With Pope Benedict XVI’s impending resignation creating shockwaves around the world, the Vatican’s official daily L’Osservatore Romano is now the most closely watched newspaper in Rome — with its blend of an official Vatican line and a modern outlook.
The paper flew off the shelves with a scoop within hours of the pope’s historic announcement last week — a report revealing the 85-year-old made his mind up during a tiring trip to Mexico and Cuba last year.
The article was signed simply “gmv” — the initials of Giovanni Maria Vian, a cheerful 60-year-old historian who has been editor at the paper since 2007 and is one of Benedict’s biggest admirers.
While it contains plenty of reports on contemporary culture and social issues, the paper more or less remains the mouthpiece of the Vatican — updated for the 21st century and an intellectual pope.
This unique newspaper, which has survived Italian unification in the 19th century, and a fascist dictatorship and two World Wars in the 20th, celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2011.
Since Vian took over in 2007, it has been undergoing a discreet modernisation, encouraged by a pope with a strong interest in mass communication.
“Every day we aim to protect our peculiarity while getting closer to normal standards for a newspaper like using a simple language so that everyone can understand,” Vian told AFP in an interview.
The editor spoke in an office decorated with illustrations from the Tintin comic books “The Black Island” and “King Ottokar’s Sceptre”.
Tintin was “a Catholic hero,” Vian said.
The famously quiffed fictional reporter followed the same “clear line” of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological thought and Vian said he set an example he wants to follow at his newspaper.
In a somewhat drab building within the Vatican walls, Osservatore Romano’s offices are made up of a series of grey corridors leading to newsrooms bristling with brand-new computers.
As well as the Italian daily edition, the newspaper is published in weekly editions in eight languages including Malayalam, the language used by Christians living in the state of Kerala in southern India.
Starting last year, it also has a monthly women’s insert entitled “Women, Church, World”.
Italian news reports, which used to be extensive, have been cut and mixed with other foreign news.
The paper also publishes somewhat unconventional reviews of books and films, as well as weighty historical treatises drawing on 2,000 years of Christianity.
One the paper’s favourite debates is the role of pope Pius XII during World War II and his attitude towards Jews being persecuted by Nazi Germany.
“When we are talking about some social issue, you can legitimately interpret ours as being the position of the Holy See,” Vian said.
Of course this does not apply “when we are talking about the latest James Bond or the Beatles”.
The paper has devoted ample coverage recently to the wave of opposition against the legalisation of gay marriage in France, drawing on comments by philosophers, social scientists, psychologists — both believers and non-believers.
One staff writer is historian Lucetta Scaraffia, who describes herself as a “feminist” fighting for the unrecognised role of women in the Church.
In the last issue of the women’s supplement, she wrote that the “voice of women” could allow a deeper understanding of God — a theme that is not necessarily liked in a Church dominated by men.
She has written articles on women persecuted in the Church, like Frenchwoman Margherite Porete who was burnt at the stake in the 14th century.
She said there is one condition for coverage though — trying to protect the security of Christian communities by avoiding sensitive issues in countries where this could stoke religious tensions.
There is “a great freedom to say what you think” at the newspaper, Scaraffia said.
The Church “is a unique institution to see contemporary culture from a different point of view.”