in the middle of the room.

Giovanni entered a comfortable, air-conditioned room decorated with wood.  A few wooden chairs sat forlornly near the window and a thick wooden table sat near the front door.  Deep-brown wainscoting lined the walls.  As Giovanni sat down he was reminded of something that his mother used to say. ”Money, money, money, they are always asking for your money.  The church is not about give, give, give.  Really it is take, take, take.   Show me a poor church and maybe I will believe what they say.”

Carlo sat down across from the reporter.  As Giovanni took out his notebook and tape recorder, he became suddenly aware of how uncomfortably hard the chair was.  He wondered if this was how the pews felt.

“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me,” Giovanni began.  “I hope that you don’t mind being tape recorded.”

‘”That it is perfectly fine.  You are probably reporter number 30, I have spoken with over the past year.  I know the routine.  You fellows have to get your facts straight.”  The man spoke amiably enough but there was something a little unsettling about him.

Giovanni smiled.  “Yes, we do.”  He turned on the recorder and set it in the middle of the table between them.

“My first question is: How does the church feel about the sex abuse accusations by former students of its European schools?  Does the church believe them?”

Carlo paused and looked thoughtful enough.  He must have been asked the same question over a hundred times by now, Giovanni thought.  An expectedly canned answer followed.

“The Church,” he began, “takes these accusations very seriously.  Of course, we don’t like it.  No organization likes to be told about the wrong some of its members have done, but we are also interested in our public image, the image we have throughout the world.  We must deal with this issue so the parishioners, including the victims can have faith in the Church again.  This is our prayer.”

Giovanni briefly looked down at his next question. “What do you think about the way the media is handling this sex scandal?  Do you think that they are providing too much coverage?”

“Like I said,” Carlo began simply, ”no one likes to be cast in a negative light.  But I think the media would be greatly amiss if it did not discuss these allegations frankly.  It is your job to report news and this certainly is news.  Whatever is being said about the church should be out in the open.  We obviously need to address problems better than we have done in the past.”

“Some think that the Church has not done enough to address the issue,  that they have only given lip service to changing, but no real change has taken place.  The pope has only taken a few resignations, but has yet to fire anyone.  What do you think about this?” Giovanni asked.

“I’m tired of people acting as if the church is not doing anything.  We are changing!”  Carlo said clearly irritated.  “There have been many resignations.  In the media they make it sound as if it is only a few.  But clergy with long-standing, distinguished careers in the church have stepped down.  People in prominent positions have retired themselves over allegations or confessions of abuse.  As far as other changes, we have increased our standards for accepting priests.  We do more thorough background checks.  There are many things we are changing that I am not at liberty to discuss right now.”

“Are women trying to become nuns held to higher standards as well?”

“Those are in the works.”

“Do you personally think that the church is doing enough to deal with the issue?”

“What else can we do?  We are cooperating with authorities.  We have been paying out millions of dollars since the law suits started.  We have been maligned in the media and have gotten many terrible e-mails.  There have even been death threats against some clergy.”  Carlo looked down momentarily, as if a little exasperated.  “But the church is long-suffering.  We have had troubles before, but we will come out of this one better than we were before.”

Giovanni paused and then squarely looked at the priest.  “Some of the research that I have uncovered indicates that this has been a very expensive scandal.  There are some schools in America that have closed.  It’s been reported that some diocese have gone bankrupt because of the scandal.  There was even a report that in one European country some of the youth were thinking about leaving the church.  Some people already have.   Do you really think that the church will emerge unscathed?”

A very solid expression came to Carlo’s face, as if that question were completely out of place.

“The holy Roman Catholic Church has been around for over 2,000 years.  There are catacombs beneath this city which show pictures of saints from as far back as the 4th century.  St. Peter from the Bible, from ancient times, one of Christ’s own apostles,  was the first Pope.  We have weathered foreign invasions, dictators, divisions within our own church, a rouge German priest named Luther, the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches and much more.  Even some of these so-called Protestants should be thanking us for their religion.  The sacraments, the ceremony exercised in every church in the world, it all came from the Catholic Church.  They were first practiced in our Church.  We started everything!”

Giovanni was a little ill at ease with Carlo’s dogged defense of his church.  “If this were a corporation, you would have a great deal of lost profits from shareholders who wouldn’t want to be associated with a business that had been involved in morally reprehensible behavior.  Monsignor Carlo, I understand your defense.  But honestly speaking, hasn’t this scandal cost more than you are prepared to say?”

