For 150 years, L'Osservatore Romano has served as the paper of record for the universal Church
by Edward Pentin
Pope Benedict XVI reads a copy of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo in 2010. (Courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano)
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, then-archbishop of Milan, wrote in 1961, "Everyone knows how difficult it is to produce a newspaper, but few guess how extremely difficult it is to produce L'Osservatore Romano."
The cardinal, who would later become Pope Paul VI, saw that L'Osservatore Romano's challenges stemmed from the newspaper's uniqueness: It wasn't just an organ of information, but an instrument of formation. Likewise, it didn't set out just to provide news, but to shape ideas. The paper's universal perspective had to respect the broad, solemn and demanding doctrine of the Church. That meant no crosswords, television schedules or Sunday cartoons — just reflective articles suitable for the "pope's newspaper."
Little has changed in the approach of L'Osservatore Romano (Italian for "The Roman Observer") since the paper was founded 150 years ago. It is still a paper of record, publishing all the pope's addresses in full and commenting on the major Church and world issues of the day. As Italian intellectual Sergio Romano recently wrote, unlike the mainstream press, L'Osservatore Romano largely continues to avoid "ephemeral news, irrelevant events, superficial discussions, and inconclusive chatter." But because of the "incontinence" of the popular press, he said, L'Osservatore Romano has filled a void, making it "not a mirror on the world" so much as "a mirror on the world in which we would prefer to live."
It is this characteristic that has been a hallmark of the newspaper from the beginning. L'Osservatore Romano was launched July 1, 1861, to defend the Papal States from Giuseppe Garibaldi and his desire to absorb the pope's territories into a newly unified Italy. During this period of anti-clericalism, the publication began as "a political and moral newspaper." On its masthead were the words that remain there today: "unicuique sum" ("to each his own") and "non praevalebunt" ("they will not prevail," an allusion to the gates of hell and the powers of evil).
A RICH HISTORY
One of the first major stories L'Osservatore Romano covered was the First Vatican Council, but at that time the paper was still owned by various independent Catholic publishers. Even when Pope Leo XIII definitively acquired ownership of the publication for the Holy See in the late 19th century, L'Osservatore Romano still had not formally assumed the character of an "official" Vatican newspaper. Nonetheless, the publication evolved rapidly, expanding from four pages to six under the editorship of Giuseppe Angelini (1900-1920) and including more varied content, such as columns dedicated to art, sports and theater.
By this time, the newspaper was disseminating papal speeches but was still dominated by coverage of Roman issues with particular attention given to Italy. It was not afraid to comment on the political events of the day, although it had an editorial policy of "strict impartiality" in its news coverage.
In 1929, during the long editorship of Count Giuseppe Dalla Torre from 1920 to 1960, the newspaper moved its offices from the center of Rome to inside the Vatican, where it is located today. The relocation coincided with further growth in its prestige and distribution, but it also marked the beginning of the paper's clashes with the Fascist regime. Forced to reduce its press run drastically, L'Osservatore Romano wasn't even allowed to publish war news.
A fleet of newsboys departs by bicycle with newly printed copies of L’Osservatore Romano in 1936. (Courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano)
By this time, the newspaper fell under the purview of the Vatican Secretariat of State, as it does today. During the post-war period, L'Osservatore Romano also saw other innovations, most notably the advent of weekly language editions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and German, with a monthly Polish edition beginning in 1980, following the election of Blessed John Paul II.
From the outset, the newspaper has been blessed with talented editors. After seeing the newspaper through the war years, Dalla Torre was succeeded in 1960 by Raimondo Manzini, a respected journalist and politician who led the paper during the Second Vatican Council and the years that followed. In 1978, Manzini was succeeded by Valerio Volpini, an intellectual and writer who oversaw a redesign of the newspaper. And from 1984 until 2007, Mario Agnes, a former president of Italian Catholic Action, edited the daily, during which time it became more detached from Italian politics and more polemical.
