Espionage at the Vatican

VATICAN CITY — Claims of eavesdropping on the Vatican are nothing new.

But it’s hard to imagine any current foreign snooping could match the spying frenzy of the Cold War when the communist “East” and democratic “West” were locked in an ideological battle.


Karol Wojtyla receiving the woolen pallium during his installation as Pope John Paul II Oct. 22, 1978. (CNS photo by Arturo Mari)

After Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978, the Vatican did come under increased scrutiny as it was seen to be a decisive player in the anti-communist chess game.

Apparently double agent priests infiltrated the upper echelons of the Vatican and Czechoslovakian spies reportedly bugged the private studio of then-Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli by planting a hidden microphone inside a statue of Our Lady.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was spied on for three decades before he became pope by the Stasi — East Germany’s communist secret police.


Pope John Paul II greeting Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at a Munich airport in November 1980 at the end of a papal visit to Germany. (CNS photo from KNA)

According to one agent, the cardinal prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “would have an influence on the growth of anti-communist attitudes in the Catholic Church, especially in Latin America.” Agents wrote that Pope John Paul asked Cardinal Ratzinger to organize help for “counterrevolutionary activities in Poland” after the rise of the Solidarity movement in 1980.

Details of the Stasi’s activities were published in 2005 by the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag. The Stasi archives show there was one agent in the Vatican who provided “exact details” of the 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul II.

The newspaper noted that the secret police had kept an extensive card file on then-Cardinal Ratzinger and had described him as “the most decided opponent of communism in the Vatican.” Spies also described him as appearing “initially shy in conversation,” but that he also possessed “a winning charm.”

Soviet-bloc governments tried to get their Eastern European theology students to spy on the Vatican when they studied in Rome.


Jesuit Father Robert Graham pictured in Rome in 1992. Father Graham, who died in 1997, was considered an authority on the role of Pope Pius XII during World War II. (CNS photo/Agostino Bono)

“The poor Soviets believed secret sources more than public information, but that was an illusion,” the late-U.S. Jesuit Father Robert Graham, a historian and longtime Vatican observer, told CNS in 1993.

“They had to employ very complicated means to get the same information that was in the newspapers,” he said in this old CNS story that ran on page 12 in the Anchor, the diocesan paper of Fall River, Mass.

One longtime Vatican reporter claimed at the time that two Hungarian agents in the 1960s went directly to him instead of to his tidied and edited news reports.

He said the outrageous stories he made up for them were exceeded only by the outrageously bad vodka they gave him each Christmas.

The pope’s new helper


Screen-grab of balloons flying over St. Peter’s Basilica during a meeting with families on Saturday.

VATICAN CITY — Move over Archbishop Ganswein, there’s a new kid in town. Well, just temporarily.

For about an hour Saturday evening, during Pope Francis’ meeting with families in St. Peter’s Square, a little boy took over as prefect of the papal household: he helped bring guests up to the pope, he tried to take presents off the pope’s hands, he adjusted the pope’s microphone… He didn’t leave the pope’s side, just like a perfect prefect would do during many public and private audiences.

But the little boy got a lot more leeway than the archbishop and was allowed to sit in the papal chair when his legs got tired, he got some candy from the pope’s other helpers, and he got a ton of head-pats, smiles and smirks. Not bad for a first job.

Through a series of screen-grabs, we’ve compiled several of our favorite shots from that night here, showing the papal helper in action:




“Oh, so you did see that ad in the Osservatore Romano.”


“OK, you’re hired.”

kiss cross

The boy went up to play with the pope’s pectoral cross and then kissed it with prompting from the pope.


Who’s got the better profile?

rub head

Must have been a good punchline.

the helper

“Hmmm, let me mull that over.”


“Sorry kid, I’ve got to give my talk now.”

candy shot

The pope’s assistant, Sandro Mariotti, tries to lure the boy away with a candy.

not going

“Sorry Sandrone, I’m staying right where I’m needed!”

he's staying

Turf battle won and got a candy, too!


Bear hug!

hi mom!

“Hi Mom!! Gonna be home late!”


