ROME – When you’re just starting out on a career path, there’s a tendency to look for role models. You find someone you think does the job well, and try to pattern yourself after that person. Over time, of course, you find you own way of doing things, but the imprint of that early influence never really goes away.
For me as a Vatican correspondent, one of those role models was always Orazio Petrosillo, the renowned vaticanista of the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, who died in 2007.
This week in Rome, Petrosillo’s daughter Marta organized a memorial for her father on the tenth anniversary of his death in a bookshop near the Vatican, and in many ways walking into that room was like stepping into a time machine and returning to an era when giants roamed the earth.
There was Luigi Accattoli, the former Vatican writer for Corriere della Sera, and Marco Politi, who covered the Vatican for La Repubblica, both already legends by the time I arrived on the scene in the late 1990s. That was the peak of the St. John Paul II era, when Joaquin Navarro-Valls was in his prime as the papal spokesman, such an insider that at times he seemed more akin to a chief of staff than a mere mouthpiece.
(Navarro was not at the memorial, but his presence was felt anyway. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, who took over from Navarro under Benedict XVI, was on hand and said Mass for the group.)
Accattoli and Politi offered remembrances of their colleague. Marta asked me to say a few words too, but I had to go before I had the chance. So, here’s what I was planning on saying, hoping that Orazio will cut me a break from Heaven for missing my deadline.
I learned three key things from Petrosillo, even if I’m still working on trying to live up to them.
First, he taught me that knowledge matters. Orazio was basically the human version of Google – you could ask him something terribly obscure, anything at all, about the Vatican, and he’d rattle off an answer worthy of an Encyclopedia Britannica entry.
I remember the first time we saw John Paul II walking with a cane, and I wondered aloud who was the last pope to do that. I was really semi-joking, but Orazio immediately responded not only with the name of the pope (which I can’t even remember now), but the circumstances, and, unbelievably, a couple of tidbits about the cane’s design.
This was more than Petrosillo having an aptitude for Trivial Pursuit. He believed in mastering the subject, so that when news broke and he had to write or comment on the fly, he could bring context and depth. He taught me that anybody can write up whatever the pope said or did today, but situating that development in terms of its history, its symbolism, its meaning in Church politics, and its theological significance, is an art form, especially when it has to be done in real time.
Petrosillo was a master of that art, largely because he flat-out knew his stuff.
Orazio also taught me lessons in collegiality.
During one of the first papal trips I ever covered, a contretemps broke out within the press corps because Navarro had given one journalist an exclusive about John Paul’s thinking on 9/11 and its aftermath, rather than sharing it with the whole group. Some old-timers were outraged, and the group was abuzz.
Petrosillo made a point of pulling me aside to ask what I thought. Since it felt like I had just arrived five minutes ago, I didn’t think I had paid enough dues to have an opinion, and said so. Orazio stared at me and replied, “You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t earned it, so man up and tell me what you think.” (That’s not a literal translation of the Italian, but it was the idea).
When I said I thought the pack was wrong – that any one of us would have happily taken the exclusive, and people were upset not on principle but simply because it hadn’t been them – he smiled broadly. He told me I was completely mistaken, of course, that this was a grave violation of protocol and so on, but he was still proud that I had the courage of my convictions.
In effect, he forced me to take my role seriously, and gave me confidence that I could pull it off.
By the way, it’s important to say that plenty of other journalists were closer to Petrosillo than I was. I wasn’t special, he simply took that kind of time and interest in everyone.
Third, I learned what a work ethic actually means from Petrosillo.
Accattoli spoke at the memorial about the conclave of 2005, a period that really began with John Paul’s final hospitalization and didn’t end until Benedict XVI’s inaugural Mass. Every day, he said, he’d come home exhausted from his work for Corriere, which was basically the same as Petrosillo’s for Messaggero … yet before he went to bed, he laughed, he’d always see Petrosillo on TV, and when he got up, Petrosillo would still be there.
Accattoli said he had no idea where his friend got the energy, but it was a wonder to behold.
Beyond his day job covering the Vatican, Petrosillo was a teacher at Rome’s Gregorian University, he served as president of the Italian branch of Aid to the Church in Need supporting victims of anti-Christian persecution, he hosted a couple of TV programs, and he penned a series of Biblical meditations.
Petrosillo was simply indefatigable, and he taught me that if you’re passionate about what you do – if it really gets into your blood – you’ll never be tired doing it.
Orazio Petrosillo died too young, at just 60 years of age. He became seriously ill while covering the summer vacation of Benedict XVI in Val d’Aosta in July 2006, and eventually succumbed several months later.
What that means, of course, is that Petrosillo for all intents and purposes died on the job, doing what he loved. While every death is a tragedy, and no doubt Orazio would have wanted more time for his family and his work, one has to imagine that if he had to go out, he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Orazio Petrosillo, requiescat in pace.