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A universal newspaper

· From the book ‘Singolarissimo giornale’ published for the 150th anniversary of ‘L'Osservatore Romano’ ·

In the past 50 years of publishing L’Osservatore Romano has without any doubt been a special newspaper. It is a newspaper that has always been distinguished by the original focus it gives to the information it provides, by having, from a certain moment, a very special editor and, finally, by the breadth of the public it addresses, which is not restricted to any one geographical area or to allegiance to any particular political party.

In fact, the cultural and political horizons of the newspaper have, over the course of time, gone beyond the confines of Italy; the paper had the ambition to become a universal newspaper, that is to say catholic in the most literal sense of the word.

Moreover, it is an important historical fact that in the second half of the 20th century, in addition to the traditional daily edition in Italian it expanded to offer weekly publications in seven other languages: Italian, Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, German and Malayalam, as well as a monthly edition in Polish.

L’Osservatore Romano has always been a newspaper that is small in size compared to the structures of the great international media, yet over the course of the years it has succeeded in embracing the whole world with an authority and validity that few can compare with. Its authority probably stems from two characteristics of the paper: its universal vocation and its prestige, which together are the great resources of the newspaper of the Holy See that is, still today, one of the best-known newspapers in the world.

The limited number of its pages and its low print run have in fact never affected the quality of the news it offers and its capacity for penetrating the important events that have engaged world public opinion.

Over the course of the years, the paper has lost its initial polemic spirit, which arose from the particular political and cultural climate that led to the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, and has been able to combine its role as a newspaper with its official role — publishing, for example the list of Audiences, of papal appointments and press releases concerning the activity of the Pope and of the Holy See — covering those international events that have involved the most unknown regions of the globe, even those that are the most remote, which have never been included on the public agendas of the great heads of State.

From this point of view it could be said that with its traditional attention to every corner of the earth, L’Osservatore Romano anticipated by many decades the kind of international journalism that is so fashionable today, which developed in step with the emergence of the complex socio-political phenomenon that is globalization. The foreign policy news and the cultural pages of L’Osservatore Romano are from many points of view lessons, examples of on-the-spot journalism which always prompt reflection and intellectual curiosity.

However, if its official connection with the Holy See and its universal vocation have provided the paper with that dimension of authority and renown mentioned above, they have, on the other hand, certainly not facilitated the role of the editors who have succeeded one another in recent decades. And in fact, in 1961, on the occasion of the daily paper’s first centenary, the then Cardinal Montini, the future Paul VI, did not hesitate to stress, with a trace of irony, that L’Osservatore Romano was a very difficult newspaper to compose because it had to combine the special needs of the Vatican with the limited means available.

In spite of the precariousness of the technical means available to them, however, one cannot but emphasize that the figures who succeeded one another at the helm of the daily proved well able to steer the newspaper with a firm hand through the stormy seas of the last years of the 19th century and the upheavals of the 20th.

For this reason too, L’Osservatore Romano constitutes a source of indisputable historical value and, is in many aspects, an irreplaceable document for all scholars of Church history today. There are at least three reasons for this. First of all, because it enables one to understand, from an original angle, the development of relations between State and Church and some of the internal dynamics of the ecclesial world which, in most cases, were not recounted by any other organ of the press.

A reflection on the Holy See’s newspaper, therefore, is useful not only in order to analyze how “the Vatican recounts itself”, but also in order to understand the important political and spiritual guidelines that have alternated in the course of 150 years of history, and in the second place, to understand, at a wide-ranging historical and cultural level, all the cultural influences that have shaped the line taken by the paper, the intellectual elite that has directly inspired it and the major debates that have distinguished it.

Indeed top-ranking intellectuals and journalists have written in the Vatican newspaper, enthusiastic Christians, important exponents of the Catholic world and editors who have contributed to writing the history of journalism, such as, for example, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, who edited the paper for 40 years from 1920 to 1960, and Raimondo Manzini, who edited it from 1960 to 1978.

And besides them, it is impossible not to stress the journalistic commitment of one of the most important statesmen of modern Italy, Alcide De Gasperi, or the very well-known column of Guido Gonella, “Acta diurna”.

Last but not least, reflecting on the history of this newspaper can be extremely useful for analyzing the way in which the Holy See has projected itself in the world and embodied that unavoidable call to spread the Gospel message.

Of course, a change in editor changes the cultural frame of reference and can change opinions on a specific historical event. Yet what has remained unaltered in the history of L’Osservatore Romano is the authoritativeness that the paper has succeeded in embodying. An authorativeness which, even in an age marked by the speed of the Internet, has never been lacking. And that unmistakable afternoon printing, though it might seem an obsolete reminiscence of the past, continues to endow it with a special fascination that only a newspaper with 150 years of history can possess.




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 14, 2019