Looking Back at L'Osservatore Romano

Authored By: Mons. Robert J. Dempsey

Looking Back at L'Osservatore Romano

Mons. Robert J. Dempsey*

The beginnings of the Holy Father's newspaper

Not everyone knows that the Holy Father has his own newspaper, and even those familiar with L'Osservatore Romano are not always aware of the fact that there is a weekly English edition delivered by air mail all over the world. Here is the story of the Pope's own weekly English newspaper.

The beginnings of L'Osservatore Romano go back to 1848, when Pope Pius IX was trying to preserve the Papal States from those Italian nationalists (such as Cavour) who felt that the new state of Italy had tohave a secular Rome for its capital, and those anticlerical liberals who maintained that the Catholic Church was the greatest enemy of progress and had to be eliminated or at least reduced to insignificance. After the abortive revolutions in Europe that year (even in Rome a "republic" was proclaimed and the Holy Father was forced to seek refuge in the Kingdom of Naples), a certain limited freedom of the press was permitted, resulting in a whole spectrum of political opinions being disseminated by a wide range of what turned out to be rather ephemeral publications.

Italian Catholics living in the Papal States felt they had to present their case as well. In June of 1848 a privately printed, but officially approved paper appeared on the Roman scene. Called Il Costituzionale Romano, it was a triweekly but, despite its fidelity to the papal cause, was shut down following the collapse of the "Roman Republic" the following year. In September of 1849 the paper returned with a new name, L'Osservatore Romano. It too was a privately financed triweekly that went daily in 1851, but suspended publication in 1852.

In the summer of 186o plans were finally made for a "political and religious" daily under the strict control of the papal government. The following year the Assistant Minister for the Interior, Marcantonio Pacelli (grandfather of the future Pius XII), entrusted the paper we know today as L'Osservatore Romano to the editorial direction of Nicola Zanchini and Giuseppe Bastia, two refugees from the Romagna, an Italian region that had formerly belonged to the Papal States. Publication began on July 1861 and has continued to the present day, except for a few months following the capture of Rome by Italian troops in 1870.

Although under the supervision of the Holy See, the paper was privately owned until 189o. Since then it has belonged to the Vatican, although it continued to be printed in the city of Rome until the Lateran Treaty was signed in 1929. Pius xi then decided to move the entire operation inside the newly established Vatican City State to make clear its independence from Italy, a farsighted decision, the wisdom of which would become apparent in a few short years. The newspaper's offices are still located in the same building on Via del Pellegrino within the walls of Vatican City.

The paper's fate during World War II is the stuff of which motion pictures are made. The Italian Catholic press was silenced by the Fascist government, but since Vatican City State was an independent country, its newspaper (at least in theory) ought to have been freely distributed. It was — but only in Vatican City! Circulating the paper outside the Leonine walls was another story.

Heroic service at the time was rendered by the Salesians, whom Pius xi had asked to assume administrative responsibility for the paper's production in 1937. The paper was distributed in the leading Italian cities by the Salesians personally, using their own means of transportation. In Rome, the paper was confiscated and burned at the train station and other newsstands. People who came into the Vatican to buy the newspaper (the only place where it could be sold) would be beaten up by Fascist thugs as they crossed the border back into Italy — and the police had orders not to intervene! Yet L'Osservatore Romano continued to be printed, even after the business office was struck by a bomb on 17 March 1944. Even so, it was subjected to strong criticism on the many occasions it dared to speak in the name of justice and truth. For many, however, it was the only free voice.

It has frequently been said that L'Osservatore Romano is one of the Church's best kept secrets. That "secrecy", though, was not something Pius XII liked; if the Pope was going to have a newspaper to publicize his teaching, that paper should reach as many people as possible. As a result, in 1947 L'Osservatore began to appear in a weekly edition. Printing only the Pope's addresses, official information of the Holy See, and religious essays of broad interest, this weekly Italian paper was sold on parish pamphlet racks and in religious bookstores. To this day, the weekly Italian edition is known around the Vatican as the "parroci", since it is meant for parish priests and their people. The learned Pius XII, however, knew that a Vatican newspaper only appearing in Italian would never have a very wide readership, and so he directed Mons. Montini (later Paul VI) to make the necessary arrangements for a weekly edition in French. Making its debut in December of 1949, the French edition was intended especially for the rapidly growing Catholic communities in the French and Belgian colonies, particularly in Africa.

The real internationalization of L'Osservatore Romano began at the close of the Second Vatican Council. During the Council many Bishops expressed a desire to have the Pope's addresses in their own languages, along with the more important information about the Church and the Roman Curia. Pope Paul agreed and entrusted the then Sostituto (Substitute) of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Giovanni Benelli, with the task of making all the necessary arrangements. For many years there had been a small, privately published Spanish edition printed in Buenos Aires. Publication was moved to Rome in 19 69 and Fr (Bishop) Cipriano Calderon became the first editor (who died in 2009).

