It’s Not What the Pope Said About Gays, It’s How He Said It

My piece on the Pope and homosexuals has just been published by Time.

At first glance, Pope Francis’ statement on homosexuality, delivered today in an impromptu press conference aboard the papal plane, seemed to indicate a remarkable break with church tradition. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis told journalists, as he flew from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. “The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … They’re our brothers.”

The Pope’s words were warmly received by gay activists in Italy and elsewhere. “From now on, when I hear a bishop or a priest say something against me, I’m going to say, ‘Who are you to judge,’” says Franco Grillini, president of Gaynet Italia, the association of gay journalists in Italy.

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For First Time, the Vatican Enters Prestigious Venice Biennale

My piece on the Vatican’s pavilion in the Venice Biennale has just been published by Time.

The first thing visitors will see when they enter the Vatican Pavilion at the Venice Biennale—an art show dedicated to the modern and cutting edge—will be a nod to the past: a three-paneled triptych on which the 20th-century Italian artist Tano Festa reproduced details from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The paintings, in tones of tan and ocher, serve two functions. They remind viewers of the Vatican’s past importance as a sponsor of art, and they serve as a frame for the rest of the show inside.

The theme for the pavilion, the Holy See’s first at the Biennale, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 24, is the same subject Michelangelo depicted in his famous ceiling: the opening chapters of Genesis. Spanning the history of biblical creation, from “Darkness on upon the face of the deep” through the collapse of the Tower of Babel, the events include the forming of the earth and the animals, the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Noah’s flood.

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As Cardinals Choose a New Pope, Romans Hope for a Spike in Business

Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on the papal conclave’s hoped for business boom.

In 2005, during the funeral of Pope John Paul II, the cobblestone streets near St. Peter’s Basilica flowed with the faithful. They had come to pay their respects to a charismatic pontiff who had defined the papacy for a generation. But they also needed to eat. “We were working 24 hours a day, making pizzas as fast as we could,” says Andrea Marotta, 23, who along with his father sells pizzas for €5 ($6.55) each at Pizza Panini San Pietro, a small storefront near the Vatican.

Today, the papacy is vacant once again. At the end of February, Pope Benedict XVI, who as a cardinal picked up parmesan and Coca-Cola (KO) at Marotta’s store, resigned, citing health reasons. The 115 cardinals who will choose the next pope have arrived. But not the masses. The last big event at the Vatican, the beatification of John Paul II in 2011, brought in an estimated €190 million in revenue for the city’s hotels and restaurants, another €30 million for public services such as the bus and the subway, and €15 million for its retail outlets, according to a study by the Monza and Brianza Chamber of Commerce.

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New Pope Shows Eye for Symbolism

My piece on Pope Francis’s media savvy has just been published by Time.

As a Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio didn’t always have the smoothest relations with the press. Said to be shy, he gave few interviews, preferring to address his congregation directly. Journalists in his native Argentina accused him of silent complicity during the country’s so-called Dirty War — charges he denounces as “slander.” In an interview with La Stampa’s Vatican Insider shortly before his election to the papacy, Bergoglio bemoaned the media’s focus on negativity and scandal. “Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia,” he said then. Yet when he addressed a group of several thousand journalists and their families on Saturday as Pope Francis, he opened with the words, “My dear friends.”

Seated on a chair on stage in an audience hall next to St Peter’s Basilica, the Pope was greeted by the assembled journalists with applause and a few cries of “Viva.” Whether performing mass or giving an address, Francis’ speaking style is more like that of an actor than a preacher: his tone is intimate, with touches of humor and folksiness, but he never loses command of his audience. In his delivery, if there’s a politician he resembles, it’s Ronald Reagan. During one passage in his address thanking the media for their “service” covering the conclave, Francis broke from the text, looked up and said with a smile: “You’ve worked, eh? You’ve really worked.”

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The Pope Tweets with You: Benedict XVI Joins the Twitterverse

My piece on the Pope’s first Tweet has just been published by Time.

At first glance, the Pope taking to Twitter has the taste of anachronism: an 85-year-old pontiff, who still writes in longhand, tapping out messages 140 characters at a time. But when Benedict XVI sent out his first tweet on Wednesday, soon after his weekly audience in St. Peters’ Square, Vatican officials believe he will be following a long tradition of Christian communication. “This is not a new approach,” says Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “What’s new is the technique.” As for the long awaited tweet, it read: “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”

On Wednesday, those first tweets will be answers to questions solicited from Twitter users under the hashtag #askpontifex. Cardinal Ravasi’s office is one of several charged with looking at submissions from #askpontifex. As a result, some of his staff have been screening tweets that range from the sincere to the buffoonish, from the political to the vulgar. (Some, referring the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal, are both.) While some have worried that wading into the wild — often dirty — world of the Internet will demean the office of the Pope, Ravasi and his team see it as part of the pontiff’s pastoral mission to engage with all segments of society. “I see the Internet as a playground, and I see the church as playing the role of a responsible adult,” says Richard Rouse, the Cardinal’s spokesperson.

