VATICAN CITY — “I don’t have any illusions about going in and changing everything,” said Greg Burke, who was appointed June 23 the Vatican’s new media adviser. “My hope is to try and help the Holy See take the necessary steps to go in the right direction.”
The Vatican hired Burke, a St. Louis native and former correspondent for the Register and Fox News, to help with its communications after a series of PR media mishaps in recent years.
His appointment also comes after the Holy See’s media relations came under strain as much of the world’s press, especially in Italy, has been speculating wildly about the unauthorized leaking of confidential Vatican documents.
A widely respected, good-humored and popular member of the Vatican press corps, Burke explained to the Register June 25 that his role will be “very similar” to that of the White House’s director of communications.
“It’s a different role from the spokesman,” he said. “Everyone knows who the White House press secretary is, currently Jay Carney, but there’s also the director of communications, who most Americans don’t know. He is responsible for strategy, formulating the message and finding the best way to transmit the message.”
Burke, an Opus Dei numerary and Columbia University graduate, was Time magazine’s Rome correspondent for more than 10 years before spending over a decade at Fox News, where he covered Europe and the Middle East. At 52, he has spent 25 years as a journalist in Rome, providing him with extensive knowledge of how the Vatican and the mass media operate.
“I know how they [in the media] think, what they want, and have a pretty good idea of how the message is going to play with the public,” he said. But he added: “I don’t expect to be a person of power, but to have a seat around the table of people with power.”
He stressed that he is “not a director or senior adviser or anything like that” and that he does not consider himself a “PR expert.” But he feels he can “bring to the table real journalistic experience.”
Father Federico Lombardi will continue in the role of official spokesman for the Holy See, while Burke will be working closely with the Secretariat of State, arguably a more influential position, given that the main decision-making and governing takes place among officials there.
More specifically, Burke will be answerable to two superiors: the sostituto, Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, otherwise known as the Vatican’s “No. 3,” or the deputy secretary of State, whose duty is to supervise the internal affairs of the Roman Curia; and fellow American Msgr. Peter Wells, a native of Tulsa, Okla., who holds the influential position of assessor for general affairs, effectively the deputy to the chief of staff.
Father Lombardi described Burke’s position, which has not existed before, as “dealing with communications issues in the work of the Secretariat of State” and overseeing “relations with the Holy See Press Office and other media institutions of the Holy See.”
Burke is aware that many believe the culture within the Vatican must change if its communications are to improve. However, the Vatican’s new media adviser is content with trying to do what he can to improve the Vatican’s image, drawing on his past experience and expertise.
“I hope I can at least make a case to those who do make decisions and be able to say: This could be really good or this could be really dangerous,” he said.
A keen golfer and avid soccer fan (he has written a small book on the sport in Italy), Burke stressed it would be a “whole new experience” for him. And despite turning down the role twice, he now feels ready to accept the challenge. He said he had a “great 10 years” at Fox News and had planned to continue for three or four more years.
“Why did I say Yes? Because it was the right thing to do, to try to do something good for the Church,” he said, adding that he felt it would also be a “very interesting professional challenge” and be a chance to “test new skills.”
Born Nov. 8, 1959, to practicing Catholic parents in an Irish-German neighborhood in St. Louis, Burke attended a Jesuit high school in the city before graduating with a degree in comparative literature from Columbia University. In those years, he became acquainted with Opus Dei and remembers a certain Barack Obama studying at Columbia at the same time, though they weren’t acquaintances.
He then began a professional life in journalism. His first job was with a small newspaper in New York. Then he moved on to United Press International in Chicago, where he worked the night shift. After stints at Reuters and the weekly Metropolitan, he came to Rome to work for the Register in 1988. He then moved on to be a correspondent for Time magazine, becoming its Rome bureau chief in 1994. He joined Fox News in 2001.
He said of his time at the Register: “I’ll always owe the Register and especially its outstanding editor at the time, Fran Maier, a great debt of gratitude for bringing me to Rome. I have especially fond memories of working as a correspondent for the paper — a time that was both formative and educational. I’m glad to see its excellent reputation remains intact.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent. He blogs at NCRegister.com.