A Press Office at Age 50; Lateran Palace on Display

Media Relations Have Come a Long Way

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By Delia Gallagher

ROME, DEC. 25, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The first journalists were angels, according to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who spoke at a Mass in Rome on Sunday celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Vatican press office.

My, how times have changed, one is tempted to say.

"Something new was born in the history of humanity," said the cardinal referring to the news that Mary would bear a Son. "And the news was rendered by unusual journalists -- the angels."

The first Vatican press service was instituted in 1953, by the then secretary of state, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Pope Paul VI), as an arm of L'Osservatore Romano. It accredited select Italian journalists, from papers known to be friendly to the Holy See.

Giancarlo Zizola, longtime Italian vaticanista, recounted at a press conference following the Mass that the first Vatican journalists (about a handful) were kept in a room off the Cortile San Damaso, from where they could see those arriving for an audience with the Pope, but were not allowed any free movement throughout the Vatican.

In 1966, Paul VI (whose father was a journalist) established the Press Office of the Holy See, as it is formally called.

Joaquín Navarro-Valls, papal spokesman and director of the Vatican press office, spoke of changes since the founding of the press office.

"The majority of accredited journalists to the Vatican are now non-Italian," said Spanish-born Navarro-Valls. "The worldwide interest on the part of the media in religious and moral themes and in this Pope in particular is extraordinary."

"For the October anniversary celebrations," said Navarro-Valls, "we temporarily accredited more than 3,000 journalists from around the world."

Another important change is that Navarro-Valls is the first press office director with direct access to the Holy Father.

"I have seen in the personal attitude of the Holy Father that he is not at all of the mentality of using the press, but of participating with the press," the spokesman said.

"The Holy Father has always been perfectly available to join the conversations in the press," he added, "and he has known how to do it."

Navarro-Valls emphasized that the policy of the Holy See, following John Paul II, is to work with the world's media in spreading the Vatican's message, not to use them for purposes of receiving good press.

"We are not like some politicians who complain about the media, but use it anyway to get flattering articles written about them," said Navarro-Valls.

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A Palace Worth Storming

Tourists in Rome often do a better job of seeing the sites than many of us who live here year-round. Those of you who live in Rome, and those who are planning to come, should not miss the chance to see the beautiful "nobile" rooms of the Lateran Palace at the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

Father Pietro Amato guided a group of Vatican journalists through the old papal residence, rebuilt by Sixtus V (1585-1590) after the original palace had been lost to fire and decay when the popes took up residence in the Vatican, after the exile in Avignon.

"The Lateran is above earthly things," Father Amato said, quoting Dante as he pointed out the frescoed walls and ceilings of the 10-room apartments.

The grandest room, "the Sistine Chapel of the Lateran," as Father Amato called it, was the site of the signing of the 1929 Lateran Treaty granting sovereignty by Italy to Vatican City. A copy of the treaty, bearing original signatures, is on display.

The noble floor also contains a myriad of delightful artifacts from past papal households such as the desk of Pius VII, the beautiful gold writing trays with pen and ink holders of Pius VIII and Pius IX, and the red velvet pagoda used to carry John XXIII.

Also on display are the elaborate costumes worn by members of the papal household in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is the black lace cape and dress uniform of the marshals of the conclave, the red silk of the chair carriers, and even an elegant outfit worn by the superintendent of the post office.

Sixteenth-century liturgical vestments of Paul V are on display near the apartment chapel, which houses several paintings given to John Paul II during his trip to the Middle East.

A collection of spears and armor from the 18th-century Italian forces are mixed in with more uniforms of military men under the pope.

"They never fired a shot," said Father Amato.

The apartments look out onto the Lateran Square, which boasts an obelisk taller than the one at St. Peter's and a loggia, which is bigger.

Beginning in January, the museum will be open every day except Sunday, with guided tours on the hour, in the mornings.

The Vatican Museums are raising their entrance fee to 12 euros ($14.80) from 10 euro in January, but a ticket to the Lateran Museum will be included in the price.

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Readers may contact Delia Gallagher at delia@zenit.org.