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from issue no. 09 - 2007

«The confrontation of ideas is always positive»

Giovanni Maria Vian, the new editor of L’Osservatore Romano, talks about himself. His father’s friendship with Montini. His studies. His work as historian and University Professor of Patristic Philology. His passion for journalism

Interview with Giovanni Maria Vian by Gianni Cardinale

On 29 September the change in the top management of the official daily paper of the Holy See was announced. Mario Agnes, 76 years old in December, who ran L’Osservatore Romano from 1984, was named editor emeritus. The new editor in charge of the pontifical paper is 55 year-old Giovanni Maria Vian. After thirteen years of “sede vacante” an assistant editor, Carl Di Cicco (cf. box), has also been appointed.
Vian, a historian of Christianity, is university professor of Patristic Philology at La Sapienza University of Rome, and part-time professor at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University of Milan, where he teaches the History of Christian Tradition and Identity. Since 1999 he has been a member of the Papal Committee of Historical Sciences. Author of about ninety specialist studies, he has published, among other things, the volumes Bibliotheca divina. Filologia e storia dei testi cristiani [Divine Library. Philology and history of the Christian texts] (Carocci, 2001, three editions; Spanish translation, Ediciones Cristiandad, 2005, two editions) and La donazione di Costantino [The donation of Constantine] (il Mulino, 2004, three editions). Since 1976 he has been editor and scientific adviser of the Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia. Editorial writer for Avvenire and Giornale di Brescia, he has written for various daily papers and periodicals, among them L’Osservatore Romano (from 1977 to 1987) and the fortnightly of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart Vita e Pensiero.
In response to a request by 30Giorni, Vian agreed to answer some questions about his human and intellectual biography, whereas he politely declined every invitation to speak about the future editorial slant of L’Osservatore Romano. Not least because the appointment becomes effective on Saturday 27 October and the first copy of L’Osservatore Romano edited by him will be that dated Sunday 28.