“Let’s keep it moving, please. The pope has lots of people to greet.”

helping with guests

Bringing people up to the pope: “Don’t be shy. He’s really nice. Besides, you’re next!”

ill take that

“Let me take that for you.”


“This microphone stand always needs adjusting.”


“Phew. I’m exhausted. I’ll just sit here for a bit.”

where's waldo

We give him an A+ in Papal Assistance 101!


Anyone interested in watching the event (in Italian) can go here: .  The child (whose name has not been made public) begins his debut at 3:19:39.



Archbishops in Iraq find hope in the time of chaos

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis likes to distinguish the difference between optimism and hope.


Two Iraqi boys holding candles as they pray for peace in Iraq and Syria during Mass at a Chaldean Catholic church in Amman, Jordan, Dec. 23, 2012. (CNS photo/Ali Jarekji, Reuters)

And he did so again during his morning homily when he called hope a “risky virtue” because, unlike faith and charity, he said it’s harder to see and understand. It may look riskier on the outside, but when you grab onto it, hope never disappoints, he said, “it’s for sure.”

I think understanding Pope Francis’ take on hope (“It is an anchor that one hurls toward the future, it’s what lets you pull on the line” and head in “the right direction” where God is waiting) is important for understanding how Christians in Iraq are able to maintain hope in the midst of tragedy.

Chaldean Archbishop Emil Shimoun Nona of Mosul wrote a must-read piece this week called “Faith in the Time of Persecution” that appeared in the National Review Online. The 46-year-old archbishop, whose episcopal motto is “hope,” said hope needs to be linked to love and faith for it to hold.

By deepening our sense of what it means to be Christians, we discover ways to give meaning to this life of persecution and find the necessary strength to endure it. To know that we may be killed at any moment, at home, in the street, at work, and yet despite all this to retain a living and active faith — this is the true challenge.


An Iraqi woman praying the rosary with a child on her lap in front of a statue of Mary at her house in Irbil, Iraq, Sept. 11, 2011. (CNS photo/Azad Lashkari, Reuters)

The secret, he said, is to make sure faith isn’t abstract, that it’s truly lived in every minute and minutia of daily life.

And people who live in countries with greater security and religious freedom can help by doing the same: “embracing the life of faith in daily practice. For us the greatest gift is to know that our situation is helping others to live out their own faith with greater strength, joy, and fidelity,” he wrote.

“Help bring our situation to the notice of the world — you are our voice. Spiritually, you can help us by making our life and our suffering the stimulus for the promotion of unity among all Christians.

The most powerful thing you can do in response to our situation is to rediscover and forge unity — personally and as a community — and to work for the good of your own societies.

They are in great need of the witness of Christians who live out their faith with a strength and joy that can give others the courage of faith.”         

 – Archbishop Nona




Women praying near a statue of Mary during an Easter Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq, April 24, 2011. (CNS photo/Saad Shalash, Reuters)

Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the papal nuncio in Baghdad recently gave a great image that captures his feelings of hope for Iraq’s future. In a talk he gave in Fossano, northern Italy, Oct. 8, he said:

“When I look at the sky and try to count the stars that shine, I think how it’s the same sky that Abraham looked at, they’re the same stars that he tried to count, and that moves me.

The whole history of love between God and humanity began there! How can I think that God has forgotten that? I believe that for the Iraqi Christian the faith in God that moved Abraham, faith in his love, cannot be questioned.”

– Archbishop Lingua



Updated — The @Pontifex franchise: over 10 million served!

UPDATE:  Well, that didn’t take long!

At 9:32 p.m. Saturday Oct. 26, a little more than 24 hours after our original blog post, the @Pontifex accounts reached 10 million followers.

Il Sismografo plots out the papal path to Twitter fame quite nicely:

  • @Pontifex accumulated 3.3 million followers in its first two and a half months (from Dec. 12, 2012 to Feb. 28, 2013, when Pope Benedict resigned) .
  • 6.7 million more people hopped on board between March 17 and Oct. 26.

Pope Francis sent a celebratory tweet to mark the occasion.


VATICAN CITY — Watch out @KanyeWest and Christina Aguilera @xtina. @Pontifex is hot on your heels.


Screengrab of Pope Francis’ Twitter account @Pontifex.

