National Catholic Register


New Face of the Vatican

After 22 years, Pope’s spokesman changes


Register Correspondent

July 23 - August 5, 2006 Issue | Posted 7/23/06 at 10:00 AM


VATICAN CITY — The new Vatican spokesman was a surprise, looked at one way. But in another way, he’s the obvious choice.

For months, speculation had been rife as to who would succeed Joaquin Navarro-Valls as head of the Holy See Press Office.

The Spanish doctor of psychiatry had been dropping plenty of hints that he would soon step down after 22 years in the post, and so rumors abounded about his probable successor.

Yet few predicted that Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi would be given the position. The Jesuit Father from Saluzzo in northern Italy already had two heavy responsibilities: running Vatican Radio and CTV, the Vatican’s television channel. It was unlikely that he would also be given one of the most demanding positions in the Roman Curia. Or so we thought.

A closer look at the man and the appointment will show that Pope Benedict XVI’s choice is wise, pragmatic and, in retrospect, not so surprising after all. On an organizational level, putting the head of Vatican radio and television in charge of overall press relations could prove a masterful move. It will, above all, help streamline Vatican communications that until now have been disparate and poorly coordinated.

But more interesting is the kind of man the Holy Father has chosen to fulfill this important role.

I should know. He was my boss for two years when I worked in the English section of Vatican Radio (2002-2004). At the time, he was program director of the Jesuit-run station and was well liked and respected. He took a keen interest in each member of his staff, knowing almost each of us by name even though we numbered more than 400.

He speaks softly, is meek and self-effacing and has a gentle, wry sense of humor. He dealt mostly with the directors of the different language sections, but he was always available to his employees and wouldn’t hesitate to invite you to his office if you had a query you wanted to raise with him. His management style was largely “hands-off” as he gave section heads a certain autonomy that fostered greater creativity.

But he knew the business thoroughly.

In the 15 years he was program director, Father Lombardi was keen that the radio broadcast (known as the “grandmother” of all radio stations after it was founded in 1931 by radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi) keep abreast of all the technological advances in this information age.

Under his watch, the station embraced podcasting and the Internet (the Vatican Radio website is now one of the few in the world to publish pages in a multiplicity of alphanumeric languages).

In 2000, he helped launch the station’s live FM channel in the Rome area combining chat shows, live outside broadcasts and regular news bulletins. He oversaw the advent of satellite broadcasting and rebroadcasting of Vatican Radio programs by other stations — one of the radio’s fastest growing areas.

And, in the 1990s, he made sure Vatican Radio was one of the first stations in the world to adopt digital editing hardware, superseding even the BBC.

“We may not be first in every field but we are well-placed in terms of technology,” he told the Register late last year. “And this is part of our tradition, as our early association with Marconi testifies.”

Pope Benedict XVI probably hopes that Father Lombardi brings the same things to the Holy See Press Office. Just as he saw the station as a “content producer” rather than simply radio, it is expected that he will embrace all the means possible to effectively disseminate what happens in the universal Church to the world’s press.

“The mission is clear: to serve the universal Church, to serve the Pope,” he told the Register, “to be at the disposition of the Church in the world.”

Father Lombardi, 63, has also been heavily involved in trying to resolve an ongoing dispute between the station and the Italian authorities.

Vatican Radio is accused of breaking regulations on wave emissions after some local people complained that the station’s transmitters in a suburb of Rome had caused leukemia and other illnesses.

From the beginning, Father Lombardi has contended that the radio was operating within accepted statutes, and puts the case down to excessive sensitivity about health and pollution, and the possibility that some individuals are using the case to win damages. Throughout the dispute, he has been calmly confident of the station’s position.

But it is in communications, not the law, where his vocation lies. And it is there where he is likely be of the same mind as the Holy Father, recognizing the need for reform, but enacting it slowly and prudently.

“In the Vatican we have a tradition not for revolutions but for taking things step by step — an evolution”, he said last year. “If steps are little, you look back and realize you have gone a long way. That’s my perspective: little steps go a long way.”

Edward Pentin
writes from Rome

Vatican Press Office Changing of the Guard

VATICAN CITY — Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi (right), newly appointed director of the Vatican press office, has worked in the Catholic journalism world for more than 30 years.

On July 11, Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Joaquín Navarro-Valls as director of the Vatican press office and appointed Father Lombardi, who will continue as general director of Vatican Radio and director of the Vatican Television Center.

Father Lombardi thanked the Holy Father for the trust he is placing in him with this appointment.

In a letter addressed to his fellow journalists, Father Lombardi expressed his gratitude — also on behalf of his colleagues — to Navarro-Valls, pointing out the latter’s long service “with exceptional competence, intelligence and dedication.”

The Jesuit also expressed his commitment to serve the Pope and the work of journalists as Vatican spokesman.


Native of the Italian province of Cuneo, where he was born on Aug. 29, 1942, Father Lombardi entered the novitiate of the Jesuit’s Turin province, in Avigliana, in 1960.

He received a licentiate in philosophy in 1965 from the Jesuit Aloisianum Faculty of Theology in Gallarate, province of Varese. Over the next four years, he was an assistant to students in the Jesuits’ University College in Turin. He received a licentiate in mathematics from the local university.

The new Vatican spokesman was ordained a priest in 1972. A year later he obtained a licentiate in theology from the Jesuit Phil-Teol Hochshule St. Georgen in the German city of Frankfurt, and became a member of the college of writers of the review La Civitá Cattolica (the oldest of the still active Italian publications) and its editor, until 1977 when he became its deputy director.

From 1984 to 1990 Father Lombardi was provincial of the Jesuits’ Italian province.

He was Vatican Radio’s program director from 1991 to 2005, when he became its general director. Since 2001, he has also been director of the Vatican Television Center.


Joaquín Navarro-Valls (right) served 22 years as director of the Vatican press office.

Native of Cartagena, Spain, where he was born in 1936, Navarro-Valls was a psychiatrist before becoming a journalist.

He was president of the Foreign Press Association in Italy, founder and director of the Diagonal review, correspondent of Nuestro Tiempo and of the Spanish newspaper ABC in Italy and the Middle East.

John Paul II appointed Navarro-Valls as Vatican spokesman on Nov. 4, 1984.

On the morning of July 11, Vatican Radio reported that Walter Veltroni, mayor of Rome, sent each messages: congratulations to Father Lombardi for his appointment, and gratitude to Navarro-Valls.

“He has been an important point of reference in the extraordinary bond that Rome had with its honorary citizen John Paul II and then with the new Pontiff,” the mayor said. “All Romans will remember him with esteem and affection.”

The note issued by the Vatican press office July 11, reported the Holy Father’s gratitude to Navarro-Valls for his “long and generous service.”