With centuries of history listed on its résumé, the Vatican is an institution comprised of mystery, intrigue and the unknown.
Not true, says John L. Allen.
A keynote speaker at the Catholic Education: A National Conversation Convention, Allen is a American Vatican reporter for the Catholic National Reporter and senior Vatican Analyst for CNN.
Spending years reporting on the Vatican, Allen understands its operation, people and history.
He shared five common myths of the Vatican with the conference delegates, clearing up these common misconceptions.
1. There is such a thing as a Vatican. Dubbing it, “the opposite of the Stepford Wives”, Allen says the Vatican structure surrounding the pope is not a cohesive organization. Rather, based on his own interactions and experiences, the people within the Vatican’s hierarchy rarely agree with each other.
2. Centralization. “Creativity in the church never comes from Rome,” Allen says. The bishops and cardinals who reside there do not have the time or resources to micromanage. According to Allen, there is a “myth of absolute control” surrounding dealings in Rome.
3. The Vatican is Rich. Allen provided detailed imagery regarding common conceptions of how the pope and his subordinates live in Rome: lying on velvet cushions all day being hand-fed grapes by chaste nuns. Drawing laughter from the audience, Allen says the Vatican lifestyle and approach to money is a common misconception. “You should understand that grubby money motives are not the tone of the Holy See,” says Allen. He says the Cardinals’ salaries are minimal, especially when comparing them to corporate salaries.
4. The Vatican is a Secretive Institution. “In Rome, everything is a mystery, but nothing is a secret,” says Allen. He said from his own experience, understanding the theology and ideology in the Vatican reveals any so-called secrets. “Most people are not equipped to understand therefore they think it’s secrecy,” he says. “It’s singular and unique, it’s not secrecy.” When he can’t comprehend a Vatican decision, he said he’s never had a problem finding out something he doesn’t understand. To best understand the Vatican, he said there are three languages in Rome: Italian, the language of the Catholic Church and the language of the Vatican. “You just have to work at it and understand the language.”
5. Everyone wants to be the Pope. A common belief beyond the Vatican walls reveals that every priest wants to become a monsignor; every monsignor wants to become a bishop; every bishop wants to become a cardinal; and every cardinal wants to become the pope.
“This is not true,” says Allen. Following John Paul II’s death, Allen interviewed two-thirds of the 115 Cardinals, and he learned the vast majority did not want to become the Pope. “Knowing themselves, they don’t feel they are worthwhile and being a Pope is a tough gig,” he explained. “You are expected to be a living saint and represent the Catholic teachings of the entire Church to the world.”
When it comes to understanding the Vatican, Allen gave the conference delegates some advice. “I am cautioning you not to make assumptions,” he said, adding that he feels these myths stand in the way of future growth of the Catholic Church.
Following his presentation, delegates were asked to talk with one another and answer the question: “How do these myths influence your understanding of Catholic beliefs that we pass on through Catholic education in Canada?”
Here’s a sampling of the answers:
- Learn from the myths about the Vatican as it parallels the public’s understanding of Catholic Education. The media then becomes more informed.
- We don’t have to wait for a Bishop to introduce certain ideas in our schools. We are responsible for positive change as we are the church.
- We are able to make more decisions at the local level than we think.
- We can demystify the language of the Vatican by embedding that into the curriculum.
- The relationship of the local bishop is key. The home-school-parish relationship continues to be important.
- We are victims of believing many myths. Some of those beliefs come from social media which can sometimes be incorrect.
- The Vatican can sometimes be used as a platform for right-wing Catholic groups despite the inaccuracy.
Read more delegate responses >>
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