ROME – Although the Vatican may be a major global institution, the lived experience of the place is that it often feels more like a small village. Everyone involved in the day-to-day life of the place pretty much knows everybody else, so that the absence of one or two of those personalities is always keenly felt.
Recent days have brought several such losses, including a death and a departure, and both deserve their moment in the sun.
First, news broke this week that Alexei Bukalov, the legendary Russian Vatican journalist, died in Rome at the age of 78. He’s been a friend and colleague of everyone who’s ever covered the Vatican, and his passing leaves a gaping hole in that world.
For decades, Bukalov was the go-to guy among Vatican watchers for insight on all things Russian. Wonder why the Patriarch of Moscow seems to blow hot and cold on ecumenical relations with the Catholic Church? Ask Bukalov. Need to know what Russia’s objectives really are in Syria, Ukraine, or anywhere else? Again, ask Bukalov.
It’s not just that Alexei knew his stuff, although he certainly did, or that he was always willing to make himself available to anyone who sought him out, though that was true in spades. He was also one of the world’s nicest guys, with a megawatt smile and terrific sense of humor. He was one of those personalities who just never seemed to be in a bad mood, perhaps because he rarely spent any time thinking about himself and was focused on other things – mostly the story and the people who pursued it with the same passion he always did.
Born in Leningrad in 1940, Bukalov was the first Russian journalist to travel with popes aboard the papal plane, becoming the journalist who opened up the often-opaque world of the Vatican to the Russian media. Originally a member of the Soviet diplomatic corps, Bukalov became a reporter in the 1980s and was appointed the Rome bureau chief of TASS, Russia’s official news agency, in 1991.
From there, he never looked back. The Eternal City became his adopted home, and the Vatican became his professional idée fixe. Among other things, he would take young journalists freshly arrived in Rome under his wing and help show them the ropes, which he did for me many moons ago.
On Thursday, TASS memorialized Bukalov this way.
“His colleagues will remember him above all for his devotion to his profession he loved so much, with tremendous respect for his vast and grateful audience. He will be forever missed and never forgotten.”
Another figure who’s stepping away from the Vatican scene, though he’s still very much among the living, is Giovanni Maria Vian, the former editor of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper.
Vian, a church historian and expert on patristics, took over as editor of L’Osservatore in 2007. The paper was born more than 150 years ago amid the Vatican crisis of its day: The collapse of the Papal States. When Rome fell nine years after the paper was born, L’Osservatore became the voice of popes who declared themselves “prisoners of the Vatican.”
Over the years, L’Osservatore Romano has played a unique dual role — both a vehicle for the Vatican to get its message out, but also a forum for serious journalistic analysis and commentary. During the Fascist era, for example, L’Osservatore was sometimes the only paper in Italy not under the thumb of the Mussolini regime, and it was widely read as the only reliable source of insight about what was really going on.
Yet by 2007, the paper had become seen largely as the Vatican’s version of Pravda, the old Soviet daily – dishing up the party line, never publishing anything that its bureaucratic taskmasters hadn’t vetted and approved, serving mostly as a guide to the thinking of party apparatchiks.
To be sure, L’Osservatore on Vian’s watch continued to publish all the official material the Vatican generates, but it became much more. He wanted it to be journalistically relevant too, which meant the paper started taking chances, covering real news and offering commentary that (albeit gently) pushed the envelope.
In 2009, for instance, Vian enraged many Catholic conservatives in the United States by insisting that Barack Obama was not a “pro-abortion president,” insisting that being pro-choice and pro-abortion aren’t the same thing. L’Osservatore carried a series of pieces perceived as favorable to the new administration, and some U.S. bishops took the paper’s line as an indirect rebuke of their more challenging stance towards Obama over life issues.
In 2010, Vian stirred the waters again with the roll-out of a book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI by German journalist Peter Seewald, in which Benedict generated wide controversy by saying that “in certain cases,” such as trying to prevent the spread of AIDS, the use of condoms “is a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
Critics claimed at the time that L’Osservatore went off half-cocked by publishing extracts from the book, including the pope’s fateful lines on condoms, on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2010, ahead of the embargo established for other media outlets. They argued Vian published the pope’s words out of context, in a way that seemed calculated for sensational impact and attracting eyeballs rather than understanding.
In an interview with me at the time, Vian defended himself.
“Some people said we published the extracts without enough context, but in my opinion, if you read the parts we selected, they speak for themselves perfectly clearly,” he said. “We weren’t interested in creating a scandal.”
In that same interview, Vian described his vision for the paper.
“The newspaper has to be capable of talking to everyone. That’s what we try to do, within the limits of our abilities and our resources. … Believe me, we make mistakes every day … Our newspaper certainly isn’t infallible. That’s our editor, and even he isn’t infallible all the time!”
Whatever one makes of his editorial decisions over the last 11 years, there’s no doubt that L’Osservatore under Gian Maria Vian was relevant. You had to read it – and in this business, that may not quite be the entire ball game, but it’s close.
No matter what happens, the Vatican will continue to be a fascinating place full of colorful figures. Yet with the loss of Bukalov and the exit of Vian, the cast of characters that makes this place so unique, nevertheless, just won’t be the same.