News of the appointments of a new director and deputy director of the Holy See Press Office comes at a time when Vatican communications are undergoing a major overhaul, although the Vatican Press Office personnel changes were not made by those in charge of that reform, according to Vatican sources.
The Vatican announced on July 11 that Greg Burke, a native of St. Louis and a former Register correspondent, would succeed Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi as Vatican spokesman on Aug. 1.
His current position, as deputy Vatican spokesman, will be filled by Spanish journalist Paloma García Ovejero, who will become the first woman to hold the post. For the first time, non-Italian laypeople will concurrently hold the two leadership positions.
The Vatican Secretariat of State, under Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is understood to have been behind the appointments. Burke had been primed for the role for some time, having been brought in by Archbishop Peter Wells, then the Secretariat of State’s assessor for general affairs (similar to a chief of staff), as head of the Secretariat of State’s strategic communications in 2012.
Msgr. Dario Viganó, prefect of the Secretariat for Communications — the department Pope Francis created last year to reform the Vatican’s media operation — had been consulted and was involved in choosing another American as a member of his department.
The Vatican announced July 13 that Kim Daniels, a lay consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, would become an external adviser to the secretariat. A former spokeswoman for the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Daniels also currently serves as a communications consultant for Catholic Relief Services and other organizations. She also founded Catholic Voices USA, a group that aims to improve the Church’s image with the mainstream media.
Secretariat officials were unavailable to comment to the Register the week of the announcement on the latest personnel changes, but in a statement released on July 11, Msgr. Viganó said the appointments of Burke and García “represent a further step in the reform process.” He reiterated that the overall restructuring will chiefly involve the establishment of four subsections, dealing with theological-pastoral issues, general media affairs (editorial policy), technical media issues and institutional communications (primarily involving the Holy See Press Office).
Change in Methods, Not Role
He stressed that the “role” of the Holy See Press Office “will not change, precisely because it is the office of institutional communication,” but he said what will “probably change” is the way it relates to journalists.
“I think, for example, of a digital system, so that everyone can be informed promptly,” Msgr. Viganó said. This would blend with Greg Burke’s own experience in this field: As head of strategic communications, he helped officials in the Pontifical Council for Social Communications set up the Pope’s Twitter account, and he himself became an active Twitter user.
Msgr. Viganó said he was also hopeful that another reform to the Holy See Press Office would be to extend its opening hours “to meet the needs of the whole world.” Currently, the office closes shortly before 3pm for most of the year, and even earlier during the quiet summer months.
In short, Msgr. Viganó concluded, “Beyond the concrete modalities, the Press Office is and will remain the place of institutional communications.”
The Italian monsignor, who used to head the Vatican Television Center, has until the end of 2018 to complete the media reforms that are already beginning to take shape: Vatican Radio will be merged with Vatican television to become what is expected to be called the Vatican Television and Radio Center.
Other mergers are also expected in a bid to streamline the Vatican’s media operation, which has long been criticized for unnecessary duplication and inefficiency. These changes will apply to the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, and the LEV, the Holy See’s publishing house. Meanwhile, the Vatican aggregate site “News.va” is expected to be replaced by a new multimedia Internet portal.
Msgr. Viganó, who has said he is modeling the reforms on Disney’s media operation, told Vatican Radio June 27 that the Pope’s 2015 document, issued motu proprio (of his own accord), which established the Secretariat for Communications, places the current digital culture at the center of the reform.
Through that decree, the Pope, he said, issued an invitation “to leave behind the arrogance of a unidirectional mode of communication” and to realize that the Church is called to bring the message of the Gospel to men and women of today who are immersed in new communications technology. He noted that some 85% of the Italian population uses mobile devices to connect to media.
He also said the aim of the reform is to place the emphasis on a “user-first” perspective that challenges Vatican media “to stop navel-gazing in the assumption that others are listening and looking at us.”
Msgr. Viganó believes Vatican media has been “non-existent” to most of the general public and that the Vatican Web reputation especially needs “much work,” recalling that when Francis was elected Pope, most people consulted Wikipedia rather than the Vatican website to find out more about him.
He told Vatican Radio that the secretariat had come to the conclusion Vatican communications are currently “like a motor that has everything and yet does not work efficiently.” Instead of producing energy, he said, “it produces only heat and ends up overheating and stalling.”
Under the secretariat’s reforms, he said the hope is to have a motor that functions properly, “so that it can go fast, so that it can put on the brakes, so that it can overtake when needed.”
In his statement following the Holy See Press Office appointments, Msgr. Viganó stressed the need to have “open hearts and minds” when dealing with the reform, in order to beat the “temptation” of saying “it has always been done this way” and a complacency “that emphasizes the greatness of what in history the Church has been able to do.” Only in this way can one start “a real reform process in any industry.”