Outside of the North Korean government in Pyongyang, no bureaucracy is harder for a journalist to crack than the Vatican's. And no one does it better than John L. Allen Jr., Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly newspaper. In just three years, Allen, 38, has become the journalist other reporters--and not a few cardinals--look to for the inside story on how all the pope's men direct the world's largest church.
During a recent papal celebration in Rome, Allen was ubiquitous. In addition to filing thousands of words for NCR, he did live color commentary for three straight days on all five of CNN's international news programs. He also appeared on the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" and provided expert analysis for seven European television networks. He was even quoted on the front page of The New York Times. He also managed to write a few thousand more words for his Web column, The Word From Rome, where his detailed analysis is followed avidly by 50,000 readers in 126 countries--including conservatives who don't share NCR's liberal editorial stance. When the ailing pope does die, as many as 10,000 journalists are expected to descend on Rome. But with his high-level sources, and an apartment near St. Peter's Square, Allen will have an edge.
Just seven years ago Allen was tutoring student journalists at a Roman Catholic high school in Los Angeles. A series of freelance articles led to a job with NCR in Kansas City, Mo. Sent to Rome in 2000, Allen quickly mastered Italian and two other tongues indispensable for deciphering the Vatican: the "language" of church law and theology, and the Vatican-speak of the Roman Curia, the pope's civil service. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to crack these codes," he says, "but it does take time and effort."
The Vatican has been slow to accommodate the media. Popes do not give interviews, and Curia cardinals are usually reached only by appointment, if at all. It wasn't until 1982, under John Paul II, that the Vatican provided journalists with a modern press facility. Even today the real news comes from cultivating reliable sources, but journalists can never be sure when they are being used to thwart a rival. "The problem with the Vatican is not that it's secretive," Allen argues. "It's unique. You have to learn the system."
Up at 5:30 every morning to read the Italian papers, Allen puts in 18-hour days, which often include lunch with Vatican apparatchiks at Da Roberto and end at embassy parties where Vatican gossip is as plentiful as Chianti in Tuscany. When Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law disappeared at the height of the child-abuse scandal, Allen scooped the world by cornering him at a Roman restaurant. (He was also the first to report the appointment of Bishop Sean O'Malley as Law's successor.) On Sundays, Allen and his wife, Shannon, often attend mass in English at two different churches--one that draws diplomats and another that attracts lower-level Curia personnel.
For every comfortable cardinal there are dozens of midlevel officials whose average pay is $1,400 a month. Their upward mobility depends on being discreet. But they want their stories told. "Allen gets things right on very complicated issues," says one of his sources in a particularly sensitive Vatican department. "And he keeps my name out of his stories. This is why I can talk to him." It's also why, when news erupts from the Vatican, Allen is often the first to break it--and these days that makes him one of the most influential men in Rome.