Papal Spokesman on Benedict, Opus Dei and John Paul

Joaquin Navarro-Valls has seen history up-close over the past 22 years.

The Vatican spokesman worked closely with Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI. He said he’d like to get back to his original field — medicine — but that Pope Benedict has asked him to stay on.

Navarro-Valls spoke to Register correspondent Edward Pentin Jan. 19 at the Holy See Press Office.

How much do you consider your work as evangelization, as a mission?

As with every job, this is one that should and must be done with a background of professionalism, with norms, and so on — it’s a professional job. Certainly for a Christian and a Catholic, every single job and every situation in life could be, and should be, at the same time a mission. This is the context in which I should try to live my beliefs. So from my point of view, you cannot separate any of these things, and I insist on a level of professionalism. Without those parameters, you cannot try to do something serious as a job — and specifically a job like this.

So do you consider your work a vocation?

Again, for every single Christian, any situation in life can be a vocation. This is why I was called to this work. The same can be said for marriage, to a profession, to developing activities in one’s social life and so on. But again, I always try to stress to myself, to others, and to my colleagues here in the office, the idea of professionalism. It can be said that for a layperson, professionalism is the name of mission.

Doing it to the best of your ability.

That’s it — that’s your responsibility in your job. To be honest and so on and so on.

Has belonging to Opus Dei helped you foster this approach to your work?

Yes, Opus Dei, of course, but also just being a Christian. I feel there are so many people who feel a kind of tension between their Christian vocation and their professional life. At a certain point, they can and should be mixed together. You cannot follow a double path in your life.

As you know, much of the press these days focuses on the sensational aspects of news, and tends to omit the facts. By doing so, the press often fails to grasp the essential nature of the Church when reporting on the Vatican.

Does this irritate you at all?

Irritation, no. I wouldn’t be so pessimistic in this regard. I’ve asked myself what kind of picture people must have of the Catholic Church and Christian values if the only way they come to know the Catholic Church is through the papers. Well, many of the characteristics of key points of Christianity are there. For instance, a Catholic should be honest in any walk of life, have stability in family life through marriage between a man and a woman, respect for life, dignity for every single person. So there are a set of values, in different languages and maybe not expressed with great clarity, but which are nevertheless there.

Certainly if you want to get the complete picture, nobody goes just to the papers or public opinion. They go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or whatever. But with respect to the general picture, I don’t feel so pessimistic about it, which is why I don’t get irritated by it. Certainly there are some occasions you see something which is totally opposed to the values that we have in the Catholic Church. At that point, it is the job, the vocation of my office, to try to clarify that by offering people our views, by offering people exactly what the Pope is saying, and so on. Nevertheless, there will always be people who will say, “Okay, I’ve understood it, but I don’t like it and I will write just the opposite.” It’s up to them!

But do you see things getting better in your view, that since Pope John Paul II died people are taking more of an interest and coming to grips with issues more than they used to?

I think that the vitality, to use a neutral word, of the 27-year pontificate of John Paul II, is there. And the result is that Christian values are clearer now — even among people who are not Catholics. The curiosity towards Christianity has improved. And even in this pontificate, not a year long, you can see — concentrating on one single parameter as there are many others — the large number of people coming to St. Peter’s Square to take part in the audiences and the Angelus. These numbers have increased enormously, even to the extent that up until the first part of winter, the audiences were in the open because it was impossible to accommodate them inside.

So I would say there is something at the root of all this, and this is something I’ve been reflecting upon these days — and not only these days. The anti-Christian prejudice in modernity is now dissolving. It’s disappearing. It’s crumbling. The idea that modernity is equal to an anti-Christian prejudice is disappearing.

But if I may take you up on that: Only yesterday there was a resolution passed in the European Parliament warning that states that refuse to approve “marriage” and unions between same-sex couples would be subject to sanctions and eventual expulsion from the European Union. A few Members of the European Parliament also directly criticized Pope Benedict XVI on this issue. Isn’t that an indication that there’s still a long way to go?

If you’re thinking that everybody around the world is Catholic then. … But for Christianity, that’s always been the same. It was very clear in the long pontificate of John Paul II and it’s also clear now in the papacy of Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church is not, in essence, interested in succeeding in a battle and imposing values. She is offering values.

