ROME — Benny Lai, known in Italy as “dean of the vaticanisti,” died Dec. 12 at the age of 88, following a lengthy illness. Before his death, he shared with CNA a look back at the past 60 years of covering the Vatican.
Lai was born in 1925, in Aprigliano, in southern Italy, and he started his career as a journalist in 1946.
He was accredited with the Vatican city state press service in 1952, and he long carried with him his first accreditation card as something of a “relic.”
It had been signed by then-Father Giovanni Montini, who was a deputy in the Vatican Secretariat and who would be elected Bishop of Rome in 1963, becoming Paul VI.
In 1952, the Vatican Press Office was located inside the city-state’s walls, where L’Osservatore Romano’s headquarters are currently located. It had existed since before World War II, but it was the workplace of three correspondents only, who had something of a free reign within the Vatican.
That access was restricted under John XXIII, but the number of accredited journalists was increased when the Second Vatican Council was announced. Jesuit Father Roberto Tucci, who is now a cardinal and 92, served as a general relator of the council, holding in the press room a near-daily discussion of the events of the ecumenical council.
During the pontificate of Paul VI, the press office was moved, “with the excuse we journalists needed more space,” outside the Vatican, onto the Via della Conciliazione, the boulevard leading into St. Peter’s Square, Lai recounted.
It was during this era that Lai became friends with Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, who was archbishop of Genoa from 1946 until 1989 and became one of his major sources.
Blessed John Paul II, Lai said, “was open to the world; he knew how to communicate,” but his inner circle was closed to journalists.
Gianfranco Svidercoschi, another Vatican journalist and a longtime friend of Lai, told CNA that Lai would “study and get documents before writing anything. He was an example for any journalist. He was generous, with that kind of generosity that comes from having deeply learned things.”