Pope Francis’ Twitter accounts in nine different languages are ready to reach 10 million followers, putting the leader of the universal church dangerously close to some of the music industry’s biggest artists and Hollywood’s hottest stars.

With 9.9 million followers this week, the pope has pulled ahead of @MTV (Music Television) and @nytimes (The New York Times).

The push in popularity is largely being fueled by the surge in Spanish-language followers of @Pontifex_es, which recently went over 4 million people, beating the English account by nearly one million.

Archbishop Claudio Celli, the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (which runs The Pope App and the aggregator), said the pope’s total tweet-reach, however, goes way beyond just his followers. When people re-tweet the pope’s mini messages, they’re then sent on to more than 60 million people, he told Vatican Radio today.

As we reported this summer, Pope Francis is, in fact, the most influential world leader on Twitter, with the highest number of retweets worldwide. He’s also the second most-followed leader of the world, running behind — albeit by a long stretch — U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Vatican’s media adviser, @GregBurkeRome, said last week that the pope’s Twitter presence has been especially important for Catholic immigrants who work in countries with strict restrictions on religious liberty and have difficulty accessing news or written materials about the church.

Oh, the irony: Bergoglio planned to watch ‘Habemus Papam’ film at home after conclave

Scene from 2012 movie 'We Have a Pope'

The French actor, Michel Piccoli, plays a cardinal who experiences a personal crisis when he’s elected pope, in this scene from the 2011 movie “We Have a Pope.” (CNS photo/IFC Films)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had been looking forward to watching the Italian film, “We Have a Pope,” (“Habemus Papam”) when he returned home from the conclave in March.

But being elected pontiff foiled those plans.

Pope Francis is an admitted movie buff. He grew up watching films with his Italian-born parents in Argentina and he’s said he’s a big fan of Italian cinema, particularly directors Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini.

Unfortunately, he had little time to devote to movie watching while he headed the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.

He didn’t have a television at home and “preferred to pray, read or listen to music in his free time,” said Julio Rimoldi, the general director of Canal 21, a Catholic television station that was founded in 2005 and is located in the archdiocesan headquarters in Buenos Aires.

Rimoldi, a longtime friend of the pope, told reporters last week in Rome that then-Cardinal Bergoglio received stacks of DVDs as presents — old black and white classics and more modern releases like “Life is Beautiful” starring Roberto Benigni.

Rimoldi said the future pope would call and ask him, “When can I come by the TV studio to watch them?” The cardinal was too busy to get through everything, Rimoldi said, and many discs were left sealed in their shrink wrap.

The last movie Cardinal Bergoglio received before leaving for the conclave in Rome, was the 2011 Nanni Moretti film, “We Have a Pope,” Rimoldi said, in a piece published by L’Osservatore Romano.

He was hoping to watch it when things were less rushed as soon as he returned home from the conclave. But, as the Vatican newspaper put it, “The Holy Spirit decided otherwise.”

Going to bat for the home team

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis and Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley aren’t afraid to get their game on.

St. Louis Archbishop Robert  J. Carlson

St. Louis Archbishop Robert J. Carlson

In the spirit of the 2013 World Series pitting the Boston Red Sox against the St. Louis Cardinals and beginning tonight in Boston, the two archbishops have made a friendly wager: The archbishop of the losing team will give a personal donation of $100 to Catholic Charities in the winning team’s archdiocese.

This is not exactly trading the famed toasted ravioli of St. Louis for Boston’s clam chowder, but as the press release from Cardinal O’Malley’s office points out:  “Every gift matters for the mission of Catholic Charities and for the people who turn to the church for assistance in times of need.”

In a statement announcing St. Louis Archdiocese’s part in the wager, Archbishop Carlson also offered a prayer for the competing teams. “May the Lord’s blessing fall upon the players of both teams. May they play to the best of their ability and without any injuries. As we celebrate the joy that comes from friendly competition, let us also call to mind the mission of the church as evidenced in the great work of Catholic Charities.”

The St. Louis archbishop is no stranger to betting on the World Series.

