One of the most interesting Vatican appointments announced this morning by Cardinal George Pell is that of the British peer Lord Patten.
A well known figure in Britain and one of the country’s most prominent Catholics, the Vatican has chosen him to head a committee advising Pope Francis on reforming the Holy See’s media operations.
Cardinal Pell said he chose the former British politician on account of his wide experience and is “delighted” he’s accepted.
Currently chancellor of Oxford University, Christopher Patten has had a long and highly distinguished career in public life. He served as a member of parliament from 1979 to 1992, during which he was a Foreign Office and cabinet minister and later chaired Britain’s Conservative Party. After losing his seat, he spent a tumultuous but ultimately successful few years as Britain’s last Governor of Hong Kong, preparing the colony for its handover to the Chinese in 1997.
He was then involved in the Northern Ireland peace process before serving five years as a European Commissioner. Most recently, he chaired the governing body of the BBC which he was forced to resigned from earlier this year due to a heart operation.
His new Vatican posting, which is expected to be only part-time and focus on making better use of digital media and cutting back on waste and inefficiency, will no doubt be a welcome relief. He told The Guardian newspaper on leaving the BBC that his time there was ten times harder than he expected – “harder than chairing the Conservative party, harder than being European Commissioner, harder than negotiating the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Nothing had prepared me for the ubiquity of hostility in the press.”
Accusations against the broadcaster of bias exasperated him, but he steered the corporation through a particularly dark time which included its director general resigning after just two months over serious lapses in journalistic standards.
As a cradle Catholic educated by Benedictine monks in west London, Patten has also freely given his time to helping the Church. In 2010, he took over the organizing of Pope Benedict XVI’s state visit to Britain after the British Foreign Office appeared unwilling or unable to prepare for it properly, throwing the trip into turmoil. He managed to rescue the operation, pulling off what many regarded to be a miraculously successful and historic occasion. A year later, he was tipped to become Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, but the post allegedly didn’t appeal to him.
His Catholicism is said to be on the more liberal wing of the Church. “I’m like a lot of other Catholics,” he said shortly before Benedict XVI’s visit. “I don’t agree with everything that the Vatican says" - though he did express his admiration for Benedict XVI's intellectual abilities, saying he felt he was more open to dialogue “than one or two of those who advise him.”
With its ingrained culture of life contracts, outdated management techniques and needless replication, skilful dialogue is certainly one important ability Patten will need in helping to successfully and sensitively turn the Vatican’s media operations around.