‘This Pope Doesn’t Need a Spokesman’

Father Federico Lombardi isn’t new to his post, in one sense.

After working with the Vatican Radio since 1991, the Jesuit priest is well acquainted with the Vatican press. When Joaquin Navarro-Valls resigned after 22 years as chief papal spokesman, Pope Benedict XVI tapped Father Lombardi as a replacement.

Father Lombardi spoke with Edward Pentin in Rome.

What is it like being the Pope’s own spokesman?

In a sense, I don’t think I’m the spokesman of the Pope. I’m the director of the Press Office of the Holy See.

This Pope does not need a spokesman. He speaks much better than I can about many things and is very capable. Every week he speaks many times; I speak very little.

That’s a great attribute of this Pope, isn’t it? That he is very willing to speak spontaneously to the press, to give interviews freely and communicate effectively.

John Paul II was also very able in this regard. He began by giving little interviews on the papal plane, he gave a press conference at the inauguration of the new press office hall. It was really a new age in the communication of the Church. He was very spontaneous, he spoke to all people; he had no fear of anyone.

But it’s true, this Pope, in his own way, has a very clear way of speaking, a spontaneity in talking and a way of responding to very pressing matters. For instance, the dialogues he had with priests in the Lateran basilica and to the priests in Aosta last year. Also many times, people asked him questions in Les Combes, and he answered without fear or any difficulty.

In this sense, he’s very gifted and demonstrates a very profound intellectual competence because he has a profoundly rich background in theological and religious culture. That allows him to dialogue with anyone without problems.

Also this is because of his formation in German universities in which the Catholic culture is not an enclosed, clerical world, but very often engaging the culture of today. Also, when he was later the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he gave a lot of public conferences and in this sense he has, all his life, had this attitude of open dialogue with others, and not just in clerical circles and within the Church.

In the past, journalists would complain that the Holy See Press Office wasn’t very transparent in its dealings with the press. Dr. Navarro-Valls would attribute it to dietrologia, a tendency among Italians to believe in conspiracies, and he continually had to allay concerns that the press wasn’t being told all the details, particularly about the Pope’s health. What do you say to this criticism, and how will you address it?

I have no criticism about what Navarro has done. I think he did his work very well. It was difficult at times, as you indicated, but I think he gave a very good service to the press.

We have to say what is true, and we have to say this clearly and in the best way, to be at the service of good communications. At the same time, we all know there are aspects in a person’s life that have to be respected as private in the sense that you cannot expect all the particulars of a person’s life to be published. We’re not publishing information about family or relationships, for instance.

Another complaint over the years has been that Vatican officials are too scared of the press, and sometimes don’t trust the media, even the Catholic media. What will you be doing in this regard to try and build trust?

I think there is some truth to this complaint.

Many people in the Church distrust the media world, but sometimes for good reason. Everyone has to understand the other: People in the media have to demonstrate, through merit, that there are good reasons to put trust in them. Some, if you only give them a few words, will do a bad job.

So you can’t limit it only to the ecclesiastical world and say that they are closed. There is no general solution, but there’s some way to go until the ecclesiastical world is more natural in communicating and has trust with the media.

Yes, we have to help those interlocutors who are being asked to respond to the media grow in trust, but we have to be sure that they will not be manipulated or made to say something they didn’t want to say. The problem is that many do feel manipulated or are made to say only a part of what they wanted to say, are not able to communicate fully their ideas, or their thesis is construed negatively towards the Church. If this happens, if they have some bad experience with the media, then naturally they will not continue to be trustful and it will be difficult to have good relations with the press in the future.

So the onus really lies with both the media and Church officials?

It’s on each side, in the sense we both have tasks to fulfill: On my side I have to encourage the ecclesiastical world to be confident and ready to talk to the public and express their views in a clear language — that’s one of my duties. But it’s difficult if they feel manipulated or attacked. So we have a way to go and that’s not altogether easy.

Some were critical of the way the Holy See recently handled Archbishop Milingo, the Zambian archbishop who scandalized the Church with his marriage, his repentance and his subsequent outspokenness in favor of married priests. They said the Vatican should have simply responded with “no comment” rather than enter into the controversy he had created. What is your response to this view?

The press office gave a very short declaration. It was a sign of the Vatican’s very prudent attitude because it was perhaps not totally clear what he was doing, and what could be the consequences of his current behavior.

In this sense the Vatican was very respectful, questioning if it was true, and if it was true what he said, then it is clear that it was against the position of the Church.

It was a hypothetical judgment; it was very prudent and full of charity and respect, also for the competent authorities — that they need to take time in explaining their response and the possible solutions that might need to be taken.

The declaration allowed an open space for developments, to leave the final decision to the competent authorities. This is a good way to proceed — it wasn’t a hurried response. We said this, it seems respectful, correct, open, profound and we’ll have to see what the solution is.

What challenges are you most looking forward to regarding this job?

The challenge is clear: to serve the Church by communicating the Church to the world of today. The fundamental mission is the same as that of the Church: to announce the Gospel of the Lord to the world of today in the best way possible. It is a good mission; it continues the mission of the Church, proclaiming the Gospel but with particular attention to the world of the media and of journalists.

Whether I succeed in finding a good way of performing this service within the context of my work with Vatican Radio and the Vatican television center, whether I succeed in finding a way of achieving this in the great way Navarro did with the opinion makers of the world, well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.

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