Two years ago when the Cardinals faced the Texas Rangers in the World Series, Archbishop Carlson challenged Bishop Kevin W. Vann, then head of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (and now bishop  of Orange, Calif.), to a wager involving local food items, charitable donations and a Stetson cowboy hat.

This year, politicians have also gotten into the wagering spirit, although not completely.

Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley

Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley

The St. Louis and Boston mayors have declined to make any kind of bet on this year’s matchup but the state’s governors — maybe recalling the Boston-St. Louis World Series of 2004 — have put some local food and drink on the line.

If the Cardinals win, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick will donate New England Clam Chowder from Boston’s Legal Sea Foods, beverages from Worcester’s Polar Beverages and baked goods from Dancing Deer Bakery Co. in Boston.

If the Red Sox win, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon will donate Cardinal Cream Soda from Fitz’s Bottling Co., chocolates from Bissinger’™s Chocolates, and an assortment of Italian baked goods from Missouri Baking Co.

But both governors were confident they would not have to supply these local items since each was sure their team would walk away with the World Series trophy.

Ambassadorial introductions: formal and not so formal

Ken Hackett, the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, presented his credentials to Pope Francis Oct. 21.

The formal ritual called for Hackett to dress in morning coat and white tie, and to physically hand over his paperwork to the pope. But the State Department produced a less formal way of introducing Hackett, in the form of a YouTube video. 

Pope Francis talks with Ken Hackett, the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Pope Francis talks with Ken Hackett, the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

The 1 minute, 49 second video has a casual Hackett telling a bit about himself, explaining some of his connections to Rome, as the longtime head of Catholic Relief Services, and introducing his wife, Joan. It’s subtitled in Italian.

He’s not the only one to get such star treatment. The State Department’s YouTube page is home to many other ambassadorial introduction films as well as pages for individual embassies and foreign missions.

It’s becoming a thing! #capswap

VATICAN CITY — There was a lot of papal cap-swapping at today’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

But one audience member was expecting a freebie zucchetto  — without an exchange — as this photo shows, captured by our very own Paul Haring.

The man’s sign says: “Pope, give me your cap as a present.”

Pope leads general audience in St. Peter's Square at Vatican

Pope Francis leads his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 23. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Decoding Francis: Vatican media adviser offers “10 things to know”

VATICAN CITY — If people are still unsure about what to make of Pope Francis, the Vatican’s media adviser offered his take on decoding the pontiff.


Greg Burke, media adviser to the Vatican, participating in a Vatican press conference Dec. 3, 2012. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“Pope Francis is not a politically-correct pope,” rather, he is “a loyal son of the church” who presents the hard truths with a heavy dose of mercy, said Greg Burke, senior communications adviser to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

The former U.S. journalist, who’s been based in Rome the past 25 years, gave a behind-the-scenes talk last week to hundreds of benefactors celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

U.S. Msgr. Peter Wells — another top official at the Secretariat of State — also spoke at the same Oct. 18 event in the apostolic palace, where he gave his take on the reform of the curia and how they counteract secular media manipulating the pope’s message.

In trying to describe his papally-appointed role as the Vatican’s chief media strategist, Burke (an unabashed soccer fan) said, “We kick the ball to Francis and Francis scores the goals.” “We let the pope do his thing.”

He said Pope Francis clearly knows how to communicate and his effectiveness comes from his authenticity. “It’s not charm. It’s Christian charity, which is a whole lot more attractive than charm.”

He also said “Pope Francis is not a politically-correct pope, in my opinion.”

Pope greets people in wheelchairs after celebrating Mass in St. Peter's Square at Vatican

Pope Francis greeting people in wheelchairs after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican June 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

There’s been a lot of spin in the press about what the pope has been saying, but “I believe the pope wants to get beyond left and right” by getting people to focus on the Gospels, on God and his truth and mercy.

“He’s a loyal son of the church” who sees its task as being like “a field hospital” that runs to and helps people who are hurting, he said.

The pope is not advocating a “feel-good” religion of “I’m OK-you’re OK-Catholicism,” but talks about the truth of the Gospel that includes mercy and forgiveness.

“The Gospel is not there to make us feel good. The Gospel is there and makes very practical demands on us,” and one of those demands is to “tell people the truth and walk with them to the Lord,” Burke said.

