Joaquin Navarro-Valls, one of the most unusual figures in Curial history, died Wednesday and was buried Friday in Rome. St. John Paul’s longtime papal spokesman offered a most extraordinary — and successful — service, one that has lessons for today.
The Spanish psychiatrist-turned-journalist was asked by John Paul to serve as the director of the Holy See Press Office in 1984, and he remained the chief papal spokesman until the Holy Father’s death in 2005. He continued in the same role for Pope Benedict XVI until July 2006, when he retired.
It wasn’t actually the same role; the role Navarro-Valls played for John Paul could not be duplicated. He did issue media releases, preside over press conferences and manage the press office. But he did so much more than that.
A confidant of the Holy Father, whom he saw nearly every day, and even accompanied on vacation, he was part of the inner circle that John Paul charged with making happen what he wanted to happen. On occasion, it meant that Navarro-Valls took on high-profile international diplomatic missions, a novelty only possible because everyone knew that he spoke in a unique way for the Pope.
The modern papacy is an inexhaustible font of words. Under Pope Francis, Catholics who wish can rise every morning to a fresh papal homily delivered at daily Mass. That wasn’t the case under St. John Paul II, but he routinely received several groups in formal audiences every day, and each one received an address. The daily papal word count is likely less today than it was then.
John Paul also had a constant stream of major documents; rarely would six months go by without a major encyclical, exhortation or apostolic letter inviting study. Pope Francis writes fewer documents, but at astonishing length. Both Evangelii Gaudium and Amoris Laetitia are among the longest papal documents ever produced in history.
And this does not even take into account the contributions of other senior Vatican officials. In the last six months alone, no fewer than four interview books have come out from Vatican cardinals.
This torrent of words makes an effective papal spokesman more important, not less. What is enduring, and what is passing? What is worthy of particular notice? How should apparently contradictory statements be reconciled?
We saw the need for — and effectiveness of — the papal spokesman just last week, when Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, badly botched a statement on the Charlie Gard case in London. Getting both the facts and Catholic teaching wrong, Archbishop Paglia created no little confusion on a controverted topic. With a tweet Saturday and a statement Sunday, current papal spokesman Greg Burke was able to quickly clarify where Pope Francis stood, thereby limiting the damage from the archbishop’s intervention.
Navarro-Valls was a pioneer. His intimate collaboration with John Paul will unlikely be replicated in any other pontificate. John Paul was unusual, in that he entrusted his papacy over long years to a few key people who therefore were enormously influential: Navarro-Valls; his personal secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz; his prefect of doctrine, Joseph Ratzinger; his vicar for Rome, Camillo Ruini.
Nevertheless, there are lessons for today from Navarro-Valls’ example.
First, a spokesman is only as effective as his principal permits him to be. A spokesman who does not regularly have direct access to the pope will be very limited in his effectiveness. The Vatican press corps must know that the press spokesman has sufficient access to the Holy Father and that his statements do in fact reflect the reality of the situation, and not merely his commentary upon it. When Navarro-Valls clarified something for the press corps, they knew that he was speaking the Holy Father’s mind.
That was not the case after Navarro-Valls retired. His successor, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, was a true gentleman, whose genial manner and generous spirit served the Church well in many difficult moments, but he did not have similar access to either Pope Benedict or Pope Francis. Thus his comments were too often regarded as attempts to spin the events, rather than an authoritative presentation of them.
Second, professional competence matters. It is not essential to have been a journalist to serve as an effective spokesman, but it is necessary to know what journalists need and how they think. That Pope Francis appointed Greg Burke, like Navarro-Valls a veteran journalist, to the post underscores that this lesson has been learned.
Though Navarro-Valls’ principal work was in the Holy See Press Office, he also was a key figure behind the professional training offered to Church communications personnel at the University of the Holy Cross, the Opus Dei university in Rome. Indeed, by sheer force of example, Navarro-Valls led a global shift in the way the Church approached communications. The Holy Cross courses were an institutional expression of it.
Third, a spokesman is most effective when he understands and can articulate the vision of the pope he serves, not just the daily news. That’s another reason why the pope and his spokesman ought to spend a lot of time together, so that the latter can understand not just what the former says, but how he thinks.
Though I regularly dealt with Navarro-Valls when I was part of the Vatican press corps in the early 2000s, I only had one extended conversation with him off the record, in 2006, not long after his retirement. We spoke at some length about the then-new pontificate of Pope Benedict. What was the key to covering him?
He thought carefully for some time and replied that the Holy Father was really attending to the “pastoral care of the intellect.” Benedict was a scholar, but not for its own sake. He was a pastor, and pastoral care of the intellect meant pointing it toward a truth that could be known and, therefore, loved.
Fourth, that Navarro-Valls was a layman made evident that the Catholic Church is not just its clergy. The fact that Church communications are handled the world over now by competent laypeople is part of his impact.
It was a disappointment to many that Navarro-Valls did not produce a significant memoir to contribute to the historical record of the John Paul pontificate. Likely he thought too much of what he had seen could not be written about without violating confidences. Perhaps, one hopes, he has left notes that could, after a suitable period, be available to both journalists and scholars.
Navarro-Valls spent long years shepherding the words of St. John Paul II. Let’s hope that he left us some last ones of his own.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.