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VATICAN LETTER Oct-27-2006 (1,030 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

L'Osservatore Romano: 145 years as 'genuine face of the church'

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Juggling a phone, tapping out headline changes on his keyboard, and greeting yet another visitor to his second-floor office inside the headquarters of L'Osservatore Romano, Antonio Chila' serenely glides through the myriad of tasks that continually fly his way.

Like a controller at a major airport's air traffic control tower, the chief editor of the Vatican newspaper must keep scores of incoming calls, e-mails, edited news articles, faxes and requests on his radar and guide them all to their proper place.

Freshly typed copy of Pope Benedict XVI's remarks in German from his Oct. 25 general audience lands on Chila's desk just as the paper's German section calls to say the text has been revised to reflect the pope's spoken remarks.

Translators check each prewritten papal text against what the pope actually says, since he often speaks off the cuff. Chila' then sends the modified copy by fax and e-mail to the Secretariat of State for approval before he can direct it to the layout staff.

Just the barest hint of exasperation tinges the chief editor's voice when an anxious caller urges him to publish a picture of her order's mother superior kissing the pope's hand at the audience that wrapped up less than an hour before.

"Sister, I know this is important to you, but if I had to publish every photo of all the religious and bishops who kiss the Holy Father's hand, I would have to put out a 250-page paper every day," he says, sighing into the phone.

Published within the Vatican, the semiofficial newspaper was born 145 years ago during a highly tumultuous time for the Papal States. Italy's unification began in 1861, and the new kingdom's first legislators declared Rome the capital.

The pope's temporal power and the territories he controlled were under increasing threat by growing Italian nationalism. Pontifical authorities soon supported the idea of having a newspaper that would uphold the importance of the Papal States and the values they espoused.

The first issue of L'Osservatore Romano appeared in Rome July 1, 1861, and was "deliberately polemical and propagandist," according to the Vatican's Web site.

The paper's motto, which remains unchanged today under the masthead, included two snippets from the Gospels: "Unicuique Suum" ("to each his own") and "Non Praevalebunt" (the forces of evil "shall not prevail"), said Chila'.

But over time the newspaper took on a more objective and pastoral stance, and today it prides itself in "presenting the genuine face of the church and the ideals of freedom," said Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state.

L'Osservatore Romano became "an instrument for spreading the teachings of the successor of Peter and for information about church events," he said in an Oct. 24 speech inaugurating a new exhibit dedicated to the founding and history of the newspaper.

The Oct. 24-Nov. 10 exhibit, housed in a city government building, was sponsored by both the Vatican newspaper and the provincial government of Rome.

The joint initiative reflects the mutual respect and collaboration that have colored church-state relations since the so-called "Roman question" was resolved with the Lateran Pacts of 1929.

The exhibit shows how L'Osservatore Romano has become a forceful champion of human rights and a vocal proponent of peaceful, nonviolent solutions to the political and social upheavals of the 20th century and beyond.

Each pope has used the paper as an international soapbox to launch appeals against "the useless massacre" of World War I and to condemn anti-Semitism, totalitarianism and "atheist communism."

When Europe was darkened by World War II, the Vatican newspaper spoke out against injustices without threat of being silenced or shut down, and the paper offered a ray of hope by documenting the church's efforts in providing food and shelter for Italy's displaced.

Chila' told Catholic News Service Oct. 25 that, just as it did then, L'Osservatore Romano still exerts "notable influence" in both political and religious spheres.

Not only are readers 100 percent certain that the exact words of the pope and church officials appear on its pages, but international news is treated with an objectivity that journalists from either political extreme find laudable, Chila' said.

Though he said the number of copies printed and sold "is a secret," the English edition alone reaches more than 129 countries. Besides the daily paper in Italian, L'Osservatore Romano publishes weekly editions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and a monthly paper in Polish.

The future for reaching out to even more readers worldwide is the Internet, Chila' said, but for now L'Osservatore Romano only has a copy of its front page online.

Through its new site, www.photo.va, the paper now offers for sale to the public its daily trove and exhaustive archives of photos.

Chila' said staffers are looking at ways to also sell L'Osservatore Romano in its various language editions online, but progress has stalled over fears of the potential hacking of content.

"Our computer technicians tell me that (hackers) can infiltrate if they are good, and they've been able to break into NASA and CIA (Web sites) so imagine with our paper," he said.

It is imperative the paper's content be absolutely immutable not only because readers expect to find the pope's exact words there, but also because it also acts as an official record announcing papal appointments of a new bishop or cardinal, the creation of new dioceses, and who the pope received in private audience, he said.

Though the paper "tries to be objective to the utmost," Chila' said its content and editorial comment "come down hard" on abortion, euthanasia and workers dying on the job due to negligence.

"In these cases we are, let's say, very critical against those who carry out these crimes," which also include unjust warfare, he said.

"We've had much difference of opinion with the United States government" over its recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

However, in the fog of rhetoric, the newspaper's moral guidepost is clear.

"When the pope takes a position, that is our official position which we go with and follow," he said.


Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
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