“There is no doubt that it has been very expensive.  It will continue to be very expensive.  It has tarnished our reputation certainly, but we’ll be fine.  The schools that have closed will one day re-open.  The poor archdiocese will regain their financial footing.  Things will be just fine.  Ten years from now people will not even remember this.”

Giovanni looked curious.  “How can you be sure?”

“I recently read a newspaper article which stated that in spite of the scandal, most people in the Catholic Church were not planning on leaving the church.   They are staying.  Even most of the young people in Germany, where the current pope is from, are not going anywhere.  Now the life blood of any church is its youth.  And we still have the youth.  We are not going anywhere.”

Giovanni looked back down at his notes and did not see anymore questions.  But there needed to be one more.  The interview somehow seemed incomplete.  Just then a knock came at the door.

“Pardon me,” Carlo said as he got up, his tall, top-heavy figure moving quickly towards the door.  Giovanni was about to turn off the tape recorder when the interruption occurred.  As a result, it continued to run when Carlo opened the door and spoke briefly with a delivery man.  Taking the package, he set it on a nearby table and closed the door.  Giovanni noticed the name of a well-known firm in town on the label at the top of the box.

“It will never stop, I fear.  Rather than envelopes now we get boxes of paperwork, related to these lawsuits.”  Carlo paused a little as he stared at the box and then directed his attention to Giovanni again.  “Is the interview over?” he asked.

“Yes, it is.  Thanks for your time?”

“You are Catholic, right?”  Carlo asked.

“No.  Actually, I’m not.”

“You should talk with Father Lorenzo,” Carlo said sincerely.  “I can set up an appointment with him if you’d like.  He has the most amazing effect on people to get them to join the Church.”

Giovanni quickly ignored the suggestion.  “You never answered my first question.  Do you believe the allegations?”

Carlo paused, looking thoughtfully at his hands for a moment.   “One of the accused priests here in Italy confessed to me several days before it was in the papers that he had abused some of the children at the school where he once taught.  I was surprised.  I had known this man for many, many years and had no idea that he was capable of such a thing.  So, I guess the answer is yes.  To a certain degree I believe these allegations are true.  But what does it matter?”  Carlo started to sound rather agitated as if troubled by the question.   “They were children.  It was a terrible thing, but they survived it.  It was not like there were killed or something like that.  They are still alive, alive enough to sue us.  Besides it was a long time ago.  It’s time to move on.  In actuality, I’m sick to death of hearing about it and discussing it, over and over again.  The reason I say that it does not matter is that in spite of everything, most people in the church are staying.  We still have some respect and do you know why?  This is God’s church.  Salvation comes from us!”

Giovanni sat visibly unmoved by the statements, but inside he was more than a little shaken by what was said.  Just then he turned to look at his recorder that was still playing.  “I think those are all my questions.”

”Are you certain that you don’t want to speak with Father Lorenzo?”

“I’m sure, thank you.”  Giovanni  discreetly turned off the recorder and stood up.  He shook hands with Carlo and quickly left.

As Carlo opened the door and followed Giovanni out, going on his busy way, the reporter was reminded his late cousin Mario.  Mario used to be  in the mafia,  and in his worst days, he was involved in some really shady business.  But even then, he never disturbed him the way that Monsignor Carlo just did.

”Leave religion behind you where it belongs,” his mother used to say.  “If God was so good, why did he leave his precious earth in such a shambles?  People say, I love the Lord, and then act as if there is none.”  Giovanni loved both his parents and cherished his mother’s sayings. They were good people, peaceful non-believers.  Not the spiritually disturbed people that Christians appeared to sometimes be.

But as Giovanni continued to walk through that hot Roman day, he had to acknowledge his scientific, logical nature.  He knew that for everything in the world there was an opposite.  And he knew that what he had just seen and heard was not what one could call good.  He had interviewed criminals, disgraced leaders and businessmen–people who knew that they or their organizations had done wrong and had hurt a lot of people.  But Carlo–he was a new breed.  He did not seem to think that anything wrong had really gone on.  In fact, the only thing wrong was that some people were complaining about the church, and he felt that they should just keep quiet about it.  If this church had been a government, they would have been indicted for crimes against children.  But as it was, they were only repeatedly sued.  There was everything wrong with that. Giovanni started to believe that there just might be a God.  Because what he had just heard and seen was something quite unholy.