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 in a series of interview a look back at the past 60 years of covering the Vatican.
Lai was born in 1925 in Aprigliano in far-southern Italy, and he started his career as a journalist in 1946.
He was accredited with the Vatican City State press servce in 1952, and he long carried with him his first accreditation card as something of a “relic.”
It had been signed by then-Fr. Giovanni Montini, who was a deputy in the Vatican State 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. Fr. Roberto Tucci, a Jesuit 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.
Bl. 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 long-time friend of Lai, told CNA Dec. 15 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.”
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