Burke said, “the pope’s picture should have one of those warning labels” on it, much like a pack of cigarettes does, but with the words: “Danger: This man could change your life.”

Here’s Burke’s Top Ten List to describe and better understand the Argentine pontiff:

Pope greets man as he meets with patients, others at hospital in Rio

Pope Francis greeting a man at Rio de Janeiro’s St. Francis of Assisi Hospital — a clinic for recovering drug addicts. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (July 24, 2013)

1. Mercy — The story of the Prodigal Son is a recurring theme and the pope repeatedly says that God never tires of forgiving and welcoming his lost children back home.  “The church is waiting here for you with open arms,” is the message, Burke said.

2. Moxie/courage — “We’re all going to get challenged by Pope Francis. Get ready!” People who live comfortably or live in developed nations will be especially challenged, Burke said, adding, “This is good. This is the Gospel.”

3. Margins, missions — Francis is continuing with his predecessors’ criticism of a world divided by haves and have-nots. The pope “is not a fan of cheap grace and feel-good religion. He wants to see Christians who are not afraid to get their hands dirty,” Burke said.

Woman prays as pope leads vigil to pray for peace in Syria

A woman in prayer as Pope Francis led a vigil to pray for peace in Syria in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Sept. 7. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

4. Prayer — Non-believers often don’t notice how important prayer is for religious life. For example, Blessed Mother Teresa was often looked upon by the secular press as “a social worker wearing a habit.” But, Burke said, the pope has constantly been stressing the importance of prayer and urging people to pray.

5. Encounter — The pope is asking people to embrace a “culture of encounter” where they experience God and meet with others, including non-believers. This attitude of encounter and communion also starts at home, with your family, Burke said.

Pope Francis gives thumbs as he leaves St. Peter's Square after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass

Pope Francis giving a thumbs up after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican March 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

6. Joy — The pope “gets a thumbs’ up on that,” he said, as he’s able to show his joy so plainly. He said that according to Pope Francis, the biggest dangers and temptations in life are “discouragement, discord, the doldrums and the devil.”

7. Service — By paying his hotel bill in person (even though he had just been elected pope), phoning people who write to him and other do-it-yourself tasks, the pope is leading by example with the message that “it’s not about power or privilege; if we’re here, we’re here to serve.”

Pope Francis steps off a plane in Rome, returning from his trip to Brazil

Pope Francis stepping off a plane after returning to Rome July 29 from his trip to Brazil. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

8. Simplicity/Humility — Living in a Vatican guest house instead of the apostolic palace, carrying his own briefcase on a trip… that’s just how the pope is and people will have to “get used to it because we’ll see more of it,” Burke said.

9. Compassion — Burke, who’s a numerary member of Opus Dei and went to Jesuit-run St. Louis University high school in St. Louis, said he used to joke with people “that everyone should have a Jesuit education. Now with Pope Francis, everyone is getting the benefits of a Jesuit education.”

“Compassion and suffering with others is something Pope Francis has a knack for” and it’s especially evident when he embraces people and is totally present one-on-one with an individual, even in large crowds.

10. Energy — Burke said for a 76-year-old, the pope “has a lot of energy and we’re going to be in for an interesting ride!”

Homily NoDoz: Public speaking school for seminarians

Pope leads general audience in St. Peter's Square at Vatican

Pope Francis leading a general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican April 3. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Inspired by Pope Francis’ criticism of boring homilies, a group of Italian seminarians apparently will now be taking courses in public speaking and effective communication.

According to the Italian daily La Nazione, the Pontifical Regional Seminary located in Assisi is making its future priests get lessons from consultants, who normally work with top business managers and stage actors.

One group of 15 seminarians reportedly start its three-day program today.

Apparently the idea was triggered, not just by Pope Francis’ unique speaking style, but by what he said in his Oct. 4 homily at Mass in the Cathedral of San Rufino.

Speaking to an audience of priests and men and women religious, the pope said it was impossible to preach if one didn’t first have one’s heart open to God and illuminated by his word.

“Enough of these endless, boring homilies which can’t be understood,” he told his listeners.




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