Greg Burke: Pope Francis’ American Point Man

PROFILE: Those who know him well, as an affable Catholic journalist and a man of deep faith, believe the St. Louis native is uniquely equipped to tackle his challenging new responsibilities.

Holy See Press Director Greg Burke with Sister Mary Prema Pierick, mother superior of the Missionaries of Charity, at a press briefing on Mother Teresa's canonization at the Holy See Press Office on Sept. 2.
Holy See Press Director Greg Burke with Sister Mary Prema Pierick, mother superior of the Missionaries of Charity, at a press briefing on Mother Teresa's canonization at the Holy See Press Office on Sept. 2. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

ROME — Before he decided to take a job as a Vatican communications adviser, journalist Greg Burke sought some apostolic advice at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul.

As he told a reporter in a 2012 interview, he prayed — and prayed some more — about whether to leave the Fox News Channel to accept the offer he had twice declined from the Vatican Secretariat of State.  

For Burke, who follows a daily prayer regimen as an Opus Dei numerary (celibate member), the answer came less as a “lightning bolt” and more as a sense that changing course was the right move.

Now, Burke’s professional life has taken yet another turn: succeeding Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi as director of the Vatican Press Office, several months after being named deputy director. Colleagues and associates say his experience on both sides of the lectern makes him well-suited for the post, as does an engaging, sociable personality that wins friends and influences people.

Although Burke’s membership in Opus Dei has raised a few eyebrows in the media world he has inhabited for the last three decades, mostly due to the infamous (and incorrect) portrayal of the personal prelature in Dan Brown’s potboiler The Da Vinci Code, the picture he presents in professional and personal circles is said to be that of a genial, affable guy who loves sports — especially soccer — and is fun to be around.

Courtney Walsh, a Rome-based reporter since 2005 with the Fox News Channel, where Burke was European and Middle East on-air correspondent for 10 years, said her former colleague was regarded by his fellow journalists as someone smart and down-to-earth who also possessed a sense of humor.

“Often, we would find ourselves in stressful situations, covering riots in Paris with tear gas and stones coming our way, or with last-minute transmission problems as we were about to go live on a Rome rooftop, and Greg remained cool, good-humored and funny — in a self-deprecating way — despite all the chaos.”

Still, said Francis Maier, senior adviser and special assistant to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, Burke’s “regular guy” image is something of a mask for a keen intelligence and skill set. “He doesn’t overwhelm you with the sense that you’re dealing with an intellectual and comes across in a very normal fashion.”

Added Edward “Ned” Desmond, COO of TechCrunch and a former Time Inc. executive, who met Burke when both were young reporters: “He’s also very focused, even though he’s very social and friendly. He’s usually … thinking very hard about something. There’s another side to him which is very intense and very focused and very serious, but his general demeanor is very jolly and warm and friendly.”

Maier, who was editor in chief of the National Catholic Register when Burke was the newspaper’s Rome correspondent, said, in the secular world, Burke is seen as balanced and honest. “In the Catholic media, he’s sort of top of the heap, in the sense that he’s reliably, faithfully Catholic, highly intelligent and very professional.”


Jesuit and Opus Dei Formation

A St. Louis native, Burke, 56, credits his English teachers at the Jesuit St. Louis University High School, where he graduated in 1978, with kindling an interest in writing that led him to the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Jesuit Father Ralph Houlihan, who was principal during Burke’s years at the school, remembers him as a well-rounded and good student who was involved in drama, National Honor Society, the student newspaper and student council, and he attended Mass almost daily.

It was in high school that Burke learned about Opus Dei and went to meetings at the personal prelature’s Wespine Study Center in Kirkwood, Mo., said Jesuit Father Louis McCabe, who taught at St. Louis University High in the 1970s. “As far as I know, this is the only religious vocation that he explored, and he followed this vocation fully from his adolescence.”

Opus Dei (which is Latin for “Work of God”) was founded by St. Josemaría Escrivá in 1928 to promote holiness among laypeople as they go about their daily work. It is an international Catholic organization, canonically defined as a “personal prelature,” and is led by a prelate (a bishop) who has jurisdiction over Opus Dei members worldwide. The prelature is comprised of clergy and laypeople, some of whom are celibate, called “numeraries,” and the majority of whom are married, called “supernumeraries.” Members commit to a plan of pray, study and work to further the mission of living holy lives in the midst of the world.

Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey, who has known Burke since his early years in the prelature, said joining at a young age is not unusual. He added that a commitment typically follows 18 months of preparation, during which the candidate learns what is involved and how joining is a call from God. “But you can walk out the door anytime you want. There are no vows. No one is here unless they want to be here. … We’re very free. That’s the key.”

When Burke went to Columbia University in New York, he lived with other numerary members in an Opus Dei center, as he does now in Rome, Father McCloskey said. The centers, which are segregated by sex, are characterized by a mix of independent and communal living. For instance, each member has his own room and goes out to do his own work each day, but shares some meals and times of prayer with other members.

“It’s not a religious order,” Father McCloskey said. “We don’t live in that sort of way, but we’re also giving ourselves to God in a particular way.”


Becoming a Journalist

At Columbia, Burke studied comparative literature and later enrolled in the graduate school of journalism. His first reporting job was covering the police beat at the former Daily Item in Port Chester, N.Y. From there, he went to work for United Press International in Chicago.

In 1988, he moved to Rome as the Register’s correspondent. Joan Lewis, EWTN Rome bureau chief and former Rome bureau chief for the Register, had suggested Burke for the position because, she said, “I felt Greg … would be thorough, get the facts straight and tell the truth when he wrote a story — no spinning.” She also thought his personality and easy manner would be assets when meeting and interviewing people in the Vatican.

Lewis was right. “Greg was articulate, capable in other languages and had a very winning personality,” Maier said. “While he’s faithful to the Church, he doesn’t come across as partisan. … All those qualities came together for someone who had to deal with Vatican officials and a global view of the Church.”

Burke went on to become Rome bureau chief for Time magazine in 1994 and joined the Fox News Channel in 2001.

In many ways, his journalism career reflects the Opus Dei charism of living the faith by doing one’s work in the world, said Greg Erlandson, a longtime friend and colleague, who met Burke while working for Catholic News Service (CNS) in Rome. Erlandson, the former publisher for Our Sunday Visitor, was recently named director and editor in chief for CNS.

“When you’re a professional of any sort, your faith is going to be most obvious in the life you lead, if you treat people with integrity and respect and you are as straightforward as you can be and do your work well and professionally. All of that fits Greg.”

Desmond concurred. “Greg obviously has a terrific Catholic formation, and he has lived that in his life as a reporter. … I think it’s one of the most interesting pieces of evidence of his success and his quality as a person and a thinker that he was working for secular news organizations that really respected and valued what he had to say. I don’t think anyone ever said, ‘You must have a slanted point of view because you’re a very committed Catholic.’” Rather, he said, Burke had a clear, independent professional profile and unimpeachable credentials.

“Opus Dei is all about sanctifying one’s ordinary work and daily life, about being a contemplative in the middle of the world, and part of that is trying to do one’s work as well as possible in order to give glory to God,” said Opus Dei Father John Wauck, who teaches at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “Looking at Greg’s journalistic career — from the Register, to Time, to Fox, to the Vatican — it would be hard to avoid the conclusion that he has been doing a good job. If you put that together with the intense life of prayer (centered on the Mass) and apostolic service that is expected of all the members of Opus Dei, then I think you see his life as exemplifying that harmonious union of work and prayer.”


Vatican Responsibilities

As senior communications adviser to the Vatican Secretariat of State, Burke worked with engaging new forms and channels of communication, such as social media, said Erlandson, who has served on a committee charged with proposing ways to reform Vatican media and bring it into the digital age.

“Greg knows what’s happening there. He’s very up-to-speed on what is new and cutting-edge, in terms of communication,” he added. “We’re seeing a new sort of energy that’s coming into Vatican communications.”

Burke’s appointment as press office director likely came as no surprise to colleagues who had mentioned him 10 years ago as a possible successor to Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who held the position from 1984 to 2006. Lewis said she had heard Burke’s name bandied about during Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 trip to Poland in honor of St. John Paul II. A little more than a month later, Father Lombardi was named to the post.

Desmond said Burke, who is the first American to hold the position, is a good choice for the reasons that journalists often become spokespeople: They understand what reporters want and know what the questions will be. “Having a person with a deep news background is a great asset. … [Burke] is uniquely situated to be that bridge between the institutional Church and the press corps.”

Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.

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