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from issue no. 06 - 2011

The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of L’Osservatore Romano

The most important thing is the foreign coverage

The most important thing is the foreign coverage, because in the general conformity out there to have a source that reports things with a certain objectivity is a privilege that should not be let slip. Interesting also is the selection, order and manner in which the foreign news is offered

by Giulio Andreotti

The distributors of <I>L’Osservatore Romano</I> in front of the printers in a 1936 photo [© Osservatore Romano]

The distributors of L’Osservatore Romano in front of the printers in a 1936 photo [© Osservatore Romano]


I would like to join the many who celebrated the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of L’Osservatore Romano on 1 July 2011. I do so as the doyen of the readers of the Holy See’s newspaper because, as I have said on other occasions, I began to buy it in the Jubilee Year 1933 at the newsstand near my home, the one of Via di Campo Marzio. I was fourteen years old and I used the money my mother gave me for a snack to buy L’Osservatore, which then cost twenty cents. The initial urge was the fact that buying it gave one an almost “aristocratic” and elitist tone. At the newsstand in via di Campo Marzio, in fact, I always saw a very elegant gentleman with a bowler hat buying it, and to give myself a certain air I began to do so, too. At home newspapers were not read, and my classmates who bought the Corriere dello Sport made a little fun of my daily reading, even if, by the end of the day, I had drawn to two sources (my Osservatore and their Corriere) whereas they only had one. I was just a child and I didn’t understand a lot, as when once the parish priest, seeing me with L’Osservatore, said: “Good, so every day you’ll know who was received by the Holy Father”. At that time it didn’t matter much to me, since it wasn’t me he was receiving, but later I got to see how news could also be conveyed through the list of audiences. As when, in September 1948, the very secular Ambassador to Washington Alberto Tarchiani was sent to Pius XII to explain to the Pope why it was a good thing for Italy to join the Atlantic Pact, something which was causing some hesitancy in the Vatican. The next day L’Osservatore did not report the news of the audience in the usual list on the front page, but a short note informed the reader of the presence in Rome of Ambassador Tarchiani. That, along with a report in the inside pages the following day on the rioting in the red zone of Berlin, gave De Gasperi and myself the feeling that an audience had taken place and had gone well.

Going back to the two decades of Fascism, it’s very important to remember that L’Osservatore was the only source of news about what was happening in Italy and in the world. Those were years, in fact, when it was forbidden to talk about Italian matters unless in terms of the communiqués of the regime’s Ministry of Popular Culture, and buying L’Osservatore was in a sense a risk, but it gave a certain quality to people, something almost incomprehensible today in that we are all equal in our conformism and at the same time all different in our individualism.

At that time the newspaper was boycotted and there were fascist pickets at the newsstand and some people like the historian Claudio Pavone got hurt buying it. Despite that, L’Osservatore was in such demand that the print run was more than two hundred thousand copies a day. It was the Acta diurna by Guido Gonella, who was L’Osservatore’s foreign news editor at the time, that was particularly sought-after and read carefully, because his reports were a very important window on the world. Through his column Gonella let news from foreign countries filter that the censored Italian press ignored or presented in outrageous fashion. The Acta diurna was a valuable source of international information that among other things brought closer to the world of the Church many people who were distant from it. But the whole of L’Osservatore had an important role that it is important to remember today: as when it made known the messages of solidarity that Pope Pius XII sent to Heads of State of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, invaded by Hitler’s army.

At that time, for us young people, even crossing the threshold of L’Osservatore’s editorial office was an honor and a noble title. Sometimes Gonella would receive me surreptitiously, infringing the rules of the editor, Count Giuseppe Dalla Torre, who did not want visitors in the editorial office. I didn’t think I’d been noticed, but many years later I read an interview in which the former editor of L’Osservatore recounted with some amusement that every time he went into Gonella’s office and I eclipsed myself behind the door, he would ask his editor: “Who is that guy?”

An interesting curiosity related to Count Giuseppe Dalla Torre: I once wrote to him saying that it was weird to introduce every speech of the Pope with the premise: “Just as we gathered from his august lips”, with an indication in brackets of the sources of the quotations, including Migne references. He replied: “Why don’t you say so to the Holy Father?” And the matter ended there.

Guido Gonella in the editorial offices of <I>L’Osservatore Romano</I> [© Osservatore Romano]

Guido Gonella in the editorial offices of L’Osservatore Romano [© Osservatore Romano]

There is recurrent discussion of the official or unofficial status of L’Osservatore. Once upon a time the official status was unquestionable. Today, maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that the newspaper has changed, because a newspaper reflects a situation: it’s just that times have changed and what appeared on the front page yesterday, today ends up on the last and vice versa. I think that even in terms of attitudes, to take up the middle way is always the best: being prudent, not pretending to have the last word, but always being convinced of stopping at the second last. In any case, tradition has its value, and sustaining an argument based on a quotation from L’Osservatore lends an authority that otherwise would not exist. Today as then: Palmiro Togliatti justified his vote in the Constituent Assembly in favor of the Lateran Pact by referring to the “signals” in L’Osservatore and advising Pietro Nenni not to underestimate them.

But if I were to say what was the most surprising “rap on the knuckles” given by L’Osservatore that I can remember, I would choose the one given to Cardinal Ottaviani when at government and institutional level relations were developing between Italy and the Soviet government. There was widespread disapproval in ecclesiastical circles given voice by Cardinal Ottaviani (otherwise a splendid figure of the Roman priest). In the aftermath, L’Osservatore stated in a few terse words that Cardinal Ottaviani “was expressing his own ideas”. Today we would consider it routine, but at the time in question, they were major turning points. Being of a slightly different opinion meant steering on one’s own.

But what role might L’Osservatore Romano play today in the midst of so many media?

The most important thing is the foreign coverage, because in the general conformity out there to have a source that reports things with a certain objectivity is a privilege that should not be let slip. Interesting also is the selection, order and manner in which the foreign news is offered. Because that, too, is a judgment – an evaluation – even if implicit, that reveals what is being thought. For the rest, not being qualified, I leave the assessment of the Vatican news and articles on theology to the churchmen.

However, I would like to end my message of greeting to L’Osservatore with a quotation from Vittorio Bachelet that L’Osservatore published a few years ago in its column of spiritual thoughts and which I still keep among my papers because of its enduring relevance: “The times we find ourselves in are not easy: political difficulties, uncertainties, contradictions, warn us that the road will not be without risks, which will require all our sense of responsibility, especially all our simple faith, all our lively hope, all our truest charity”.

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