An All-Seeing Outsider

Article excerpt

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. …