Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

A 'scandal' the Vatican should love

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 21, 2010

With all the nasty reports in circulation these days, you'd think a weary Vatican PR team would snap at the opportunity for a change of pace. Here's the recipe:

  • a light, funny, personal-interest story, on a subject that Italian columnists would love;
  • a story that doesn't involve any major issues of faith or morals;
  • a story that doesn't endanger anyone's reputation (although it could boost the reputation of a certain establishment in Rome); 
  • a story that makes the Pope sound very human, without any damage to his legitimate authority;
  • a story that adds to the rich treasury of legends about the city of Rome. 

And here's the story: According to a Roman gossip columnist, on the evening of June 14, Al Passetto di Borgo, a restaurant just a few steps from St. Peter's Square, was closed to the public, as usual on a Monday evening. But, the columnist says, the restaurant opened to serve one very special customer: Pope Benedict XVI.

The Vatican denies the story. But let's not let that denial stop us. Face it: the Vatican denies things reflexively. The press office hands out information on a "need to know" basis, and nobody needs to know where the Pope had dinner last Monday night. For that matter, the people who are issuing the denials might not know the facts here; if the Pope was hoping to slip out of the Vatican undetected, it stands to reason that he wouldn't inform his whole staff.

The restaurant owner denies it. But that means very little. If he was asked to keep things quiet, no doubt he would. I'm still not convinced.

It was a waiter who reportedly tipped off the gossip columnist. To me that sounds entirely plausible. Waiters, too, rely on tips. 

The background story is not only plausible, but thoroughly endearing. The streets of Rome were nearly deserted that night; the Azzurri were playing Paraguay at their World Cup opener, and soccer fans-- a category that embraces a large proportion of the Italian population-- were glued to the tube. Maybe Pope Benedict, who is not a big sports fan, saw an opportunity for a rare night outside the Vatican walls. Or maybe, better still, his ordinary cook is a big soccer fan and wanted the night off. It's an established fact that Al Passetto di Borgo was one of his favorite restaurants before the conclave of 2005. The facts all fit.

Dining out at a restaurant is Something That Is Not Done by Roman Pontiffs. But really, why not? Long after the fact, we learned that Pope John Paul II would occasionally slip out of the apostolic palace incognito for a day on the ski slopes. Those outings didn't hurt anyone, and dinner at a restaurant is a much safer activity than skiing. 

Is the story true? I sincerely hope so. 

Next time you're in Rome, why not stop at Al Passetto di Borgo, order the sole, and with a nod toward the apostolic palace, say that you want it done just the way "he" likes it? If you catch a gleam in the waiter's eye, that's confirmation enough.

Better yet, don't wait for confirmation. Just pass along the rumor. Yes, I know that's irresponsible journalism. But this story is too much fun to pass up.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jun. 24, 2010 12:19 PM ET USA

    "The press office hands out information on a "need to know" basis, and nobody needs to know where the Pope had dinner last Monday night...." More power to him!

  • Posted by: samuel.doucette1787 - Jun. 23, 2010 3:31 PM ET USA

    Before the Masonic Italian revolution/reunification of 1870, all of Rome belonged temporally to the Pope. It's his city anyway!

  • Posted by: - Jun. 21, 2010 5:14 PM ET USA

    Its his as it was.