VATICAN CITY — Telecommunications technology of the early 21st century has produced a phenomenon known as “phone hell”: an audio inferno where callers are tormented either by mechanized voices or human ones with less soul than the machines.
But the opposite exists. It can be found here in a simply furnished second-floor room where multilingual nuns in gray habits answer phones with a sweet-voiced greeting: “Pronto, Vaticano” (Hello, Vatican).
For 50 years, the nuns of the order of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master have operated the Vatican switchboard. They are the gatekeepers of the Holy See.
Hearing the faithful
The sisters field half a million calls a year. They assist the friendly, the loud and the troubled. They help the faithful negotiate a Roman Catholic Church bureaucracy whose instincts tend toward discretion, if not mystery.
Sister Maria Clara, the 55-year-old chief operator, is gentle and bespectacled, her Italian tinged with her native Korean. After 11 years on the switchboard, she sees her job as a blessed calling.
“People ask us: ‘So you really work on Christmas? You work on Easter?’ ” she said. “Of course we do. The church is a mystic body. I feel that we are the heart of the church. And the heart never stops.”
At least once a day, someone insists on speaking, urgently and directly, with Pope Benedict XVI. The sisters respond with tact and prudence. They never say an outright “No.” Instead they try to learn more and see if a priest, the Vatican media room or a church official can help.
“Sometimes they won’t be satisfied with even a bishop — their problem can only be solved by the pope,” Sister Maria Grazia said.
Some callers cross the line between tormented and deranged, between lonely and abusive. Most of those calls, however, take place during the midnight shift when a skeleton crew of male operators– civilians, not priests — takes over.
The sisters work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. They recognize and tolerate certain regulars. One frequent caller identifies himself as Saint John the Baptist. He’s harmless, although he gets touchy if they don’t address him as “Saint John.”
“He asks me to pray with him, and I do,” Sister Maria Clara said earnestly. “Sometimes I have to put him on hold to take other calls. But he waits.”
A poster near her desk depicts Don Giacomo Alberione, the founder of the 94-year-old Pious Society of Saint Paul to which the sisters’ order belongs. Alberione’s image is juxtaposed against telecom towers emitting waves and the word “Evangelism.
Good thing I am not on the Vatican’s switchboard. I would be tempted to ask “St. John the Baptist how he managed to dial with his head separated from his body.
Alberione’s life work focused on the church’s communications activities: books, radio, film, the media. In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII gave him the mission of modernizing the Vatican’s phone system.
“And because he was also a visionary when it came to the equality of women, he decided that the sisters should be the ones to staff the switchboard,” Mellini said.
The Vatican has accepted modernization; the sisters will get some state-of-the-art pointers soon during a seminar with an outside expert.
But the sisters are determined that some things will never change.
“At least when they call us they don’t hear a machine; they hear a voice,” Sister Maria Grazia said. “There is always a voice.”