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The Vatican Sentences the Pope’s Butler: Is a Pardon on the Way?

Time has just published my story on the verdict on the trial of the Pope’s butler.

Paolo Gabriele, the former butler to Pope Benedict XVI who was convicted Saturday of leaking the pontiff’s personal papers, has been sentenced to year and half in prison–but he’s unlikely to serve any time. Minutes after prosecutors declared Gabriele guilty of aggravated theft, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, told journalists assembled for the trial that a pardon by the Pope was a “likely hypothesis.” He added, “I can say this without fear of being contradicted.”

It was a trial in which the pontiff was at the same time the victim, the person in whose name the crime had been committed, the authority under which the proceedings were being held—the judgment was delivered “in the name of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, gloriously reigning” — and the ultimate arbiter of whether the sentence will be carried out.

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The Pope’s Butler Testifies: Innocent of Theft, Guilty of Betrayal?

Time has just published my story on the testimony the Pope’s butler gave during his trial.

Before Paolo Gabriele turned himself in to Vatican authorities for passing Pope Benedict XVI’s personal papers to the press last May, he wanted to do one last thing. “I needed to surrender myself to the authorities, but I didn’t know how,” the former butler to the Pope recalled on Tuesday, during testimony in the trial against him. “The first step was spiritual. I went to a confessor and explained what I had done.”

Gabriele, a layman with a wife and three children, was calm and sometimes smiling during the three hours he spent giving evidence in the second day of his trial on charges of aggravated theft. He wore a light gray suit. His face was thin, barely a shade darker than the cream-colored wall of the courtroom behind him. As butler, Gabriele could hardly have been in a more intimate position with the head of the Catholic Church. He had served the Pope his meals, helped him pack for trips and, when the weather turned foul, he had held the umbrella that protected the Pontiff from the rain. “Concerning the accusation of aggravated theft, I declare myself innocent,” he said. “I feel guilty for having betrayed the trust vested in me by the Holy Father, whom I loved as if I were his son.”

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The Trial of the Pope’s Butler and How the Vatican Works

Time has just published my story on the trial of the Pope’s butler.

It was what passes for transparency at the Vatican. Only eight reporters were permitted to attend the opening session on Saturday of the trial of the former butler to Pope Benedict XVI, Paolo Gabriele, who is accused of stealing and leaking the Pontiff’s personal papers. Before entering the courtroom, the journalists were asked to check their purses, cell phones and keys and pass through a metal detector. Even their writing implements were confiscated, replaced once they were inside by orange ball-point pens supplied by the Vatican. “They basically did not want you to bring in pens for fear that they were either audio or visual recording instruments,” says one of the attendant reporters, who asked to remain anonymous citing rules drawn up by the Vatican press corps forbidding the journalists who attended from telling their personal stories.

The trial, which is expected to wrap up by the end of the week, has been billed by some journalists as the most significant legal proceeding since the 16th century when Giordano Bruno was tried for heresy and burned at the stake. But that’s less a reflection of the gravity of the charges against Gabriele than of the type of cases the Vatican’s judicial system is usually called upon to handle. The proceedings took place in a corner of the Vatican city state, in a small courtroom normally reserved for petty crimes involving tourists or pilgrims. If convicted, Gabriele could face up to four years in prison — a term that would be served in an Italian facility.

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An Interview with the Discoverer of ‘Jesus’ Wife’

My conversation, with Karen King, the scholar who claims to have discovered “The Gospel of Mary,” has just been published by Time.

When Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, unveiled last week a fragment of papyrus, on which Jesus says the words my wife, she was greeted with a mix of excitement and dismay. Could a tiny strip of barely legible papyrus call into question some of the church’s most well-known teachings? King spoke to TIME about the controversial fragment’s authenticity, its relation to the New Testament and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

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The Vatican vs. the Rebel Nuns: A Summit in the Holy See

Time has just published my story ab out the conflict between the Vatican and American nuns.

The meeting had been billed as a showdown. In reality, it had more the flavor of two opponents sizing each other up. Afterward, the Vatican press office described the encounter, between top officials in the Catholic Church and a group of American nuns the Vatican has accused of straying from official Catholicism, as having taken place “in an atmosphere of openness and cordiality.” For the nuns, representatives of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an umbrella organization that represents some 80% of Catholic nuns in the U.S., the meeting was “an opportunity to express our concerns” directly to officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican office charged with policing church doctrine now headed by the American Cardinal William Levada.

It’s not surprising that little was decided. The standoff is a long-standing one, dating back to the period following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, when the Holy See instituted a series of reforms and liberalizations, among them a call for religious orders, including nuns, to renew themselves. In the following years, many orders began allowing their members to shed the severe habits that date back to medieval times, to work outside of traditional church institutions, like schools and hospitals. Increasingly, nuns began to get involved in social movements, joining the battles for civil rights, setting up AIDS hospices and launching antipoverty campaigns. “Suddenly the lid was off,” says Kenneth Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns. “Sisters were deciding for themselves what to do. And back at headquarters, the Vatican and bishops in particular got very nervous.”

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