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Veteran of the Vatican Information Service (Part 1 of 2)

Interview With Joan Lewis

VATICAN CITY, DEC. 15, 2004 (Zenit) - Striking among the aspects of John Paul II's pontificate is his relationship with the media.

With this in mind, journalist Joan Lewis of the Vatican Information Service explains how her work has changed over the years. Part 2 of this interview will appear Thursday.

Q: You have led an extraordinary life to date with a record 25 years as a Vatican journalist. How did you get involved in this lifestyle-vocation?

Lewis: Well, your time frame is accurate because I began writing about the Vatican for a number of U.S. publications in 1979.

Prior to that I had been working at the New York Times Rome office, and when they downsized their staff I decided to continue writing and to specialize in the Church and the Vatican because the Church was -- and always has been -- at the center of my life and also something about which I knew a fair amount but wanted to learn more.

Thus, I began writing and contacting newspapers in the U.S. who might be interested in a correspondent with specialized knowledge of the Vatican.

At that time of course, there was no Internet or anything, and one had to write real letters -- real carbon paper, real envelopes and stamps, etc. I started out by writing news articles that were not too time-based and sent them, along with an introductory letter -- to 30 newspapers.

Three of these then replied, asking me to be their correspondent in Rome. And journalist friends told me a 10% return was astounding! But I believe in my heart that it was less my writing and more Pope John Paul II -- the new Roman Pontiff -- who piqued their curiosity and interest in the Church.

Through the articles that I wrote for these papers, including the Wall Street Journal, which wanted pieces on the Church and economic policies and affairs, the U.S.-based weekly, the National Catholic Register, became aware of my work and asked me in 1980 to open up a Rome office and to be their first bureau chief.

I headed their Rome bureau for six years until I returned to California in late December 1985. In the spring of 1990 I came back to Rome on vacation.

One of my stops, of course, was at the Holy See Press Office to see old friends, during which time I was invited to meet with a certain Mr. Pietro Brunori -- now Father Brunori and living in Argentina -- of the Vatican Information Service. I was intrigued as I had never heard of either one!

He told me that Pope John Paul II -- the great communicator, as we all know -- was anxious to have news from the Roman Curia and the Vatican reach the world's bishops and nuncios in a timely fashion and on a daily basis, as this was not happening around the world in a uniform way.

The Pope wanted complete, unbiased and unfiltered news to reach the bishops. He asked if the technology and personnel was available, and, in fairly short order, the Church had a new office -- and the Vatican Information Service, VIS, was born.

Q: So what exactly does the Vatican Information Service do?

Lewis: In very poor words, VIS is a kind of Vatican wire service that provides a daily news bulletin in four languages on the magisterium of the Church and the teachings, speeches and writings of the Holy Father.

We also offer news about all offices of the Roman Curia, press conferences, Vatican publications, news from Holy See representatives abroad and at international agencies, and lists of nominations and audiences.

We are an independent office of the Curia but are within the framework of the Holy See Press Office. This is very, very important for one reason: Only the Press Office, and thus VIS, are the official voices of the Holy See.

Obviously, the No. 1 source of news is the Holy Father: anything he does, says, writes; his travels, etc. Heads of Roman dicasteries also contribute with news about their activities, ranging from new publications, bulletins, declarations or overseas visits, etc.

So, VIS encapsulates the news of the universal Church as it emanates from Rome. We are not a diocesan newspaper even for this diocese. We are just the voice for the news that comes from the Holy See.

Q: How has the Vatican Information Service changed throughout the years?

Lewis: Originally, the Holy Father asked people in the Curia, including Dr. Joaquín Navarro Valls, director of the Holy See Press Office, and also outside experts, to look at the technology available for such a news service. In 1990 the best option was fax, so we began by faxing the news from the Vatican to those who subscribed.

We made a giant leap into the future when the Internet became part of our lives and now, via e-mail, tens of thousands of people around the world subscribe to VIS. ...

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