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Originally published October 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 31, 2008 at 1:28 AM

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Sisters provide lifeline on the line

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.

Los Angeles Times

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 an unfailingly 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.

The sisters field a half-million calls a year. They assist the friendly, the loud, the troubled. They help the faithful negotiate a Roman Catholic 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."

Behind her, half a dozen colleagues murmured into headsets. They occasionally consulted Bible-sized directories next to their computer terminals.

Many calls were routine inquiries about papal activities, hotels, museums. That information is available in a recorded message as well, but church officials want to preserve an oasis in the often harsh subculture of switchboards.

"People are adamant, they say, 'I don't want to be answered by a machine!' " said Andrea Mellini, the gray-bearded director of the Vatican's telecommunications department. "I like to think this is the most human call center there is. We can treat people the way others do not."

It takes time, skill and diligence for the operators to figure out the internal workings of the Vatican, Mellini said. Their average age is close to 60.

Sister Maria Grazia, 71, became an operator 14 years ago after serving as a missionary in Africa. The robust, jolly Italian speaks English, Spanish, French and Korean and gets by in other languages too. Most of her calls come from Asia, Africa and the Americas. And she talks to quite a few people who say they need an exorcist.

"It's hard to tell whether they are psychologically ill, whether they are in the grip of a sect or whether it is something else," she said.

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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 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.

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."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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