Veteran of the Vatican Information Service (Part 1)

Interview With Joan Lewis

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 14, 2004 ( Striking among the aspects of John Paul II’s pontificate is his relationship with the media.

With this in mind, journalist Joan Lewis of the Vatican Information Service explains how her work has changed over the years. Part 2 of this ZENIT interview appears Wednesday.

Q: You have led an extraordinary life to date with a record 25 years as a Vatican journalist. How did you get involved in this lifestyle-vocation?

Lewis: Well, your time frame is accurate because I began writing about the Vatican for a number of U.S. publications in 1979.

Prior to that I had been working at the New York Times Rome office, and when they downsized their staff I decided to continue writing and to specialize in the Church and the Vatican because the Church was — and always has been — at the center of my life and also something about which I knew a fair amount but wanted to learn more.

Thus, I began writing and contacting newspapers in the U.S. who might be interested in a correspondent with specialized knowledge of the Vatican.

At that time of course, there was no Internet or anything, and one had to write real letters — real carbon paper, real envelopes and stamps, etc. I started out by writing news articles that were not too time-based and sent them, along with an introductory letter — to 30 newspapers.

Three of these then replied, asking me to be their correspondent in Rome. And journalist friends told me a 10% return was astounding! But I believe in my heart that it was less my writing and more Pope John Paul II — the new Roman Pontiff — who piqued their curiosity and interest in the Church.

Through the articles that I wrote for these papers, including the Wall Street Journal, which wanted pieces on the Church and economic policies and affairs, the U.S.-based weekly, the National Catholic Register, became aware of my work and asked me in 1980 to open up a Rome office and to be their first bureau chief.

I headed their Rome bureau for six years until I returned to California in late December 1985. In the spring of 1990 I came back to Rome on vacation.

One of my stops, of course, was at the Holy See Press Office to see old friends, during which time I was invited to meet with a certain Mr. Pietro Brunori — now Father Brunori and living in Argentina — of the Vatican Information Service. I was intrigued as I had never heard of either one!

He told me that Pope John Paul II — the great communicator, as we all know — was anxious to have news from the Roman Curia and the Vatican reach the world’s bishops and nuncios in a timely fashion and on a daily basis, as this was not happening around the world in a uniform way.

The Pope wanted complete, unbiased and unfiltered news to reach the bishops. He asked if the technology and personnel was available, and, in fairly short order, the Church had a new office — and the Vatican Information Service, VIS, was born.

Q: So what exactly does the Vatican Information Service do?

Lewis: In very poor words, VIS is a kind of Vatican wire service that provides a daily news bulletin in four languages on the magisterium of the Church and the teachings, speeches and writings of the Holy Father.

We also offer news about all offices of the Roman Curia, press conferences, Vatican publications, news from Holy See representatives abroad and at international agencies, and lists of nominations and audiences.

We are an independent office of the Curia but are within the framework of the Holy See Press Office. This is very, very important for one reason: Only the Press Office, and thus VIS, are the official voices of the Holy See.

Obviously, the No. 1 source of news is the Holy Father: anything he does, says, writes; his travels, etc. Heads of Roman dicasteries also contribute with news about their activities, ranging from new publications, bulletins, declarations or overseas visits, etc.

So, VIS encapsulates the news of the universal Church as it emanates from Rome. We are not a diocesan newspaper even for this diocese. We are just the voice for the news that comes from the Holy See.

Q: How has the Vatican Information Service changed throughout the years?

Lewis: Originally, the Holy Father asked people in the Curia, including Dr. Joaquín Navarro Valls, director of the Holy See Press Office, and also outside experts, to look at the technology available for such a news service. In 1990 the best option was fax, so we began by faxing the news from the Vatican to those who subscribed.

We made a giant leap into the future when the Internet became part of our lives and now, via e-mail, tens of thousands of people around the world subscribe to VIS.

VIS is also naturally part of the Vatican’s stunning Web site, under the heading of News Services. It is no longer the bishops and nuncios who receive VIS in just English and Spanish. Italian and French were added, and the VIS network of readers is far-flung.

The most important thing about the Internet technology is the ability to reach people free of charge.

Now, VIS is free via e-mail. But in the beginning we were trying to subsidize bishops who could not afford the fax service and there are many wonderful stories of how we have helped dioceses to stay in contact with Rome, have helped prelates in the Third World or those just coming out from under the Iron Curtain. I could go on forever with marvelous and inspirational stories!

Q: Your work has carried you throughout and beyond the Vatican itself and more recently to Doha, Qatar. What do such experiences mean to you?

Lewis: I have made a number of trips over the years on behalf of or with Holy See delegations, and Qatar, for the Doha International Conference on the Family, was the most recent and certainly one of the most interesting.

In the capital of Doha, I participated in the conference on the family which, by the way, in the final Doha Declaration, had overall positive results as far as the Church was concerned — it was very pro-family, pro-traditional marriage, reaffirming human dignity, etc. In fact, it echoed and reaffirmed the principal statements in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which was the goal the conference set for itself.

Also fascinating — from a personal and professional standpoint — were the other high-profile conferences that I have attended, such as the very notable 1994 U.N. Conference on Population in Cairo; the one on Women in Beijing, 1995; Istanbul 1996 for Habitat etc.

The most amazing thing for me to see was the universal Church in action — the microcosm that would be expressed by the members of the delegations. In Beijing, for example, the delegation had 22 members representing 14 nationalities and nine languages! The Holy See delegation could communicate with everyone!

The delegates — and the Catholic NGOs as well — were so passionate about their work, about the Church, about John Paul II, about our message. I saw this same passion in many, many people attending the Doha conference as well.

Doha was wonderfully rewarding because, instead of having countries pitted against one another with all their different ideas on the family, you saw 139 nations backing up the Doha Declaration. The declaration, by the way, was presented to the United Nations General Assembly on December 6, the day the U.N. celebrated the 10th anniversary of the International Year of the Family. Organizers of the Doha conference have asked that it be included in the roster of official U.N. documents.

Q: What did this event particularly mean to you as a lay female journalist representing the Holy See?

Lewis: I didn’t see myself as a woman, or even as an American. I simply saw myself as a person who is blessed to work for the Holy See and for what I believe in. I wouldn’t even call the issues w
e were dealing with women’s issues, as the family deals with each and every one of us.

It was just moving to be with many other people who didn’t place themselves in a category of «being» man, «being» woman. For so many of us it was all about «being» Church. It is really beautiful.

Q: In fact, the conference tended to focus very much on the traditional roles of the male and female within the context of family as you mentioned earlier. In light of this, how was the issue of gay marriage presented?

Lewis: I did not attend nor did I read all of the dozens and dozens of speeches as there were many events happening simultaneously. As I understand, this was not a highlight of the conference — nor was any one session dedicated to this question.

However, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, did bring this up in a wonderful talk he gave on the complementarity of motherhood and fatherhood. He said that it is «necessary to oppose ‘polyform sexuality,’ underlining that recognition of ‘de facto’ unions, which are a legal fiction, proposing same-sex unions as an alternative to marriage, and inventing new, unacceptable notions of marriage to the point of accepting the adoption of children, are grave signs of dehumanization. This is not discrimination: This is protecting spouses and children.»

Are same-sex «marriages» seen as a threat to society, to traditional marriages? By most people at Doha, yes, indeed.

[Wednesday: «Joan Knows»]

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