“When you enter my home there is no doubt about who I am,” says Joan Lewis, an 83-year-old American journalist who has spent her whole career reporting and writing on the Vatican and the Catholic Church. In her apartment, a five-minute walk from St. Peter’s Square, photos of herself meeting popes, cardinals, and other figures, and icons of Mary and the Holy family, can be found on every wall and table. The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica seems to be almost entering the room, as it stands, imposing, outside the window.
From working for the Holy See’s own wire service from 1990 to 2005 to becoming EWTN’s first Rome bureau chief, Joan has gotten to know every nook and cranny of the Vatican. She has covered three different popes and still today hosts a radio show from Rome and keeps a blog on the latest Church events.
Joan shares with Aleteia how her extensive career has confirmed her in her faith and led her today to “just have this wonderful feeling about the Church.”
“The thing I knew best in my life was the Church”
Originally from Illinois, Joan’s love story with Italy began in 1961 when she visited the country on a trip and knew she wanted to return in the future. After graduating from college and spending five years teaching French in the US, she managed to come back to Rome in 1974. After a year she became a secretary for one month to Father Joseph Dirvin, who was working on the canonization of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.
“In that month two people came into my life through Father Dirvin.One was Alvin Shuster, the then Rome bureau chief of the New York Times. He was Jewish but he was fascinated by the Church, the Vatican, and the saints,” Joan said. “The other person I got to know […] was Cardinal John Joseph Wright.” He was an American prelate who headed the Congregation for Clergy at the Vatican at the time.
Joan thus began writing and researching for the New York Times during the week and working as a secretary for Cardinal Wright on weekends. “Both men were extraordinarily influential in my life,” she said. “I have been a practicing Catholic, loving-the-Church-Catholic, all my life and I learned so much more and got to know many people. […] The NYT and the Vatican were two worlds that opened about any door you wanted in Italy.”
She continued with these jobs until the late 1970s, as within the same year the NYT cut down their staff in Rome and Cardinal Wright died. Not wanting to leave Rome, Joan then decided to become a freelance journalist.
“I said to myself, whatwill I write about? The answer was so quick: The thing I knew best in my life was the Church,” Joan said. “This was the fall of 1978 and guess what? The Vatican had a new pope, his name was John Paul II.”
Writing for the Vatican under “a great communicator”
Joan spent eight years freelancing for publications in the US such as the San Francisco Examiner, the Miami Herald, and especially the National Catholic Register. She moved back to the US for four years in the late 1980s and while on vacation in Rome, she was sought after for a new communications project the Vatican was working on.
“John Paul II, as a great communicator, wanted the Vatican to have its own news agency,” Joan said, explaining that bishops were struggling to get their information about the Church in a timely manner and from an unbiased source, as this was before the internet was available. Thus the Vatican Information Service (VIS) was born in December 1990, with the function of sending news bulletins via fax to bishops and nuncios across the world. Joan was part of the starting team as an editor and English-language writer.
“It was such a thrill to work for the Vatican. I got to know some of the most amazing people, who loved the Church as much as I did, who were excited to work in a way where they could be evangelizers,” Joan said. “I was on four Holy See delegations to UN conferences. I had a Vatican passport. I went to Cairo, Beijing, Copenhagen, Istanbul, etc. Those were wonderful, happy, hard-working, heady years. Every time I could be within 50 feet of John Paul II, I thought I was in heaven.”
Making cookies for John Paul II
“I used to make chocolate chip cookies for John Paul II,” Joan remembers with a smile. After reading in an article that the Polish Pope loved chocolate, Joan decided to make him some baked goods. “I am a choco-holic and I didn’t see a barrier. I thought, why shouldn’t I make cookies for a pope?
“So one day I made a couple dozen brownies and about four dozen cookies for the whole household and I called Monsignor Stanislao Dziwisz [John Paul II’s secretary],” Joan explained. “That began this habit. It wasn’t on a regular basis, but every once in a while I would make three or four dozen chocolate chip cookies.”
“This was the biggest secret about Joan and John Paul, which I only revealed for the first time during his beatification [in 2011],” Joan said. “I didn’t even tell my own mother. She was my biggest fan so the butcher and the banker and everybody else would have to know if I had told her. I didn’t do it for people to know, I did it because we both liked chocolate.”
Covering 3 different popes
Joan worked at VIS until 2005 and then that same year became EWTN’s first Rome bureau chief until 2017. She thus covered the conclave that elected Benedict XVI in 2005 and the one that elected Francis in 2013. She shared her thoughts on covering “three entirely different men and personalities.”
“John Paul II was this charismatic multilingual person, who in so many ways was everybody’s best idea of a father or grandfather. […] He just understood human kind and he did have this talent for communication,” Joan said.
“Benedict XVI was this professorial type of man, who never really liked the spotlight. This humble but extraordinarily erudite man followed a giant of a human being. Many people compared the two, which is unfortunate because they had different personalities. However, they were both giants in the faith, that goes without saying. Also, if John Paul II was a giant, it was because of Benedict XVI too. I think they fed off each other’s brilliance,” Joan explained.
“Francis has been more difficult to follow simply because he is much more of an off-the-cuff speaker. Sometimes it can be harder to interpret what he said. […] However, he is not afraid to answer questions, it can be about the Vatican’s deal with China, or the abuse situation. He also does the things that he has focused on from the very beginning of his papacy up to this day: poverty, being with the homeless and the disenfranchised, etc. It is not that any other pope hasn’t had these same issues at heart. It is just Francis has been very open about his care for what he calls those on the peripheries,” Joan said.
After over 40 years Joan still has a “wonderful feeling about the Church”
When asked what the best part of her job has been after such a long career, Joan replied without hesitation “absolutely the people I met.”
“John Paul II used to say this often, and Benedict XVI said it as well, that he would take a trip to confirm people in their faith and would come back confirmed in his. The amazing people I have met, cardinals, bishops, priests, seminarians, people in the pews, people I have met while traveling, […] have confirmed me, have given me so much.”
“I just have this wonderful feeling about the Church, notwithstanding what we may read from time to time in the press,” Joan explained. “If I can’t post something [on social media] that is edifying, I don’t even want to post it. I want people to learn and be built up. […] Sometimes it is the small details, it is who a person is and what they love.”