And it’s up to them to take it or leave it?

Yes. To put it in Italian: La Chiesa e non interessante a vincere, ma a convincere (the Church is not interested in winning, but convincing) which is completely different. Not to win, but to offer. And more than one billion people around the world agree with that.

But in Italy there is still significant prejudice, or resistance, against the Church in terms of what the Church teaches.

Yesterday, I read in the paper — I’d like to read it in its entirety — a survey that said that 87% of the people in this country say they’re Catholics, and this is an increase of 20% compared to 20 years ago, or something like that.

Yet two thirds of that 87% support civil unions legislation in favor of same-sex couples.

That’s why I’m interested in taking a closer look at the survey. I don’t know how the questions were put to the people. I mean, to publish a survey without detailing what questions were used, makes it difficult to say.

Regarding the Holy See Press Office, it’s been said that Pope Benedict is very likely to streamline the Vatican’s press and communications offices to try and make them a single, unified voice. How true are these rumors, and what reforms would you personally like made to these offices?

Regarding the first part of your question, I don’t know anything about that. From the point of view of unifying the voice, for the last 27 years it’s been very clear: it’s the [Vatican’s] point of reference. The press office represents the official position of the Holy See. I don’t know what is the mind of the Holy Father on this.

But would you personally like to see changes?

I think the structural changes in any organization are very easy; the difficulty is in changing the mentality — that’s much more difficult. The central question is: Are you interested in participating in the dialectic of public opinion, or not? If you want to participate in that, then you have got to develop a semantic — a way of saying things that can be understood by people. Then you have to revise your method of releasing information — exactly what we have been trying to do over the last years and, I would say, with some success.

If you take some points, the way in which the Holy See has informed on many issues, one could even say it was a model for other people, especially when you look at the coverage of the last month of the life of John Paul II. But if you put it into context of other countries, I’m not even going to get into that. Absolute clarity from the very beginning up to the last moment, etc.

Regarding the point of view and position of the Holy See regarding many issues, that has been very clear.

But there was the incident last summer, for example, when unknown to you, the Secretariat of State put out a strong rebuttal to comments made by some Israeli officials over the absence of a papal condemnation of a terrorist attack in the country.

That was, shall we say, a mistake. A position was attributed to me but it was one that I had not expressed. The statement was released when I was personally flying back to Rome from Val d’Aosta, but this was a small thing that was immediately clarified afterwards. I went to the press, to Corriere della Sera, to say that No, I hadn’t read it before it was published — or after it was published. But it is a small thing in the whole context. I don’t think it was a great problem because it was clarified immediately.

What’s it like to work for Pope Benedict XVI? What are the differences in comparison to working for John Paul II?

I think there is a double continuity. There is continuity with John Paul II because, among other things, Cardinal Ratzinger was a key person in the Roman Curia for 25 or 26 years with John Paul II.

But at the same time, there’s another interesting continuity to take into account which is the long continuation of 20 centuries of popes — nothing is changing. The basic points of the Catholic Church are there.

Then, after that, it can be said there are differences in style, in the way of doing some things. For instance, in Benedict XVI, there’s an extraordinary conceptual capacity and yet at the same time there is the facility in which he expresses those difficult concepts in a way that everybody understands. At World Youth Day in Cologne last August, there was a huge headline in the leading German newspaper that read: ”The Academic Who Can Be Understood.” That is a great capacity, and we’re seeing that every single day in the audiences. Maybe this is exactly what our time needs, to go deep into many concepts of everything — the concepts of mankind, the conception of man, human love. The key points of our culture. And, at the same time, saying that in the kind of way that can be understood. This, by the way, is a great facility for my office where we have to transmit all this — it’s being done already by the Holy Father.

A Vatican official told me that he’s making theology attractive as well as easily understood.

Yes, both by academics and also by people at audiences — both of them. None of them is disappointed when they listen to Benedict XVI.

Will it be a great teaching pontificate?

I would say so. I’m sure. By saying that I’m not just making an act of faith, but I am thinking of the long list of books written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger — it’s huge. And dealing not only with, so to speak, clerical matters, but dealing with everything that is put there by modernity and he has tried to successfully deal with those topics. The content is there in what has been published in the last 20 years.

