Disinfonauts who have been following the rise and fall of Pope Benedict XVI may be interested in “The Pope and the Spy Who Loved Him“, a recent story from GQ featuring characters and intrigues that could rival any novel by Dan Brown or his ilk. The popular media has painted the Pope’s former butler Paolo Gabriele as a simpleton and common thief, but the portrait painted in the GQ article is of a faithful Catholic driven to betrayal by his conscience.
In the narrative of the Vatican leaks, Gabriele has been cast as the punch-line villain (the butler did it!), a possibly delusional simpleton who betrayed the Church and the Holy Father, albeit out of misguided altruism. Yet he is also an unlikely villain.
Gabriele grew up in a middle-class neighborhood three metro stops west of Vatican City, but his eventual employment there was a matter of either happenstance or divinity, depending on the degree of one’s faith. He was raised Catholic, of course, but he never aspired to a religious vocation, never heard the call to the priesthood or even served as an altar boy. Still, he was devout.
“If you really want to put a label on it, he was more like an evangelical,” says a friend who’s known Gabriele since their days in a parish youth group. “He believed in the Gospel, that Jesus taught that you will be known by the love you show for others. And in his mind, the Church was always supposed to be a family.” (In that one TV interview of Gabriele’s, Nuzzi asked him what he thought was the most beautiful verse in the Gospels. Gabriele paraphrased John 13: 34-35. “Love one another as I have loved you. From this they will know you are my disciples.”)
Mostly, though, Gabriele was an artist. He studied at the fine-arts high school in Rome—where he met his wife, Manuela—and made a little money selling his paintings. Later he found work assisting a priest at a Polish church. Part of his job was scrubbing toilets, which he did conscientiously and apparently with great vigor. “A Vatican bishop comes in one day,” the childhood friend says, telling the story the way Gabriele told him, “and he says, ‘Who cleaned this bathroom, and cleaned it so well? I want to meet him.’ “