|St Peter's as seen from across the Tiber|
(c) Sebastien Bertrand - published under a creative commons
licence (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Personally, I am a great fan of the Pope’s press spokesman and director of Vatican Radio and Television, Fr Federico Lombardi, SJ. He has always struck me as a gentle, calm and holy man. He is also an effective communicator. I am therefore glad that he will remain in his post despite this new appointment. Having said that, holiness and the particular demands of the priestly vocation can sometimes find themselves compromised when dealing with the world of journalism, which is often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as scurrilous and base. (I am reminded of a joke once used by Charles Moore, who said that when going to confession, he always begins: “Bless me, father, for I am a journalist!”) In that sense, then, I have always thought it would be just as well, if not better, to have a layperson, as opposed to a cleric, running - or effectively running - the Vatican's communications operation.
It may be down to the fact that John Paul II was himself a charismatic performer that the Vatican press machine seemed to run more smoothly during his papacy. The lack of gaffes during Blessed John Paul’s reign may also have something to do with the fact that many of the now exposed clerical child abuse cases, which rocked the Vatican in recent years, were actually still being covered up during the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. But many observers also agree that the previous Pope’s spokesman, Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valls, was extremely able and effective when having to deal with the blood hounds of the press. He seemed to know how to control a story, and he also (more importantly) appeared to enjoy Pope John Paul’s confidence – all stories were channelled through Navarro-Valls, and he knew what was going on where and with whom.
Sadly, in these days of leaks and gossip, there seems to have been a certain inability on the part of the Vatican's press office to manage stories before they get out of hand. It has also appeared to me as if Fr Lombardi has often been working with one hand tied behind his back, through not fault of his own. Maybe he has not been privy to the full facts in certain situations? Spokesmen need to know - intimately - what is in the mind of the person they are representing, and they need to know what is really going on. He might not be liked by many here in the UK, but Tony Blair's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, was a superbly effective manager of the press. Why was he so successful? Probably because he knew just as much about what was happening in 10 Downing Street as the Prime Minister did. He was a messenger who knew the 'message', inside out.
Like Joachim Navarro-Valls, Greg Burke is both a devout Catholic and a man who has had to live and work within the harsh realities of the present world – as a layman and as a journalist. Journalism is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who wish to live a peaceful life! He shares another thing in common with Navarro-Valls – Burke is a member of Opus Dei.
As far as I know, one of the chief purposes of Opus Dei is to create a lay apostolate – where laypeople embrace their true vocation as members of the laity for the good of the Church. In that sense, I feel that having someone like Greg Burke advising the Pope on communications will be a great blessing to the universal Church. He will be fully aware of how vital it is to be media savvy and press literate, and also wishes to place his gifts as a layman – as someone not ‘constrained’, so to speak, by those expectations which are rightly placed on ordained ministers – at the service of the Pope and the Church. No doubt, he will be a tremendous help to Fr Lombardi in his work, too.
Speaking in an interview with Associated Press, Burke, who is a son of St Louis, Missouri, and who attended the extremely successful Jesuit-run St Louis University High School and then studied at Columbia University, spoke of his new appointment, saying: “I’m a bit nervous but very excited. Let’s just say it’s a challenge.” He then went on to define his role as: “shaping the message, you’re moulding the message, and you’re trying to make sure everyone remains on-message. And that’s tough.”
It seems that Greg Burke was offered this post on two previous occasions, but declined. It would appear, then, that someone in the Vatican has great confidence in him to ‘shape the message’ the Pope is trying to deliver to this increasingly secular or religiously illiterate (western) world. It is also good to know that Fr Lombardi will remain in his post, for Burke’s job will not be entirely similar to the one currently held by the papal spokesman. From what I have read, it could be that Burke will work behind the scenes, whilst Lombardi will continue, for now, to be the 'frontman'.
In recent times, there have been serious media blunders by the Vatican. A few examples include the whole condoms fiasco, which resulted from the publication of Pope Benedict’s book Light of the Word; the mess surrounding Bishop Wiliamson’s rehabilitation, which coincided with a media frenzy concerning his alleged Holocaust denying statements; and, of course, it must be said that some in the Vatican misjudged the hurt and anger felt by so many Catholics when the clerical child abuse scandals became a huge focus of (often unjustifiable – it must be said) media attention a few years ago. Now, of course, the Holy See is facing yet another media crisis - the so called Vatileaks nonsense, which seems to have stunned the Curia and caught the Vatican's press office off-guard.
Journalism does not always respond to reason – papers are sold, usually, on the back of anger, not calm due process. Epistemology is swept away by emotion. Just as the Queen had to dumb down reason when responding to the media-led hysteria surrounding Princess Diana’s death in 1997, so the Church must learn a new language - sometimes of the heart, and often of the unlettered – if she wishes to communicate her message to modern man. It is a sad reflection on our times – but we cannot wish reality away.
In this age of obsessive rolling-news, of reality TV, of secular arrogance, of poorly educated people with PhDs, and so on - the Church needs to readjust the way she communicates if she is to make sense to ordinary people, non-Catholics and Catholics alike! I believe it was St Francis de Sales who said that a preacher fails in his work unless everyone listening to the sermon - from the least educated to the most erudite - understands what he's trying to say.
It is ironic to note that the story about Greg Burke’s appointment was leaked! The Vatican had planned to announce his appointment during the coming week, but someone had other ideas. This misfortune points to another reality the Church must now come to terms with, namely that waiting for the right time to make things public is fast becoming a thing of the past. In the world of modern communications, the only right time to make something known is ‘yesterday’ – otherwise, and rather cynically, delays become conspiracies and waiting becomes a ‘cover up’.
To own a story and control it, people and organisations, including the Church, must be open and up-front from the beginning – and all things must be and should be transparent. Waiting for the best time to release a story or signing off documents in advance of publication is a nonsense in today’s world – for with the internet and digital communication, the only effective time to publish is now!