by Gordon Nary
Gordon: What are some of the challenges of being a Vatican Correspondent?
Paolo: It's not easy to answer to this question in a nutshell. There challenges are very many, because in this field there is always something new to learn. But the biggest challenge is surely the perspective through which to tell the life of the Vatican and the Catholic Church. And here I remember the Pope Francis' advice to the journalists who arrived in Rome in 2013 to cover the conclave, journalists of various backgrounds and orientations, Catholic and non-Catholic. Francis, who had been elected pope three days earlier, recommended to all to observe the facts and events in the life of the Church "in a way which is sensitive to the right context in which they need to be read, namely that of faith”, because these facts "have one particular underlying feature: they follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the “worldly” categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public”.
I often ask myself whether it is really possible, and how, to do journalism on Church and religious themes by excluding from your own horizon categories such as 'faith', 'mystery', 'spirituality', as if they hadn't intellectual dignity. I think also that it would be useful for anyone to ask themselves this question, regardless of their religious convictions. Otherwise, the risk is to flatten the Church's narrative to other categories of thought, namely the categories of politics, entertainment, and marketing. And this is exactly what unfortunately happens on the vast majority of newspapers and TV, speaking about the Church and religion.
Gordon: What are some of the stories that you covered that you are proudest of?
Paolo: After more than 20 years of career, I would say that the strongest and most touching experiences and the reports which I am most proud of are those I have done mainly outside Rome, in Italy and abroad, in the many trips I have made both following the Pope and for other occasions, but always dealing with the Catholic Church and religious issues in general.
My job has made me touch so many tragedies of today and so many painful pages of history! I am thinking of Auschwitz, the museum of the victims of communism in Vilnius, Lithuania, the museum in Nagasaki that commemorates the explosion of the atomic bomb in 1945, the churches in Iraqi Kurdistan devastated by the Daesh. I have visited slums, hospitals, soup kitchens, where I had countless encounters with a lot of people.
I think to the eyes of former prostitute, rescued by a very brave priest from the criminal racket that runs prostitution in Italy. Or the shyness of an old woman who a few days later would had opened the door of her miserable house to the Pope, in a poor favela in Asuncion, Paraguay. Or the children of a Nairobi slum, so many, so poor, who radiated happiness and joie de vivre. I have seen churches, shrines, synagogues and mosques, trying with my modest means to tell the power of the religious sentiment of enormous masses of men, even today, in the third millennium.
If you ask me which country has seduced me more than any other, I say without hesitation Brazil, which in a fortnight of travel has entered my soul. If you want me to quote you a report, then I say the one I shot on the Orthodox churches that are falling into ruin in the northern part of Cyprus, which is undergoing a real cultural genocide by Turkey.
Not everything is always good! I was once in Bosnia, to cover the annual interreligious meeting of the Community of Sant'Egidio. I remember the museum located next to Sarajevo airport, which reminds to the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The museum was set up right around the entrance of the tunnel that passed under the airport runway, connecting Sarajevo, besieged by the Serbs, with the rest of the world, less than a metre high and wide! Then, the next night, I stumbled upon a police raid on my hotel. I was woken up suddenly, in the middle of the night, by a policeman who knocked violently on my door, his face covered and his rifle pointed at me. They thought that a drug dealer wanted all over the world was hiding in that hotel... But I survived!
Gordon: When did you attend University of Bologna, what degree did you earn, and what is one of your favorite memories when you attended there?
Paolo: I graduated in 1995 in ancient Greek literature, in the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy at the University of Bologna, discussing a thesis on the fragments of Mnesimachus, an Athenian comic poet of from the 4th century BC. Bologna was my first impact with a big city, or at least bigger than my small birth-town, Fano, which has only 60,000 inhabitants. Then I also returned to Bologna for my military service, which was compulsory in Italy at the time.
Among other things, the University of Bologna is old and very prestigious. In Italy we say that I had the “sacred fire” of literature and classical languages, Latin and Greek. At that time I wanted my future life to be all like that, dedicated to study and research. My dream was a university career, which in Italy, however, is very long and bumpy. But the Divine Providence had other plans for me, probably even better ones, I can say today.
Gordon: When did you attend the Vatican School of Library Science and what degree did you earn?
Paolo: This was another step in my training, between 1998 and 1999. I had the opportunity to attend the courses of the Library Science Vatican School, obtaining a degree in Library Science. In the meantime, however, another 'sacred fire' had begun burning inside me, journalism. The spark was the collaboration with the weekly newspaper of my diocese, where I still occasionally write articles.
Gordon: When did you work at a Journalist at FIDES International Press Agency and what was one of the stories that you covered?
Paolo: Moving to Rome, to attend the Library Science school, offered me the chance to know the director of Fides (the press agency of the then Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples), Father Bernardo Cervellera, a PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign missions) missionary now living in Hong Kong. He hired me with the task of both working in the editorial office at Fides and carrying out secretarial tasks for the production of a TV documentary where Father Cervellera was involved. This was my real working apprenticeship, as a journalist, in a professional newsroom. The memories are now rather distant in time, but I remember well an article on Venezuela, which had just fallen into the hands of the dictator Hugo Chavez, and already the first contrasts had arisen with the local church...
Gordon: When did you start working at TV2000 and what are your primary responsibilities?
