In the fourth part of a series of interviews with those whose job it is to explain Italy to the world, Carol King speaks to Edward Pentin about his life as a Vatican correspondent based in Rome, and his experience of living and working in Italy.
How long have you worked in Rome as a correspondent covering papal, Vatican and Church news, and who do you write for?
I have been a Rome correspondent for nearly 10 years now, and write for a number of publications in the United States and the UK. The main Catholic ones are the ‘National Catholic Register’, ‘The Catholic Herald’ in the UK and ZENIT news agency. On the secular side, I contribute to Vatican coverage for the American media company, Newsmax.
Do you have a typical day?
The wonderful thing about this job, and journalism in general I think, is that often you never know how your day is going to pan out. You may be working on a story and find out that an interesting personality is in Rome who needs interviewing, or a major story has broken that needs urgently covering. In that sense it’s rather like being a fireman, though of course much less heroic.
How do you select which stories to file?
My editors will ask for a particular area to be covered or I’ll suggest a story or, one hopes, a scoop. Except for the slow summer months, plenty of interesting things are usually going on here, so having stories to write about is rarely a problem. This is a fascinating beat for a journalist. As a Catholic, the faith in itself is naturally of great interest to me, but it also encompasses a wide variety of other issues, many of them highly topical, deeply significant and that many people understandably feel passionately about.
The Vatican has not been known for its openness to the media, so how easy is it to source stories?
When I first arrived here, fellow journalists would compare the Vatican to the Kremlin for its lack of access. To some extent that’s true, but contrary to its image, the Vatican is not a fortress completely shut off from the outside world. Vatican officials are usually happy to meet for lunch and chat, and will often charitably share information on background. When it comes to rumours – and this place is never short of a few – I revert to the official Vatican spokesman for confirmation. I’m sure he’s fed up with me constantly hassling him for answers!
Has social media, for example Twitter, affected how you work and, if so, how?
I came to Twitter a little late, wondering if it was just a fad, but now I find it to be a useful, though not faultless, journalistic tool. I look on it as a sort of wire service or ticker feed as it’s usually the first with breaking news stories. I also find it very helpful for tweeting my own articles or news that I have come across, and generally getting the message out. But you have to treat Twitter and anything online with care as stories can be without any foundation and spread incredibly fast, making that well known quote – “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” – more apt than ever.
How have you got your Italian to a level where you can do interviews and translate quotes accurately for a story?
I usually have no problem but always ensure interviews with Italian speakers are recorded which I then translate later. They take longer to transcribe than if in English of course, but then they double as a useful exercise for improving one’s Italian language skills.
What is the biggest challenge you face in explaining events in the Vatican to your readers?
Much of the Vatican world can seem esoteric to the average reader, even if they’re Catholic, so the main challenge is transmitting news from here in a way they will understand. That doesn’t mean dumbing down the text, but ensuring that certain words and terms are given appropriate explanations, especially any Latin.
What’s the most interesting story on the Vatican you’ve covered?
That has to be the death of Blessed Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict during the conclave of 2005. I was fortunate to be here providing coverage for ‘Newsweek’ at the time, and it was a privilege to be a witness to it as a reporter. John Paul’s testimony to suffering, the depth of emotion that so many people displayed at his death, and the excitement at the announcement of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election, are memories I’ll always treasure.
And what’s been the most shocking story?
Probably the current “Vatileaks” scandal: it’s bizarre, completely unexpected and sadly plays into a popular image of the Vatican as a place of intrigue, machination and corruption. It’s at odds with my experience of Vatican officials who I’ve always found to be hardworking people of goodwill and integrity – though of course in view of history and the nature of man, this sort of thing shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
What one thing would you suggest to see at the Vatican and why?
Probably the Tomb of St Peter, otherwise known as the Vatican Necropolis or the ‘Scavi’. It provides a great insight into the early Church and it’s really a must-see for any Christian. I also know non-Christians who’ve found it fascinating.
What’s your favourite restaurant near the Vatican and why?
Ristochicco on Borgo Pio. They do wonderful seafood and its owners, married couple Roberta and Roberto, are always hospitable.
What do you like most about Italy and what do you like the least?
Italy’s wonderful cultural heritage the most; the often poor customer service the least, though it gets noticeably better outside Rome.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for the ‘National Catholic Register’. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for ‘Newsweek’, Newsmax, ZENIT, ‘The Catholic Herald’ and ‘The Holy Land Review’, a Franciscan publication specialising in the Church and the Middle East. He is on Twitter as @edwardpentin.