Alan Gill, religious affairs writer of the Sydney Morning Herald, reports on a dinner to honour Alan McElwain (right), Australia correspondent, and former Rome correspondent, of the Catholic Herald, and asks was he the man who invented the phrase 'sources close to the Vatican'.
IN the 1960s' when the Vatican Council was making news, a correspondent was asked by his editor if he could "add substance" to a claim in his story which the paper considered speculative.
The weary journalist looked from his window, saw a man leaning against a wall, and wrote the line: "A source close to the Vatican..."
It is one of a myriad of stories told by the Sydney Morning Herald's former Rome correspondent, Alan McElwain, who might just have been the man responsible for what is now a familier pattern of attribution.
Alan, a former newspaper editor who assumed a second career as a leading "Vaticanologist", retired again this month, after 14 years as press officer to the Sydney Catholic Archdiocese. Like the "source close to the Vatican", an element of mystery surrounds Alan's age. When he took up the press officer post (in 1972) we reported his age as 68. On that basis he would be 82.
Recently, I had cause to bite my tongue after commenting to Alan that Cardinal Freeman, who appointed him, was "getting on". Cardinal Freeman retired at 75, but somehow Alan escaped the net.
At a lunch in his honour Cardinal Freeman's successor, Archbishop Edward Clancy said: "All good things, even the very best, come to an end. I have no doubt that we'll find another press officer but I'm quite sure we won't find another Alan McElwain."
His journalistic career began in his native New Zealand, which he left, in 1940, to join the (Sydney) Daily Telegraph. Asthma prevented military service, but soon he was making a vital contribution to the war effort as national director of War Loans publicity.
After the war he was appointed magazine editor of the Herald (Melbourne), then editor of its Adelaide stablemate, the Sunday Mail. A spell as the group's London representative gave him the
yearning "to have a crack at Rome...it was something I'd always wanted."
For 15 years he represented the Sydney Morning Herald, the London Sunday Times, the South African Argus, group, and the Catholic Herald.
His reporting of the Vatican Council was considered easily the best of any English language journalist. In the early stages of the council Alan clashed with Vatican officials over the "hopeless" press arragements, which included releasing excerpts of delegates' speeches with their authors' names scored out. A "guessing game" ensued
with journalists, Alan in the forefront, deciding for themselves who said what.
In 1971, an article by Alan in the Catholic Herald criticised aspects on the 1971 Synod of Bishops. This incensed the Roman Curia resulting in an article attacking him in l'Osservatore Romano. The Catholic Herald retaliated with a cartoon depicting Alan, notebook in hand, being thrown out by Swiss guards.
One man, it seems, didn't mind the fuss. While covering. the synod Alan met for the first time the then newly-appointed Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop James Freeman. The chance encounter in the courtyard of San Silvestro, titular church of the English cardinal, John Heenan, led to a bond of mutual respect and affection which has continued under Archbishop Clancy.
In the last 14 years as press officer for the archdiocese, Alan showed himself a journalist of the old school. He typed out his own news releases, employing a straightforward, non-dramatic style, and clashed with ecclesiastical trendies who would speak in airy fairy terms of social communications and the media apostolate.
At the lunch in his honour, Archbishop Clancy offered an interesting insight into his own view of journalists and journalism. The archbishop stated, amidst laughter: "Journalists by reason of their profession are students of human nature — by and large. I might say, bad students, because so many of them end up by becoming cynical."
"But not the best of them. Alan was one of the best. He learned great wisdom, sensitivity in his contacts with people... above all we shall miss him for the gentleman that he is. Alan McElwain is a thorough gentleman. In meeting Alan realise why we have evolved that particular term, a gentle man, the gentlest of men."