Reporting from Rome, John L. Allen Jr. is the prize-winning Senior Correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and the Senior Vatican Analyst for CNN. He’s the author of six best-selling books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs, and writes frequently on the Church for major national and international publications. He’s also a popular speaker on Catholic affairs, both in the United States and abroad.
CCSTA is excited to welcome John to our September conference, Catholic Education: A National Conversation as one of our keynote speakers. He brings insight, experience and ideas about the Catholic Church. To learn more about John before his arrival this September, CCSTA asked him some questions about himself, his work, why talking about Catholic education is so important and how educators are similar to journalists.
CCSTA: How did you first get into covering and writing about the Vatican, and why?
John: The number of full-time Vatican correspondents in the English language is pretty small. At full strength, there are maybe twenty of us, so statistically you have a much better chance of playing in the NHL than you do getting paid to cover the Holy See! As a result, most of us back into it. In my case, I was pursuing a Ph.D. in scripture and took a job in journalism to pay the bills. Because I had an academic interest in religion and had been a seminarian and a lifelong Catholic, I naturally gravitated to covering the Church. One thing led to another, and here I am!
CCSTA: What are the best and most challenging components to reporting on the Vatican?
John: Two aspects have always struck me as most exciting. First, I have the privilege of a front-row seat to some unforgettable moments in Catholic history, such as the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI. Second, I’m able to travel the highways and byways of the Catholic world, getting a sense of what the faith means and how it’s lived in a staggering variety of circumstances.
In general, I firmly believe that covering the Catholic Church is the best beat in journalism. The Vatican is the greatest show on earth: It blends history and art, romance and ritual, intrigue and holiness, politics and culture. It may be a small window, but it opens onto the entire world. If today I’m interested in the airstrikes in Libya, the Vatican is all over it, both from the point of view of “just war” theory and also dialogue with Islam. If tomorrow I want to do a set-up piece on baseball’s opening day, there’s an office for the spirituality of sports in the Pontifical Council for the Laity. If the next day I’m interested in GMOs, the Pontifical Academy for Science has been tracking that debate for years. In other words, there’s no topic of human concern that doesn’t have a natural connection. As a reporter, if you can’t get your juices flowing for covering this place, you ought to have your heart checked!
I suppose the most challenging aspect is navigating the “cultural gap” that often separates the Vatican from Main Street in North America. Truth to be told, the makers of culture both high and low in North America are often abysmally illiterate when it comes to the Catholic Church and especially to the Vatican, while the Church is often equally inept at explaining itself to the outside world. As a result, I often have to wade through several layers of mythology and misunderstanding before I can get to whatever the real story actually is.
CCSTA: After living in, and reporting from, Rome, do you find you have a responsibility to share the Vatican’s message pertaining to Catholicism to North Americans? In essence, are you the messenger?
John: I’m certainly not the messenger, because the Vatican has plenty of people on its payroll to do that job, to say nothing of bishops and other Church officials around the world. I’m a reporter, which means the trick for me is to be close enough to the story to get it right, but far enough away to be objective. I do think sometimes, however, that an important part of my work is simply translation – trying to put whatever the Church is saying or doing in terms the average person can understand.
CCSTA: Biography aside, what is something you would like to share about yourself.
John: I have a somewhat old-school conception of what journalism is all about. I don’t see it as my role to decide who’s right and wrong, or to cater to the biases of a particular group. I try to stay on the level of “is” rather than “ought,” meaning that I do my best to describe what’s happening and what its implications might be, and then let people make up their own minds. Aside from that, if you’re looking for personal color, I can reveal that aside from the Roman Catholic Church, the three great passions of my life are my wife Shannon (and our beloved pug Ellis), “The Simpsons,” and the New York Yankees.
CCSTA: You are coming to speak at the CCSTA Catholic Education: A National Conversation conference this September. What will you speak about?
John: The major presentation is based on my book “The Future Church.” It examines ten mega-trends, from the explosion of Christianity in the southern hemisphere, to the rise of militant Islam, to the biotech revolution and globalization. Though it’s focused on Catholicism, the trends are actually relevant for all Christian denominations and, for that matter, all religions. I’m also giving a smaller talk on my personal list of “Top Five Myths about the Vatican,” such as secrecy, wealth, and the notion that there really is such a thing as “the Vatican” in the sense in which we use the term in casual conversation.
CCSTA: Why is it important to have dialogue concerning Catholic education in Canada?
John: The Church aspires to evangelize culture, and to transform the secular world from the inside out. If that’s going to happen, education is obviously a critically important – maybe the most important – piece of the puzzle. Educators are, in a sense, sort of like journalists. They have to know what the Church thinks and teaches, but they also have to be able to express all that in an argot which young people formed by today’s culture will understand. I can tell you from personal experience that’s no easy job, and therefore dialogue about how to do it well is essential.
CCSTA: What do you hope the conference participants will take from your presentation?
John: I hope they’ll get three basic points. First, in a world in which two-thirds of the Catholic population of 1.2 billion today lives in the southern hemisphere, seeing issues in the Church exclusively through North American eyes just won’t cut it. Second, the sorts of things we usually talk about in the media vis-à-vis the Catholic Church – scandals, crises, and political controversy – are undeniably part of the picture, but they’re hardly the full story. There’s a bigger picture, composed of new challenges and opportunities both from within and without, that needs to be acknowledged. Third, there is actually plenty of dynamism, creative energy, and hope pulsating in the Church, if we have but eyes to see.
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