Is his papacy part of the reason for the fact that anti-Christian prejudice is, as you say, dissolving?

I am sure and certainly also the contribution of John Paul II. One of the successes is due to putting the religious dimension of human beings there at the center of the discussion. What you mentioned earlier about the European Parliament confirms that. What is happening here is that people get nervous. They are not setting the agenda, that’s being set somewhere else.

In many ways, there’s a different pastoral approach here, isn’t there?

Yes. When we use the word pastoral, this is what it is. Such a thing is badly needed, because there is a great confusion in basic concepts that we use every single day. What is life? What is the meaning of suffering? What is the meaning of human dignity? What does it really mean? He’s explaining what they are.

I remember during the pontificate of John Paul II being sent in 1995 to the Beijing conference regarding women, that huge conference there. And to my surprise there was some delegation trying to delete from the documents the word “dignity” regarding women because they saw dignity as being something religious when it’s very human. It’s nothing dogmatic, it’s just philosophy, conception, how you understand the human being. It was something stupid, and eventually they were defeated.

On that issue of confusion, does it concern you when a senior Vatican official speaks about something that is at odds with established Church teaching? I’m thinking of a cardinal who said recently that he didn’t think divorce, in some cases, was a sin.

He was not a Vatican official, and I’m not sure the paper reported accurately what he said. Divorce — what is divorce? It is a civil procedure.

But what about when a cardinal or senior bishop says things not consistent with Catholic teaching?

But do you think a situation like that can put into doubt the position of the Catholic Church on some topics?

I’d say it adds to confusion.

It’s clear, the position of the Catholic Church, regarding marriage. To give a complete answer to this question, I would need to go to the journalist and ask him, “Did the cardinal say that?” Because at the bottom, you’ve got to ask yourself, here is the Bible, here is the Catechism; whom should I believe, this or that? The Bible or the Catechism? Certainly on important things like this. So in the end of all this, public opinion has its importance. I’ve been working in this field for many years, but at the bottom, when someone tries to clarify himself or herself on a key point of Catholic doctrine, I think it’s a little bit risky just to follow what the paper says, and this is something everybody understands. Everybody.

What are your plans as press officer? Do you intend to stay for the duration of this papacy?

I’ll say to you what I said to myself many times during my 22 years with John Paul II in this job: I want to live each day as it comes. Certainly I’m convinced that 22 years in this job is something absolutely unprecedented, not only in the Holy See but around the world. I have known in this time 12 spokesmen for the White House, 15 for the secretary general of the United Nations and I’m still here. One day I’ll say I am finished. What I can tell you is that Benedict XVI has asked me to remain for some time and so I said Okay, but I still have a nostalgia for my first professional love which, as you know, was medicine. Some time I spent in Oxford doing research in my specialized field but I don’t know that.

You’d like to go back to that?

It’s a possibility, or to write a book to explain the experience of 22 years, I don’t know yet; I haven’t decided.

What have been your highlights of 22 years here?

It’s impossible to single out a moment because, for now, the memories are all there. Certainly, I have seen history up close on many occasions. History with capital letters. I cannot forget all the occasions I was working with John Paul II, day by day, and now with Benedict XVI. The last days of his life, that month from the first time he was recovering in hospital until the day he died, I was trying to do two things simultaneously — following the events and at the same time coming here to the press office for at least two briefings every day, explaining everything. There are too many memories just to single out a single moment. Certainly, I can remember being called here with much surprise as I wasn’t trying to do this kind of job, really not looking for it. It was quite unexpected for me.

What are your abiding memories of John Paul II?

His good humor. This is something seen in many of the pictures of John Paul II, when he was performing ceremonies or addressing people. But working with him was very easy; it was wonderful because he always had a very good sense of humor.

Even in difficult situations?

Even in difficult situations, yes. Certainly, if we got into the sanctity of his personal life, we could go on for hours — many hours. And this is something which, in a way, every single person who has known John Paul II, and even people who haven’t had the opportunity to meet him personally, are aware of.

Like working with a saint?


Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.