John Thavis's terrific book,
The Vatican Diaries
, about his time as a correspondent for Catholic New Services is brimming with amazing behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Vatican and its denizens. Some stories are comical -- workmen refusing to ring the bells to announce the election of Benedict XVI because they didn't get the news from the right bishop. Some are sad -- Pope John Paul II, enfeebled by Parkinson's disease, powerless to stop the fall from his lap of a folder full of liturgical material. Some are pathetic -- Benedict the XVI, with his Germanic need for precision and control -- missing a chance to connect emotionally at his visit to the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem by failing to bring up his own unwilling service in the Hitler Youth. Some are maddening -- the inability of the Legion of Christ to stop spinning its innocence when the internally well-known pedophilia of its founder, Marcial Maciel, was uncovered. The impression that Thavis gives is not of an immensely powerful and dangerous cabal (the subtext of Dan Brown's novels) but of a bumbling, disorganized band of liars and clowns.
But nothing compares with the story of the Vatican's new underground parking lot. An American bishop with a mania for balancing budgets and removing automobiles from view has been placed at the head of the Vatican's city government. But his latest project, a parking lot under the Vatican, raises concerns with archaeologists. What treasures might lie buried beneath the long-undisturbed soil? But the bishop wants his lot and his head engineer wants to keep to his schedule. So archaeologists are forbidden from entering the site, and the digging begins. All proceeds according to plan until security cameras catch glimpses of open-topped trucks hauling away loads of dirt studded with ancient marble. An inscribed sarcophagus is found in a landfill near Rome's airport. Finally, the archaeologists are brought in. When they examine the muddy excavation site, they see sheared-off mausoleum walls, and shards of ancient tombs strewn about. Bulldozers have unearthed not just a few old tombs, but an intact cemetery dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries, complete with carved sculptures, delicate mosaics and even the votive lamps left by ancient mourners. The digging is stopped and the heavy machinery is removed. But the archaeologists are given a strict timetable. They are granted but a few short weeks to do their work, after which the mechanized digging will begin anew. The parking lot must go on!
Perhaps in a land where ancient treasures are common, antiquities no longer capture the imagination or compel interest. But the attitude of this churchman -- for whom a mere parking lot meant more than a once-in-a-lifetime archaeological find -- and meters away from St. Peter's tomb! -- took my breath away. It's no wonder that men like this, for whom history and knowledge hold no interest, couldn't be bothered about the living treasures of their own flocks. Just goes to show ya that a boor dressed up in purple is still a boor. That our church harbors so many such men, especially in its high ranks, is a cause for distress and alarm.
By the way, does our tale of bulldozed burials have a happy ending? Haven't read that far yet. But God, I hope so.