By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
For the Vatican press corps, Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 12-15 trip to France was an historic occasion, entirely apart from anything the pope said or did. As it happened, the four-day voyage marked the final papal trip for the legendary Italian vaticanista Luigi Accattoli of Corriere della Sera, Italy’s daily paper of record.
It was the 95th and last papal trip for Accattoli, who has been with Corriere since 1981. He turns 65 in December, and under that paper's fairly rigid policies, he’s obligated to retire.
tWhile Accattoli will certainly continue to be an important voice in Vatican analysis, he won’t be on the front lines, so to speak, of papal coverage.
Though English-speaking Catholics may not know Accattoli’s name, they almost certainly know his work. Over the years, Accattoli has built a reputation as a careful and well-informed observer of church affairs, which means that anyone who covers the Vatican in any language reads Accattoli and, quite often, borrows from him liberally. As a result, Accattoli has been the “prime mover” behind an enormous volume of Vatican coverage around the world during the last quarter-century.
To say this as gently as possible, the Italian press is not always legendary for its passion for factual accuracy. When Accattoli’s byline is on an article, however, you can take it to the bank.
I recall that when I arrived in Rome for the first time in 1999 to cover the second Synod for Europe, I discovered to my surprise that, relying on formal channels, there really is no way to “cover” a synod in the sense in which journalists ordinarily use the term. Daily sessions are closed to the public, and although the Vatican offers press briefings, the version of events one obtains is often sanitized. You have no direct access to decision-makers, and no way to really follow the dynamics of the meeting.
Yet every day in Corriere della Sera, one could find an exacting account of what was happening inside the synod, including details that even many of the participants themselves didn’t know. I recall one colleague saying to me, “The Vatican ought to just ask Accattoli to give the press briefings …. He’s the only one who really seems to know what’s going on.”
So it went for a quarter-century. To say that Luigi Accattoli will be missed amomng those who want to know what's happening in Rome, therefore, surely ought to rank on any list of the under-statements of 2008.
On our return flight from France on Monday, we offered an impromptu toast to Luigi. John Thavis of the Catholic News Service, another veteran papal traveler, spoke for all of us in saying that he “couldn’t believe” Accattoli would no longer be on board. Marco Politi of La Repubblica chipped in that he was sure Accattoli would find a way to follow papal trips in the future, but without having to wake up at 5:00 am in order to collect the speeches for that day like the rest of us!
The Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, also paid tribute, saying that he first met Accattoli 35 years ago and that he was even then an “authoritative” figure on the journalistic scene.
The 70 of us in the press corps signed a copy of the Air France menu from the flight with best wishes. After we finished feting Accattoli, it was the turn of the Vatican personnel who travel with the pope to do so, and even Benedict XVI himself got into the act.
As always, it’s better to simply let Accattoli himself tell the story; the following account is from his blog, in my translation.
“Fr. Lombardi accompanied me into the zone of the plane reserved for the thirty members of the papal entourage, and they too congratulated me, since I’ve known many of them for 10, 20, even 30 years. Monsignor Francesco Camaldo, from the pope’s office of liturgical ceremonies, was especially vivacious, while his boss, Monsignor Guido Marini, was a bit more discrete. With a sort of layman’s complicity, I was embraced by the organizer of papal trips, Alberto Gasparri; the official responsible for security, Domenico Giani; and the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, Gian Maria Vian. I was also congratulated by the three French Cardinals on the plane – Etchegaray, Poupard, and Tauran – as well as the pope’s doctor, Buzzonetti, and by everyone else who was there.
What Luigi fails to add, but that I will put on the record here, is that upon his return from the papal compartment, the entire press corps gave him an ovation … whereupon he looked at us, smiled beatifically, made the sign of the cross, and offered his best imitation of a papal blessing.
That sly gesture, from such a normally reserved man, brought the house down. Somehow, it seemed fitting that the last memory any of us will carry of Luigi Accattoli aboard a papal flight is leaving his colleagues with a smile.