Today, the newspaper's editor is Giovanni Maria Vian, a former professor of Christian Literature at the Sapienza University of Rome. Vian is no stranger to the Vatican: He began his journalism career writing for the Italian bishops' daily Avvenire at the age of 21. His father ran the Vatican Library and was a friend of Pope Paul VI.
Since he took the helm in September 2007, Vian has made L'Osservatore Romano into a truly modern newspaper. He has introduced some important changes, most of which were requested by Pope Benedict XVI. These have included expanding the international news section (with a particular emphasis on the Eastern Catholic Churches), introducing more articles by lay specialists and non-Catholics, including a greater number of interviews, and recruiting more women journalists.
Vian said that Pope Benedict specifically asked him to reform L'Osservatore Romano into "a place for discussion and debate, open to confronting ideas both among believers and non-believers." He added that the pope "favors a fruitful debate on the relationship between faith and culture — the aim is to expand the horizons of society, to create a space within the person for at least the possibility of God." In this regard, Vian said, the newspaper is an important tool of the new evangelization.
INTO THE MODERN WORLD
As the editor-in-chief, Vian is free to edit the newspaper with a significant amount of autonomy, even if close attention is paid to the newspaper's editorials. "The pope himself pays great attention to them," Vian said. Certain sensitive issues, however, are covered in close collaboration with the Secretariat of State — in particular, stories relating to China, nuclear weapons and the Middle East. With these and other stories, Vian said the paper looks to "overcome divisions and oppositions, looking for a better understanding of differences, and always upholding the dignity of the human person."
The newspaper also works closely with the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Library, the Vatican Secret Archive, various congregations, and Catholic educational institutions around the world. Vian pointed out that these connections are well established, as the newspaper is the oldest published information source of the Holy See. (By contrast, Vatican Radio celebrated 80 years earlier this year, and the Holy See Press Office was not founded until 1939.)
At the pope's behest, the newspaper now includes more photographs and, in recent years, the front and back pages of the daily edition have been printed in full color. But the newspaper's most adventurous initiative of late has been its decision to go online. In April, a new, expansive website was launched in anticipation of L'Osservatore Romano's 150th anniversary. "This is where our future lies," said Marcello Filotei, L'Osservatore Romano's online editor. "It's an exciting time for us."
Filotei said that although the newspaper does not yet have applications for digital devices like the iPhone, these developments are in the works. "Everything takes time at the Vatican," he added.
He also explained that it is too early to say how successful the venture into online publishing will be, but the signs so far are promising.
Vian is particularly optimistic: "The newspaper's development has traditionally been progressive," he said. "The circulation of its print editions is hindered by the crisis affecting traditional media worldwide, but the wider circulation is growing thanks to important investment in the presence of the newspaper on the Web."
The newspaper is run on a relatively modest budget of around $6 million, and its Italian daily edition has a circulation of 15,000. In addition to its Internet presence, L'Osservatore Romano is also working to boost its circulation by partnering with publishing houses worldwide. Notably, Vian said that the circulation of the Spanish edition was multiplied 200 times after partnering with La Razon, a general-interest daily newspaper based in Madrid.
L'Osservatore Romano also occasionally produces special editions, such as its 150th anniversary issue and a commemorative edition for Blessed Pope John Paul II's beatification earlier this year. One-hundred pages of color, printed in seven languages on four continents, the souvenir edition had a print run of 400,000 copies.
As to whether they will ever publish a daily English edition, Vian said that much depends on the newspaper's limits, adding that he is "confident" in divine providence. In the meantime, he stressed how important it is that the newspaper is now well-known and being commented upon by "different international authoritative publications such as The Economist, Le Monde, and many newspapers in Italy" — a welcome development, he said.
In his 1961 article, Cardinal Montini joked whether anyone at a bar or on a train would ever strike up a discussion about L'Osservatore Romano. Although the essence of the newspaper has hardly changed, it is a jest the cardinal could not make so easily today.
Edward Pentin is the Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register.