Customer service: Vatican operators staff switchboard 24/7

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Even though it receives almost 2,000 calls a day, the Vatican is not about to outsource its small team of switchboard operators to answering machines or the labyrinth of automated phone menus.

When callers dial the Vatican switchboard anytime of day or night, a recorded voice will not ask them to press the pound key or hold; instead, they will talk to a human being who will tactfully and efficiently handle every call.

"There are people who are a little crazy and call at 2 a.m. to do nothing but rant and rave, and there are others who call for help," said Brother Andrea Mellini, head of the Vatican's telecommunications service.

Invariably a handful of people say they must speak with the pope, and only the discerning ear and sharp mind of a human can weed out the wacky from the serious inquiries, he said.

"Working at the (Vatican's) call center is a very delicate job, and we would never think of putting in automated operators," the brother of the Society of St. Paul told Catholic News Service.

About a dozen nuns who are members of the Pious Disciples of the Divine Master work the switchboards 24 hours a day in six-hour shifts. They come from such countries as South Korea, Malta, Poland, Italy, India, Philippines and Brazil, and they speak a myriad of languages.

Mornings are their "rush hour" with at least six nuns working, while only two or three need to be on duty for afternoons.

The Vatican's telecommunications department moved into its new headquarters in November so its facilities are sleek, comfortable and modern. They even include historical items such as papal telephones and early technological equipment on display in glass cases throughout the three-story brick building.

The new call center has a giant, flat-screen television in the front of the room so the nuns can follow events being aired on CTV, the Vatican Television Station, and answer people's questions about a ceremony or audience under way.

One nun had a bag full of candies she generously shared with visitors. Another kept her throat from getting parched between calls with a tall glass of water topped with a sprig of fresh mint.

Though it is not listed in any phone books outside the Vatican, the Vatican switchboard still received more than a half-million calls last year. Many callers in Italy get directed to the nuns' switchboard after calling directory assistance looking for information concerning the pope or the Vatican.

Brother Mellini said, "Mostly, people want to know what time the museums close or how they can attend a weekly general audience.

"Often enough someone will call wanting to know if there is a long line of people waiting to get into the museums. They have no idea it would take 10 minutes to go outside to look and come back to tell them," he said, chuckling.

Brother Mellini's assistant and vice director, Claudio Modesti, added it would be a smart idea for the Vatican to put up a webcam online so people could monitor the line of visitors.

When appropriate, the nuns transfer calls requesting to speak with a particular person or Vatican office.

The only person to whom people are not likely to get connected is Pope Benedict XVI. The number to his papal apartment is not only unlisted, even in Vatican phone books, but only a handful of people whom the pope chooses are privy to it, and Brother Mellini said the number changes with each new pope.

Brother Mellini said Pope Benedict does not have a beeper or cell phone, but he can be reached through his personal secretary's cell phone.

Unfortunately, he added, it is harder to keep that number a secret if people receiving a call from Msgr. Georg Ganswein's cell phone have caller ID.

Back in 1930, the extension to dial to reach the pope in his apartments was 112, according to the Vatican's first telephone book published by the American phone company, the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp.

The U.S. church provided the Vatican with state-of-the-art equipment and technology for setting up its first central telephone exchange in 1930.

The church in the United States also provided a golden-colored papal phone that was used for decades, starting with Pope Pius XI until the end of Pope John XXIII's pontificate. After that, the pope's phone became a standard phone in white, Brother Mellini said.

The Vatican started out in 1886 with 10 phones that could only make internal calls. The 1929 Lateran Pacts agreement with Italy allowed the Vatican to finally send and receive calls to and from the rest of the world.

By 1930, the Vatican had more than 450 phone numbers, and today it has more than 5,000.

Though it's a tiny state, its phone traffic is big, with 8.5 million outgoing calls placed from Vatican City last year.

Modesti said 2005, with the death of Pope John Paul II, was one of their busiest years.

When Pope John Paul died April 2, 2005, the Vatican telephone network absorbed a massive wave of incoming and outgoing calls. The number of calls the nuns handled at the switchboard skyrocketed to 370 percent more than on a normal workday.

Modesti said the small switchboard staff did not call in extra help. All the nuns worked the lines and just put in longer hours. He said the average waiting time to reach an operator that day was still less than 30 seconds.