In his coverage of the Vatican for CNS –– first as a reporter when he joined the news service in Rome in 1983 and later as its Rome bureau chief, from 1996 until his retirement in January 2012 –– Thavis witnessed the worldwide impact of Blessed John Paul II during the '80s and '90s, and the physical decline he suffered in the early years of the new millennium. He was there during the first seven years of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate.

Anecdotally he shows how the pontiffs were different, e.g., the Polish pope's "spiritual pep rally" approach to World Youth Day vs. the German pope's somber, prayerful style; John Paul's Christmas concerts featuring internationally known performers vs. discontinuation of the concerts by his successor.

The final chapter, titled "The Real Benedict," provides one of those behind-the-scenes looks that Thavis promises. It is a profile of the pope that shows, with supporting examples, how and why this pope is noticeably different from his predecessor. It helps in learning who Pope Benedict is — and isn't.

There is one factual error: In the chapter on Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, writing about a Vatican-ordered visitation of the religious community, Thavis states, "In the United States, the call went to Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, who would later be named a cardinal and transferred to Philadelphia." He did become archbishop of Philadelphia in July 2011, but he has yet to be named a cardinal.

"Vatican Diaries" is an important book in that it provides readers with a realistic look at the Vatican. Some readers might be uneasy with just how realistic that view is; most will welcome it. Further, with Pope Benedict’s resignation, speculation grows about his successor. While not filled with the papabili profiles of the aforementioned books, it could be part of the discussion when one asks, "What will the Vatican be like under the next pope?" and "What kind of leader does the church need?"

Thavis doesn't necessarily provide answers, but he provides a context in which one might find them.

Olszewski is general manager of the Milwaukee Catholic Herald, a publication serving the Catholic community in southeastern Wisconsin.