*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 22nd of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Today on the show, we have a story about spying, clandestine meetings, the secrecy of the Vatican, and forgiveness just in time for Christmas.
In 2012 the Vatican was rocked by a series of leaked documents that suggested internal strife at the top of the church, shady banking deals, and possible blackmail.
As you might guess, the press was breathless with suggestions as to what this all *might* mean. Following this story in real-time, you may have been led to believe that the next tranche of leaks would topple the whole institution. This, of course, didn’t happen. But the controversy would hasten the shocking retirement of Pope Benedict- one of the only Popes ever to resign willingly.
What made the story so damaging to the Papacy wasn’t so much the content of the leaked documents but how documents from inside the Pope’s private chambers could have made it to the Italian press. Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi had been primarily concerned with the 6 billion dollar endowment and Vatican banking system, which had been under scrutiny. When he led off his nightly news program “the Untouchables” with a story with leaked letters about corruption, the hunt for the mole was on.
And within a few months, the press had a field day with variations on the headline: “the Butler did it.”
Paolo Gabriele had been working inside the Vatican for 20 years. He served under Pope John Paul II and had been the personal butler to Pope Benedict. The prosecution vacillated between painting Gabriele as either a criminal mastermind or pious simpleton. After Nuzzi began broadcasting the contents of the leaked material, Gabriele outed himself in private confession.
[A nice little part of the story involved the church’s inability to prosecute based solely on what was said in the confessional booth. Times have changed since the Inquisition]
Gabriele was raised just outside Vatican City and had worked as an artist before assisting at a local church. The story goes that one day a Vatican bishop visited the church that Gabriele worked at and noticed the impeccably clean bathrooms. As the story goes (and it sounds like a medieval saint’s tale), the bishop demanded to know who had cleaned it so perfectly and then offered Gabriele a job inside the Vatican.
Regardless of how he got in the door, he showed himself a good worker and was soon working in the Papal apartments and became a favorite of Pope John Paul II (Gabriele spoke polish like PJ2, so this helped).
The Papal butler retired when John Paul died, and Gabriele was hired as his replacement.
What motivated Gabriele was not contempt for the church or Pope Benedict. He claimed that he was working as an agent of the Holy Spirit. He believed that powerful men in the Vatican were thwarting the Pope’s reform initiatives. Gabriele said, “Seeing evil and corruption everywhere in the church, I finally reached a point of degeneration, a point of no return, and could no longer control myself.”
Because of his confession of the crime (he had troves of documents that were to be destroyed hidden in his apartment), there was no trial with discovery despite Benedict asking for one. And Benedict didn’t do so out of spite but rather to get a complete picture of what happened. Paolo Gabriele was imprisoned inside the Vatican, away from his wife and three children. Despite the controversy, it was thought that Benedict would have mercy on his former butler.
And it was on this, the 22nd of December in 2012, the Pope made his way to the Vatican prison where he met with his former butler. Benedict forgave and pardoned Paolo Gabriele in time for Christmas. He was banished from the Vatican but worked in an Italian children’s hospital until he died in 2020.
Regardless of your position on the papacy or leaking documents (it’s tricky, I know), it is a story of forgiveness and one during the Christmas season.
Our week of Christmas shows continues tomorrow.
The Last Word for today comes from one of the oldest advent/Christmas hymns- this is the last two stanzas of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," translated by John Mason Neale:
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.
O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 22nd of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Emmanuels include Kant and Lewis (the kid who played Webster). He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by who also received his job on account of his spotless bathroom. I am Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.