Giovanni Maria Vian

Giovanni Maria Vian

Professor, you are not the first one of your family, Venetian in origin, who has been involved with L’Osservatore Romano. Your grandfather Agostino, who had very good relations with Saint Pius X, had already worked for it...
GIOVANNI MARIA VIAN: In effect, there was a strong tie between my grandfather Agostino, who worked with the daily newspaper of the Holy See, and Pius X. The wedding of my paternal grandparents was the last one celebrated by Patriarch Giuseppe Sarto before leaving for the conclave of 1903. My grandfather was a civil servant, but renounced a probably brilliant career by his involvement in the Catholic movement.
Your grandfather, who was a figure in the Works of the Congresses, breathed the air of the Catholic intransigency widespread in the Venice area around the turn of the 19th century. Did something of that air remain in your lungs?
VIAN: Pius X was certainly an intransigent on religious questions, but very malleable on political ones. Pope Sarto, different from his immediate predecessors (Pius IX and Leo XIII), was not born in the Papal State and did not show any nostalgia for temporal power. So much so that he was the first Pontiff to soften – also for antisocialist purposes – the non expedit that prevented Catholics from participating actively in Italian political life. He was then a great reformer Pope, who on the Modernist issue understood very well what was at stake and the dangers for the faith of the Church. Unfortunately his reputation is now mainly linked to the fashion in which Modernism was fought, often with means dishonorable for the cause it intended to defend.
But do you feel heir of the Catholic intransigency of your grandfather, or not?
VIAN: What binds me to my grandfather is certainly intransigent fidelity to the Holy See – naturally without indulging in the obsequiousness that can reach sickly forms of popolatry – and a conscience that must always remain on the alert.
Your father Nello was a personal friend of Paul VI. You yourself received baptism from Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini. What do you remember of that friendship?
VIAN: Montini had the gift of knowing how to cultivate friendship. And the one with my father is one of the many examples of that ability. It was a friendship that was felt and not exhibited, of which perhaps only my mother was aware. So much so that many aspects of the relationship have come to light, for me and my brothers Lorenzo and Paolo also, only after the death of our father, thanks to his papers.
You were christened by Montini in Saint Peter’s. The ANSA news agency has described you as a “Montinian”. Do you recognize yourself in the description?
VIAN: Yes, mainly in one sense: Montini was above all a priest who brought many souls close to Christ and a great Pope who tried to testify to Him to the modern world. With a clear awareness always, at times dramatic, of the particular role of Peter’s successor. In this sense I try always to keep before my eyes the example of this great witness of Jesus in our time.
You attended the Virgilio Classical High School in Rome at a time of great ecclesial ferment...
VIAN: It was so in fact. And in the school of Via Julia the experience was very strong of the “beam”, from which Communion and Liberation would then be born and the Community of Saint Egidio. I, too, for some time, sympathized with that experience.
You are university professor of Patristic Philology. How did the passion for such a specialist discipline come about?
VIAN: When I enrolled at La Sapienza university I wanted to graduate in Spanish and Latin American Literature. But the lectures did not enthuse me, and then – following the advice of my father – I began to attend the courses given by Manlio Simonetti, a student of Ettore Paratore, and I was fascinated. I also attended the wonderful seminars of the medievalist Raoul Manselli – he held them at eight in the morning and was never interrupted by the student protesters, who never arrived in the faculty before eleven... – and those of Clara Kraus Reggiani, expert in Philo and Hellenistic Judaism. Simonetti made me love philology as a research method, educating me in rigor, the ability to investigate documents and pay attention to the texts.
At the same time you have been a freelance journalist since the ’Seventies...
VIAN: I’ve always had a passion for newspapers. At home the Corriere della Sera and L’Osservatore Romano were subscibed to, arriving punctually towards five o’clock. On my part, while still at high school, I added to the family “package” the newly founded Avvenire and Il Giorno, for which Aldo Moro wrote. Then, in 1973 I began to write for the Catholic daily newspaper. My first article was on the codices of Horace in the Vatican Library, often transcribed by the medieval monks: classics and Christians, precisely the title of my teacher’s latest book, recently published by Medusa...
Have you never had the temptation to abandon the academy and go full time into journalism?
VIAN: In 1975 I was offered the editorship of Avvenire. The temptation was strong. My father was not enthusiastic about it and he rather encouraged me to continue my studies, pointing to the example of patrologists and philologists who were family friends, people such as Cardinal Michele Pellegrino, Giuseppe Lazzati, and the Benedictines Jean Gribomont and Henri de Sainte-Marie, editors of the Vulgata. I heeded his advice. However the experience in journalism has taught me the need to speak with everyone and the lesson of synthesis: I owe a great deal to fine professionals and friends such as Silvano Stracca, Angelo Narducci, Angelo Paoluzi, Pier Giorgio Liverani, Dino Boffo – the editor who greatly renewed the Catholic daily newspaper – and Roberto Righetto, at Avvenire, and Giacomo Scanzi, the student of Giorgio Rumi who now edits Giornale di Brescia.
As soon as you graduated you became a scholarship holder at the Institute for Religious Sciences of Bologna, headed by Professor Giuseppe Alberigo. Is it true that you declined his proposal to join the staff?
VIAN: I still remember with pleasure, and also with a little nostalgia, that September passed in 1975 in Bologna. It was a beautiful and rich experience. I then got to know scholars such as Pier Cesare Bori, Mauro Pesce, Paolo Pombeni, Daniele Menozzi. Lorenzo Perrone, Paolo Bettiolo. At the end, Alberigo proposed to some of us that we stay on with a two–year renewable scholarship. The proposal was very tempting, with the prospect also of studying outside Italy. The militant choice of Alberigo for a John XXIII opposed to Paul VI did not convince me. Therefore I didn’t say yes. And in the following April I won a scholarship from the National Research Council with Simonetti and began to collaborate with the Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia. It went that way and I’m content.
Subsequently you often entered into polite argument with exponents of the so-called Bologna School. Do you regret those controversies?
VIAN: Not at all, neither for the method nor for the content. The confrontation of ideas, even when vigorous, is always positive, on condition that it’s precise and respectful of the adversary. And then, I was never convinced, nor am I convinced now, by the absolutization of the Council promoted by the so-called school of Bologna, the tendency that is to separate Vatican II from the living tradition of the Church, as if it was a radically new beginning that risks obscuring the continuity and development of Christian history. In this sense the speech of Benedict XVI on 22 December 2005 and the motu proprio Summorum pontificum are exemplary, also from the historical point of view. Saying this, I consider Alberigo an important historian of the Church and the Storia del Vaticano II [The History of Vatican II] edited by him as a remarkable work, even if not definitive.
You mentioned at the beginning your collaboration with the Institute of the Italian Encyclopedia...
VIAN: Along with the university and journalism it was the third stage in my training. I entered there in 1976 and from 1984 on I began to deal with the “ecclesiastical matters”. It was then that I came to know the reference canonist of the encyclopedia, Professor Tarcisio Bertone, then Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law at the Pontifical Salesian University. At the Institute then I learned a great deal from scholarly friends such as Vincenzo Cappelletti, Paolo Zippel, Tullio Gregory, Paolo Mazzantini, Francisco Paolo Casavola.
The old editors of L’Osservatore Romano remember your reports greatly involved with the meetings in Taizé. What fascinated and fascinates you about that experience?
VIAN: In the summer of 1973, on return from traveling in Spain, I hitchhiked to Taizé. It was a Saturday afternoon, and the so-called liturgy of light was being celebrated. I was dazzled, just as had happened to a friend in 2001 who didn’t know the community and who was deeply struck by the silence cultivated in their liturgies. In 1974, at the opening of “The Youth Council”, I met a neighbor there, the austere and rather taciturn Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, emissary of Paul VI. In 1977 I returned with Margarita, who I married in 1984 and who died in 2000. Taizé is an experience – begun by Roger Schutz with some companions, among whom Max Thurian – who came out of a Protestant milieu but soon opened to Catholicism. I was always struck in the community by the simultaneous presence of hearing the Scriptures, the beauty of the liturgy and Eucharistic centrality, inherent elements of the great Christian traditions: Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic. In a situation of encounter with God that never wanted to become a movement.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State, on a visit to the editorial office of <I>L’Osservatore Romano</I> on 25 september 2007