Meanwhile, an English-language edition had already appeared in 1968, under the direction of Fr Lambert Greenan, a Dominican from that most Catholic of English-speaking countries, Ireland. The first issue appeared on April 4th with a large photograph of Pope Paul vi and a handwritten message: "We welcome the English weekly edition of 'L'Osservatore Romano', and we impart to all those engaged in this enterprise and to all the faithful of the countries to which it is destined our apostolic blessing". Editions also appeared in Portuguese (1969), German (1970) and a monthly edition in Polish (1980). The most recent addition to the L'Osservatore family is the Malayalam language version of the English edition (2008). Each edition has its own editor and staff, but is considered part of one newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, whose Editorin-Chief is Professor Giovanni Maria Vian, who formerly taught patristic philology at La Sapienza University in Rome. In November of 1990 the weekly editions all switched to the latest computerized photocomposition technology, improving the appearance of the newspaper. Then in 2010 they received a new editorial system, permitting the more rapid preparation of material.

The daily Italian edition, the six weeklies, and the one monthly allhave the same purpose: the reliable, authoritative presentation of the Pope's teachings, the publication of the acts and documents of the Holy See, and theological comments and study on timely issues the Church is facing today. Frequently the question is asked: is L'Osservatore Romano the Vatican's official newspaper? To be precise, the Holy See has only one official publication in the strict canonical and theological sense of the term and that journal is the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. What then is the status of L'Osservatore Romano?

Here the subtle nuances of curial Italian escape easy English definition. The paper is said to be ufficioso, which, according to a leading Italian dictionary, means "news or information which, although not of an official nature, is nevertheless sufficiently reliable since it comes from sources close to the competent authority or under its direction". In English we sometimes say "semiofficial", which is probably as close as you can get to capturing the idea. In short, L'Osservatore Romano is the Holy See's "quasi-official" English-language newspaper and, hence, the most authoritative source of English-language information in the Catholic Church.

And for that reason people who read us are not looking for the latest news, but for "official" information and documentation. If you want a journalist's summary of what the Pope said or a columnist's opinion of what it means, read your diocesan newspaper or a news magazine. But if you want to know what the Holy Father actually said and to read it in the most reliable translation available, read L'Osservatore Romano.

The weekly English edition publishes the Pope's homilies, speeches, and prayers, with photographs of his ceremonies in St Peter's Basilica and of all his trips across the world. In addition, there are theological essays by noted Catholic thinkers, important addresses by Cardinals and Archbishops of the Roman Curia, as well as up-to-date listings of all the Pope's private audiences and official appointments.

Anyone can subscribe to the paper, but, given its authoritative, quasi-official" nature, many readers are Cardinals, Bishops, ambassadors, political officials and others who need accurate, reliable information about the Church's teaching and activity. Nevertheless, many ordinary lay people read L'Osservatore Romano too, because they find great spiritual nourishment in the Pope's homilies and speeches, particularly the catechesis he gives every Wednesday at the General Audience, and they know that whatever is published in the Holy Father's own newspaper is genuinely Catholic.

Consequently, the English L'Osservatore has readers on every continent and subscribers even in countries as diverse as Japan and Estonia, where English is the vehicular language and readers know that a newspaper sent by air mail each week direct from Vatican City is the best way for them to stay informed not only about the Holy Father, but about the Church's activity on the international level.

The most telling comment about L'Osservatore Romano was made by John C. Miller, a historian of journalism: "L'Osservatore Romano has seen persecutors and dictators come and go. In war as in peace it has presented news and opinion with a serenity and sense of history one could expect from organ published in the shadow of St Peter's. The paper's influence far outstrips its modest circulation. Leading churchmen around the world take the paper; also many other opinion and political leaders read it. Even the Kremlin has a subscription. The paper is widely quoted throughout the world — from the pulpit, from the press, and from radio and television" (John C. Miller, The Elite Press: Great Newspapers of the World, New York, 1968).

The newspaper's philosophy is summed up in the two phrases that appear on the masthead of every issue: Unicuique suum, "to each his own", the classic Roman definition of justice; and Non praevalebunt, "they [the gates of hell] shall not prevail". After 150 years, the mission of L'Osservatore Romano is the same: to be the clear and reliable voice of the Holy Father in the world of the printed word, both for the passing moment and as an everlasting record.

Courtesy of "Our Sunday Visitor's The Catholic Answer magazine"


*Rev. Mons. Parish Priest of St Philip the Apostle Church in Northfield, Illinois, USA; former Editor of the English edition

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 July 2011, page 10

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
880 Park Avenue
P.O. Box 777
Baltimore, MD 21203
Phone: (443) 263-0248
Fax: (443) 524-3155

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