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From Minnesota to Rome: Bemidji resident sees conclave up close

With the announcement of Pope Francis on Wednesday, Bemidji resident John Thavis was in Rome as an on-air commentator for ABC News covering the conclave.

John Thavis, right, was interviewed by Patricia Thomas of APTN TV
John Thavis, right, was recently interviewed by Patricia Thomas of APTN TV. Thavis, of Bemidji, wrote the New York Times best seller "The Vatican Diaries" and is serving as an expert for ABC News this week as cardinals gathered in Rome to pick a new pope. SUBMITTED PHOTO

With the announcement of Pope Francis on Wednesday, Bemidji resident John Thavis was in Rome as an on-air commentator for ABC News covering the conclave.

"Wow. The first Jesuit pope. The first Latin American pope. The first pope to choose the name Francis," Thavis wrote Wednesday on a blog in reaction to the new pope.

Thavis, a former reporter who covered the Vatican for about three decades before retiring last year, has authored "The Vatican Diaries," a New York Times best seller. He also writes blogs about what is going on in the Vatican and the Catholic Church.

"And already there are signs that he will find a new way of being pope. Asking for the people's prayers and blessing before delivering your own, for example, was a pretty eloquent act of humility."

"The Vatican Diaries" came out about the same time Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. Benedict's retirement marked the first time in about 600 years that a pope stepped down, setting up Wednesday's historic vote tally.


"Even 600 years ago, it wasn't the same. At that time, a pope resigned because basically a group of Cardinals told him to," Thavis said in a recent phone interview. "So a pope resigning on his own free will is really unprecedented here in the modern age. It's fascinating to see.

"I think it's quite a courageous decision, because this is a rather traditional pope who has taken this very untraditional step. I think it challenges the Catholic Church to think about the papacy in a new way."

Last year, Thavis decided to hang up his hat on covering the Vatican. After retiring early, he, his wife and two sons returned to Minnesota and settled on Bemidji as home, in part because of family connections to TrekNorth High School.

"I was finishing my book, so it didn't matter where I was," Thavis said of his move from Rome to Bemidji. "And we basically wanted our youngest son to finish high school in a good place. So we are there, at least for now. We may not stay in Bemidji, but it's a great place to be."

Originally from Mankato, Thavis graduated from St. John's University in 1973, but continued pursuing his education.

"I was studying archaeology, and that's what took me to Italy back in 1977," Thavis said. "And I loved Italy so much that I just decided, 'I'm not going to go to grad school in archaeology, I'm going to stay here.' "

In 1978, Thavis said, he walked into the office of an English language newspaper, the Rome Daily American, and was hired as a headline writer. He eventually became the news editor.

"So I became a journalist and I actually came back to Minnesota for a couple of years and was news editor of the Mankato Free Press, my hometown paper," Thavis said.


In 1982, he persuaded his wife, Lauren, also a Minnesotan, to move back to Italy.

"All three of our children were born there in Rome," said Thavis, who worked a few different jobs.

"I wrote a guidebook to Rome, I worked for the Associated Press and ABC News," he said. "And then I was offered a job by Catholic News Service, which basically covers the Vatican full time."

He said he took the job because he thought the Vatican would be a challenge.

"I mean, it's a real secretive place. It would be a great beat and I could really sink my teeth into it," Thavis said. "And that's in fact what happened.

"In fact, most journalists who cover the Vatican stay there a very long time. Because once you build up your sources, you don't want to let it go. There are many people like me who covered the Vatican beat for 20 or 30 years."

Covering the Vatican is a little different for reporters.

"You have to know your way around the place. It's all very complicated," Thavis said. "You have to know the church's language, you have to know Italian, you have to know how to approach a Cardinal for an interview -- which is not the usual way. You write a letter or you make your introduction.


"But on the other hand, when it gets down to it, the journalism is essentially the same. It relies on you developing good sources and being able to call on them when you need them."

'The Vatican Diaries'

His book was aimed at seeing the Vatican from different points of view. The book has also landed on the New York Times best-seller list.

"I realized after 30 years of covering the Vatican that the public perception of the Vatican, I think, is kind of a caricature," Thavis said. "Most people consider the Vatican as this very powerful organization that operates with great efficiency and great coordination.

"In fact, the reality is quite different. You get inside the Vatican and you realize that quite often one office doesn't know what the other office is doing. It's literally the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing."

Sometimes issues the Vatican faces are simply oversights.

"I think we've seen over the years these kind of gaffes that have occurred, where because they didn't Google a bishop, they didn't know he was a Holocaust denier," Thavis said.

Journalists generally don't write about the things that go wrong at the Vatican or why they go wrong, because they don't have the space, Thavis said.


"So I wanted to write a book that explains the human side of the Vatican. And not just the bad side, but the good side," Thavis said. "The fact human beings work there, they're often trying their best and sometimes succeeding and sometimes not."

Another reason he wrote the book was to share stories he found interesting but didn't publish.

"I also wanted to write a book because I realized after 30 years covering the place, that the most interesting things about the Vatican were usually the things I came home and told my wife, and not the things I put in the news stories," Thavis said.

"I just felt this backstage story of the Vatican was fascinating and that the world didn't know about it."

Working for ABC News

For the duration of the conclave, Thavis planned to remain in Rome and work with ABC News.

"Mainly I'm giving interviews (for "The Vatican Diaries") and during the conclave, I work for ABC News as an on-air commentator," he said earlier this week. "I expect to be here until they have a new pope. And sometime soon after that I'll be getting back to Bemidji, where I hope there will still be some snow."

For more from Thavis, visit www.johnthavis.com .

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