CNS Rome bureau chief Thavis wins CPA’s St. Francis de Sales Award

By Catholic News Service

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CNS) — Catholic News Service Rome bureau chief John Thavis was named May 25 as the winner of the 2007 St. Francis de Sales Award by the Catholic Press Association.

The award is considered the highest honor in the Catholic press. Thavis, 56, is one of a handful of reporters to have won the award, commonly called the Franny.

“I share this award with everyone at Catholic News Service. What I do day in and day out is really part of a team effort from the top down,” Thavis said in accepting the award during a closing-day luncheon at the May 23-25 CPA convention.

Thavis won the award “for his in-depth knowledge of the workings of the Vatican and his ability to share that with fellow journalists and Catholic press readers,” according to material distributed with the CPA ballot listing the five finalists for the prize.

A member of CNS’ Rome bureau since 1983 and bureau chief since 1996, Thavis “shows the same level of care, depth, balance and precision in informing readers about the everyday pastoral work of the popes — general audiences, Sunday Angelus messages, Masses, parish visits — as he does covering major events such as the release of an encyclical, canonizations and controversies,” the ballot said.

Cited in the ballot material were the 40-plus foreign trips Thavis has taken accompanying Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI; his coordination of three other journalists’ work during the “frenetic” jubilee year 2000; and his writing of most of the main transition stories between the death of Pope John Paul and the election of Pope Benedict, while supervising the work of an expanded team of writers in 2005.

“This is one of those awards that make you stop and look back,” Thavis said in his acceptance remarks.

“In 1978 I was Catholic and a journalist but did not consider myself a Catholic journalist. I worked for an English-language newspaper in Rome. One evening one of the Italian typesetters yelled, ‘Fumata bianca!’ (‘White smoke!’). I pedaled my bicycle to St. Peter’s Square and stood under the balcony and heard them announce the new pope: (Cardinal) Karol Wojtyla. I’d never heard of him. Then he came out and gave his beautiful talk in Italian. I thought to myself, ‘This guy is good.’

“I never dreamed I’d be back in Rome in the early 1980s covering the pope full time, traveling on his plane, poring over his speeches and documents and watching him grow old,” he added.

Thavis confessed he did not know that much about St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists and the award’s namesake. So “I Googled him,” he said. “I found that he had quite a bit to say to modern journalists. He had a great respect for the truth. He knew the destructive power of the half-truth. He knew that sometimes one must tell an unpleasant truth, but said it had to be done with love and kindness.”

As a result of his work, Thavis added, “I’ve learned an awful lot about the faith on the job. People sometimes ask me, ‘Don’t you get cynical covering the Vatican?’ And I have to answer no. The Vatican is full of good people working hard to do good things with very few resources.”

Thavis lives in Rome with his wife, Laurie. They have a daughter, Hilary, and two sons, Brian and Alan. Raised in Minnesota, he remains an ardent fan of baseball’s Minnesota Twins.

He is the second St. Francis de Sales Award winner from CNS in four years. Reporter Jerry Filteau won the award in 2003.

The other 2007 finalists for the award were:

Gretchen Keiser, editor of The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

— The late Edmund R. Sullivan, who had been associate editor of The Catholic Exponent, newspaper of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, and a syndicated cartoonist.

Mary C. Uhler, editor of The Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Madison, Wis.

Bob Zyskowski, associate publisher and general manager of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

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Contributing to this story was Julie Asher.

05/25/2007 2:56 PM ET

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