“Pronto, Vaticano”

Years ago, when I worked in the Vatican and cellphones were not yet an option, placing some calls required you to go through the Vatican switchboard.  So, I can attest to much of the substance of this article.

Here is a great piece in the LA Times.

Vatican switchboard sees a human touch as the answer

Maria De Cristofaro / For The Times

The multilingual Sister Maria Grazia, front, handles calls mostly from Asia, Africa and the Americas. Quite a few people say they need an exorcist.

For 50 years, callers to the Holy See have found the sweet voice of a nun at the other end of the line. The sisters field half a million calls a year from the friendly, the loud, the troubled.

By Sebastian Rotella

8:16 PM PDT, October 27, 2008

Reporting from Vatican City — Telecommunications technology of the early 21st century has produced a phenomenon known as "phone hell": an audio inferno where callers are tormented either by mechanized voices or human ones with less soul than the machines.

But the opposite exists. It can be found here in a simply furnished second-floor room where multilingual nuns in gray habits answer phones with an unfailingly sweet-voiced greeting: "Pronto, Vaticano" (Hello, Vatican)[YES!  That's it!]

For 50 years, the nuns of the order of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master have operated the Vatican switchboard. They are the gatekeepers of the Holy See.

The sisters field half a million calls a year from all over the world. They assist the friendly, the loud, the troubled. They help the faithful negotiate a labyrinthine Roman Catholic Church bureaucracy whose instincts tend toward discretion, if not mystery[I would say, rather, obfuscation.]

Sister Maria Clara, the 55-year-old chief operator, is gentle and bespectacled, her Italian tinged with her native Korean. After 11 years on the switchboard, she sees her job as a blessed calling.

"People ask us: ‘So you really work on Christmas? You work on Easter?’ " she said. "Of course we do. The church is a mystic body. I feel that we are the heart of the church. And the heart never stops."

Behind her, half a dozen colleagues murmured into headsets. They occasionally consulted Bible-sized directories next to their computer terminals.

Many calls were routine inquiries about papal activities, hotels, museums. That information is available in a recorded message as well, but church officials want to preserve an oasis in the often harsh subculture of switchboards.

"People are adamant, they say, ‘I don’t want to be answered by a machine!’ " said Andrea Mellini, the gray-bearded director of the Vatican’s telecommunications department. His staff includes an Austrian engineer and 10 nuns from locales as diverse as India and Poland. "I like to think this is the most human call center there is. We can treat people the way others do not."

It takes time, skill and diligence for the operators to figure out the internal workings of the Vatican, Mellini said. Their average age is close to 60.

Sister Maria Grazia, 71, became an operator 14 years ago after serving as a missionary in Africa. The robust, jolly Italian speaks English, Spanish, French and Korean and gets by in other languages too. Most of her calls come from Asia, Africa and the Americas. And she talks to quite a few people who say they need an exorcist.

"It’s hard to tell whether they are psychologically ill, whether they are in the grip of a sect or whether it is something else," she said.

At least once a day, someone insists on speaking, urgently and directly, with Pope Benedict XVI himself. The sisters respond with tact and prudence. They never say an outright "No."

Instead they try to learn more and see if a priest, the Vatican press room or a church official can help.

"Sometimes they won’t be satisfied with even a bishop — their problem can only be solved by the pope," Sister Maria Grazia said.

Some callers cross the line between tormented and deranged, between lonely and abusive.

Most of those calls, however, take place during the midnight shift when a skeleton crew of male operators — civilians, not priests — takes over.

The sisters work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. They recognize and tolerate certain regulars. One frequent caller identifies himself as Saint John the Baptist. He’s harmless, though he gets touchy if they don’t address him as "Saint John."

"He asks me to pray with him, and I do," Sister Maria Clara said earnestly. "Sometimes I have to put him on hold to take other calls. But he waits."

A poster near her desk depicts Don Giacomo Alberione, the founder of the 94-year-old Pious Society of Saint Paul to which the sisters’ order belongs. Alberione’s image is juxtaposed against telecom towers emitting waves and the word "Evangelism."

Alberione’s life work focused on the church’s communications and media activities: books, radio, film, the press. In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII gave him the mission of modernizing the Vatican’s phone system[And they should be getting right on that any time now.]

"And because he was also a visionary when it came to the equality of women, he decided that the sisters should be the ones to staff the switchboard," Mellini said.

The Vatican has accepted modernization; the sisters will get some state-of-the-art pointers soon during a seminar with an outside expert. But the sisters are determined that some things will never change.

"At least when they call us they don’t hear a machine, they hear a voice," Sister Maria Grazia said. "There is always a voice."

Rotella is a Times staff writer.

rotella@latimes.com

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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12 Responses to “Pronto, Vaticano”

  1. Woody Jones says:

    I always like to visit the Pauline bookstores in the US cities where they may be found, and generally find the selections quite edifying. The English language section of the Pauline store in Roma itself seems a little bit mired in 1970′s style progressivism, but it still has some good stuff and is worth visiting.

    Fr. Alberione wrote some really good meditations that Pauline used to publish but now seem to be out of print, for the most part — one always wonders why.

  2. Daniel Latinus says:

    I have an old book on the Vatican from around 1950 or so, that had a photo of seminarians manning the Vatican switchboards. The caption noted that the capped sockets in the switchboard were the Pope’s private lines.

  3. Brian Mershon says:

    Alberione’s life work focused on the church’s communications and media activities: books, radio, film, the press. In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII gave him the mission of modernizing the Vatican’s phone system. [And they should be getting right on that any time now.]

    LOL!!!!!!!!!

  4. John Enright says:

    Fr. Z. said: “In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII gave him the mission of modernizing the Vatican’s phone system. [And they should be getting right on that any time now.]”

    It is to laugh! (Really, I think this is probably one of the greatest comments I’ve seen on the Internet anywhere! Good job, Father, you’ve made my day!)

  5. KK says:

    \”Here is a great piece in the LA Times.\”

    Someone must be on vacation.

  6. Matthew says:

    Father Z:

    Thanks for posting this great article! In your time at the Vatican – or even now for that matter – were they still using rotary telephones? Just curious.

  7. RC says:

    A computer on one side of the desk, and huge paper reference books next to it: I guess the sisters still look things up the old-fashioned way too!

  8. Dominic says:

    What a lovely piece. I met one of the Indian sisters from this congregation–a delightful and joyful witness to consecrated life–during a visit to India. She had worked for the Vatican switchboard for a number of years, and told me how, on his birthday, the sisters would telephone Pope John Paul II and sing “Happy Birthday” to him.

    I recalled hearing about a radio presenter who, pretending to be the Canadian Prime Minister, got through to Pope John Paul. Did the sister know anything about that? Was it true? Yes, it was true, she said….she had put through the call!

  9. Mitch#2 says:

    Perhaps we can call Vaticano for some pleasantries, and then asked to be “patched through” to Visa/MC. You know what you find there………………………….

  10. Mary Ann, Singing Mum says:

    Very sweet. Leave it up to Fr. Z to pull something charming- and substantial- from the LA Times.

  11. leo says:

    i thought that pius xii ‘s secretarys answered the telephone on their knees

  12. Cornelius says:

    Wonderful piece!

    I once heard that, on civilian switchboards, they learned that if
    women answered the lines instead of men, there was much less of a tendency
    on the part of (male) callers to be abusive or obscene.

    I wonder if this is why they put male operators on the switchboards in the
    wee hours – to field the bizarre calls that might come in during that time.
    But I suppose for the Catholic Church it’s always the wee hours of the night
    somewhere in the world.