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Reese knows what goes on Inside the Vatican

NCR Staff

Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese is a slight, thin-faced figure with black wavy hair and large glasses that are always threatening to slide down his nose.

In black clericals his slimness is exaggerated, but don't confuse lack of bulk with lack of clout. As author of three books on the workings of the Catholic church -- including his latest from inside the Vatican where he interviewed a dozen cardinals on the record -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger among them -- he's packing enormous influence these days.

Picture Reese, 51, in the ornate press room at the November bishops' conference, coffee cup in hand, surrounded by other journalists (Reese himself writes for America magazine). He is being pumped for opinion, information and direction by the journalistic mainstream -- print and electronic. And when he's amused -- which is often -- he has a laugh so raucous it could silence starlings.

More, Reese takes 20 calls a week from the media, at his Woodstock Theological Conference office on Georgetown University's campus. That's because these days he is a starting point or must-interview for the bulk of U.S. commentary on Catholic affairs. He's attractive because he's a priest, a Jesuit and -- within bounds -- surprisingly outspoken.

Too polite to comment on the ignorance of some media types when they call looking for an exciting news hook on Catholic matters, Reese is able to direct them to the harder facts of the theme they're investigating. And suggest others to talk to.

And who is in a better position to know? Not since John Cornwell was given free range in the Vatican for his investigation into Pope John Paul I's sudden death ("A Thief in the Night," NCR, Nov. 17, 1989) has a journalist had as much access as Reese.

No one asked Reese to write Inside the Vatican.

"I'd already written on local church, on archbishops, then bishops working together at the national level, so I figured the next step was to study the international governance of the church" (see review).

Initially he was a little concerned when he went to Rome, he said during a recent telephone interview, that no one would talk to him. But he was "pleasantly surprised that I was able to interview over a hundred people." The access was provided, he believes, because "people had heard about me from my writings, or from Americans working in the curia, or from American bishops -- and because I was willing to respect their desires for anonymity."

He found that the higher he went, the more willing people were to be quoted on the record. Was he able to interview at the very top? Since Pope John Paul II never gives interviews, Reese didn't press.

And yet, it must be impossible to interview so many people working for the pope and not get impressions of this pontiff. What are Reese's?

"I think that this pope is going to go down in history as the most important world leader in the second half of this century," he said. "I say world leader because he's changed the course of history with his support of Solidarity and his ability to rally the Polish people and his impact on the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

"These are world-shaking events. Without him, I'm not sure this would have ever happened," said Reese, "so, I think historians are going to look back at the postwar era in this century and he is going to loom large, larger than [President Ronald] Reagan and the rest of the American presidents, frankly, in terms of his impact on international politics and the shape of the world and what happened."

Asked what church historians are likely to see, Reese replied, "When I went to Rome I had accepted the conventional wisdom that the pope was not a good manager. What I discovered was that actually he's a much better manager than people give him credit for -- because he has this great ability to focus.

"He is interested in traveling and visiting the local churches around the world. So he's very focused on that. He's very focused on refugee issues and a lot of issues of international justice."

Reese continued, "He was very focused, for example, on the whole Cairo conference. When he wants to do something he has the ability to focus and also to focus the curia on those kinds of things."

Reese speculated that within the curia the things the pope considers important are the appointment of bishops and the whole area of church doctrine and dissident theologians, plus justice and peace.

"He is not interested in canon law," said the Jesuit. "He's not interested in the work of the Congregation for Divine Worship or the Congregation for Clergy. The people he spends time with are Cardinal Ratzinger for doctrine, Cardinal [Bernardin] Gantin for the appointments of bishops, Cardinal [Roger] Etchegaray on the issues of justice and peace, and of course with Cardinal [Angelo] Sodano, secretary of state."

In the other areas, Reese contended, the pope sets the general principles and lets the bureaucracy take care of the details.

To some, the pope comes across as an intellectual autocrat, even a bully. But in Reese's view it is important to remember, one, that this pope was a university professor, and, two, that in Europe students do not question the professor.

"European professors lecture and students take notes," said Reese, "whereas in the United States teachers encourage students to ask questions, to think creatively, to compare what they learn in one course with what they learn in another course.

"This is not what European professors do," Reese said. "Most European students would never challenge a teacher or even bring up contradictory information that might have been learned in another class. It's just not done. It's considered impolite. It's considered improper. So when the Vatican talks about the magisterium it has lots of trouble with Americans, not so much because they're not following the teaching of the church but because they want to change the teaching of the church."

Reese roared with amusement and continued, "I mean, Italians have not been following the teaching of the church for centuries -- you don't go to church but you get absolution before you die and everything is fine." So, said Reese, Americans, because of their educational methods, because of John Dewey and lots of others, when dealing with Rome find themselves as much in a culture clash as a theological clash.

NCR asked Reese, on the basis of all this experience with Vatican and curia, for a likely profile of the next pope.

"My simple guess? I think the first point that has to be recognized is that about 83 percent of the College of Cardinals has been appointed by this pope, and if he continues to live we're going to pretty soon reach 100 percent.

"That means they are certainly not going to elect someone who is going to repudiate the papacy of John Paul II. What I think we will probably see is some difference in style -- a pope who travels less. We may see a pope who is less forceful in expressing his positions and silencing theologians but is more willing to leave these issues to the local bishops, one who tries to be more gentle in dealing with people he disagrees with."

Finally, how does Reese feel about being the constant interviewee?

He said he's going to revamp his telephone voice mail to: "This is Father Tom Reese. If you want to know who will be the next pope, press one. If you want to know how bishops are chosen, press two. If you want to know -- ."

His laughter shook the telephone lines.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 1996/January 3, 1997