Paolo: The story continues with the Jubilee of 2000, which was just around the corner when I worked at Fides. At that time TV2000 was still called SAT2000, and it was born in 1998 on the initiative of the Italian Bishops' Conference. In those months there was a very excited air in Rome, a sense of expectation of a great event, around the great figure of John Paul II. With the Jubilee approaching, Sat2000 reinforced the news editorial staff by hiring some journalists, including me, thanks to the trust given to me by the then director Dino Boffo.
I still work at TV2000 today. Starting with the Jubilee of 2000, I have dedicated myself more and more exclusively to news about the Pope, the Vatican, and the Catholic Church in Italy and around the world. My primary responsibility is to produce the news reports for our channel, while also contributing occasionally to other programmes.
Gordon: When did you become accredited as a Vatican Correspondent in the Holy See Press Office and what is involved in the accreditation process?
Paolo: I have been accredited in the Holy See press office since 2006, since Father Federico Lombardi became director od it after the great Joaquin Navarro Valls. The accreditation process in itself is quite simple, once you meet the requirement of being a journalist who routinely covers news about the pope and the Vatican. The hard part comes later! The daily challenge is to constantly keep up to date, read, study, maintain a dense network of contacts, and so on. There is no time to get bored, even if many people do not agree! According to a stubborn cliché, in fact, the journalist who deals with religion gets bored every day among priests, grey environments, speeches and documents written in an unintelligeble jargon...
I usually reply the life, the teaching, the work of the Church today touch a long list of human experiences: "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” of the human kind, recited Gaudium et spes at the time of the Second Vatican Council. Therefore, telling the life of the Church means to cross an infinity of themes, topics, situations. “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”, to quote the wisdom of the ancient Romans ("I am a man, nothing human I consider alien to me"), is basically the motto of every journalist, including myself.
Gordon: Why did Pope Francis chose to highlight religious freedom during his visit to Kazakhstan?
Paolo: Let us begin with the reason for Francis' trip to Kazakhstan, which was to attend the 7th Congress of World and Traditional Religious Leaders, i.e. a large gathering where all the world's major religions were represented, to discuss the role of religious leaders in the social and spiritual development of humanity. In such a context, the issue of religious freedom imposes itself, because the world is full of religious minorities who are discriminated, oppressed, persecuted, either by the followers of another religion or even by political ideologies that distrust religion.
In the pope's address to Congress, there is a detail very striking for me, where the pope quotes a famous Italian poet, Giacomo Leopardi, who lived about two centuries ago, the author of a poem that everyone in Italy studies at school, the “Nightly song of a nomad sheperd of Asia”. The poet imagined a solitary shepherd intent on questioning the moon, in the dark silence of the night, about the mysteries of life and death, nature, evil and suffering. Such a strong poet, for those who know it!
Behold, authentic religion - the pope intended to affirm - is precisely the search for answers to the astonishment, doubts and fears of every man before the mystery of the infinite. The questions that burn in the heart of that pastor, in poetic fiction, are the same that burn at the heart of every religion of the world and the history. On the other hand, when religion is not authentic, then the logic of power and numbers prevails, and religions are fatally destined to conflict with each other. And not only history, but even the present time is full of examples.
Gordon: Pope Francis recently visited Matera. Please provide an overview of his visit.
Paolo: This was my last business trip, to date, to attend the final mass of the Italian Eucharistic Congress, on 25 September, celebrated by Pope Francis. Matera, by the way, is a small but beautiful town, famous for its so-called “sassi”, I recommend a visit to everyone!
Speaking of the Eucharist and bread, the Gospel of the Mass was the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus. The pope's call to avoid falling into “the religion of having and appearing” was very compelling, “when we confuse what we are with what we have, when we judge people by the wealth they have, the titles they exhibit, by the roles they hold, or by the brand of clothing they wear”.
Gordon: Please share with our readers the names of and overviews of the books that you have written.
Paolo: In 2007 I published “Effetto Benedetto. Papa Ratzinger in 40 parole” (“Benedict effect. Pope Ratzinger in 40 words”), a sort of dictionary of Ratzingerian thought; in 2012 “Credere ancora? La fede secondo Benedetto XVI” (“Believe again? Faith according Benedict XVI”), also dedicated to Benedict XVI and the Year of Faith. Then in 2013, a few months after the election of Pope Francis, I wrote “Direzione periferia. I primi passi di Papa Francesco” (“Periphery Direction. The first steps of Pope Francis”), focusing on the beginnings of the pope who came “from the ends of the earth”, as he said when introducing himself to the Romans. In 2014, when Pope John Paul II was canonised, I dedicated to him (together with my colleague and friend Daniele Bungaro) “La santità è sempre giovane. San Giovanni Paolo II e la storia delle GMG” (“Holiness is always young. St John Paul II and the history of WYD”). Finally in 2016, the thirtieth anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace, convened by Pope Wojtyla on 27 October 1986 in Assisi, I wrote “Pace in nome di Dio. Lo spirito di Assisi tra storia e profezia” (“Peace in the Name of God. The Spirit of Assisi between History and Prophecy”, recounting that event and the impact it had on the subsequent thirty years of relations between the Catholic Church and other religions.
Now I am looking for inspiration, and I am also open to the idea of publishing not only in Italian. Let's see what will happen!
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional and incisive interview.