Vatican expert presents at DMD, discusses papal visit and new book

Categories: Around the Diocese,DMD

10-11 Thavis

John Thavis talks about his experiences on papal trips at Diocesan Ministry Day. (Paul Middlestaedt / For The Visitor)

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He grew up in Minnesota and graduated from St. John’s University. In 1983, he took a job reporting with Catholic News Service and began covering the Vatican daily, traveling with St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to more than 60 countries. In 2012, he retired from CNS to devote his time to writing. He has written two books, “The Vatican Diaries” and “The Vatican Prophecies,” set to be released Sept. 15. 

Thavis presented two workshops at Diocesan Ministry Day, “Papal Trips and Pope Culture: Behind the Scenes at the Vatican” and “Pope Francis and the Promise of Vatican II.” Afterward, he spoke with The Visitor about Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the U.S. as well as his new book.  

Q. What do you think will be Pope Francis’ main message or theme when he visits the U.S.?

Thavis: I think one of his messages is going to be justice. I think that will unfold in many different areas: on the issue of migration, the economy, even on the issue of prisoners and the way they are treated. This trip began as kind of a trip to the power corridor of the northeast — the United Nations, the White House and Congress — and it still is that, but he has also added on some very significant events of his own. I think he wants to underline how Catholic churches help the poor, visit the prisoners and help the needy. He is visiting a school in Harlem that operates as a school and as a social center. He’s going to visit Catholic Charities in Washington and meet with the people they serve, and he’s going to visit a prison in Philadelphia. I think it’s important for this pope that he actually gets close to the people.

Q. How will this trip be different from other trips he’s taken?  

Thavis: It’s his first trip ever to the U.S. Previous trips have primarily taken him to developing areas of the world. This trip he is going to Cuba, a very poor country 90 miles away, and he comes from there to the richest country in the world. So obviously we’re going to hear about the contrast. He’s not going to lecture Americans about their economic wealth, but he’s certainly going to challenge us to work for a global economy that is more equitable.

Q: What impresses you most about Pope Francis?

Thavis: What impresses me is his ability to move away from what I would call the “prison” of the papacy. For a person who is elected pope, they have to give up, in many ways, doing things that a normal person does. Pope Francis, as much as possible, has tried to remain a normal person. He’s moved into a very small apartment in the Vatican, he drives an old car, he eats with ordinary people at his meals and he tries to be close to people. This is very important, I think, because the church can preach all it wants about justice and about being close to people and bringing them the good news, but if the pope is locked up in a little gilded box it’s hard for him to embody that. Pope Francis wants to practice what he preaches.

Q: Tell us a little about your new book, “The Vatican Prophecies.” Why did you choose the topic of the supernatural for your book?

Thavis: I chose the topic because there is an interesting tension inside the church when it comes to things that are supernatural, and I am talking here about apparitions, miracles, private revelations, even veneration of relics. This tension goes back to the Gospel when the Pharisees came up to Jesus and said, ‘Give us a sign that proves you are God.’ This has run through the church for 2,000 years and people are still thirsting after that tangible sign that gives them a little more assurance about the faith. The Vatican has an interesting relationship with all of this. On the one hand, it has to be open to the idea that miracles can occur. The Vatican investigates and approves some miracles for sainthood causes. On the other hand, it has to be very careful about content. It doesn’t want anything that will confuse the Catholic faithful or leave them doubting or lead them astray.

Q: What is your favorite story from your book?

Thavis: It’s the story of three young people in Kansas, all three athletes [who] were struck down during athletic competitions by illness or injury, were left for dead and miraculously recovered, or at least they believed they recovered miraculously after prayers to a certain priest who came from their area in Kansas. He was a chaplain in the Korean War, Father Emil Kapaun. His sainthood cause has been sitting at the Vatican for a few years now because he was a hero during the Korean War who died in a Chinese prison camp. People were saying he should’ve been named a saint a long time ago but they were waiting for a miracle. Now they have three to choose from and it’s just fascinating.