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State, on a visit to the editorial office of L’Osservatore Romano on 25 september 2007

Have you ever had contacts with the other ecumenical situation of Bose?
VIAN: I went in 1992, meeting there a cousin of my father, a sister in the community. It is an experience that – due also to Enzo Bianchi – seems to me incisive from the cultural and spiritual point of view, and one that can contribute to reconciliation in the Church and friendship with many laity.
Some of your articles in Il Foglio have earned you the reputation of “theocon”. What impression does the description make on you?
VIAN: It makes me smile a little. I’ve collaborated very willingly with the daily paper founded by Giuliano Ferrara, which has raised the level of Italian journalism a lot and enriched the cultural debate, and it is reductive to describe Il Foglio as a “theocon” newspaper. On the other hand I have also written for Europa, and haven’t been described as “theodem” because of that...
You are the author of more than ninety publications. Which do you feel most fond of?
VIAN: The book I’m most fond of is Bibliotheca divina, a history of the Christian texts from the origins of the Scriptures up to the 1900s. But the proposal of Ernesto Galli della Loggia to reconstruct, for the collection “The Italian identity “, published by il Mulino, the history of the donation of Constantine also fascinated me and, thanks to that, the vicissitudes of the relationship between religion and politics from early Christianity up to John Paul II. And I hope, sooner or later, to return to the very long entry that I devoted to Paul VI in the Enciclopedia dei Papi. Meanwhile, I have edited an anthology of writings by Montini with the title Carità intellettuale (Edizioni Biblioteca of Via Senato, 2005), which without any publicity has gone into two editions.
Since 1999 you have been on the Papal Committee of Historical Sciences.
VIAN: I was invited there by the president Monsignor Walter Brandmüller and am proud to belong to that small body of the Holy See, little known but absolutely respected.
A last curiosity. It is true that you revised the list of the Roman Pontiffs set at the beginning of every edition of the Annuario pontificio? And what was your most significant revision?
VIAN: I made a first revision for the edition of 2000, and the most striking intervention was to restore Pope Damasus to Rome. Up until 1999 he had traditionally been considered Spanish.

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