How the Vatican presents itself and how its news is covered by observers and correspondents. Facts, analyses and insider observations on a profession that is unique in the world
by Sandro Magister
ROME, June 7, 2005 – The following presentation was first given on May 26 in France, at the Jean Moulin University in Lyon, on the invitation of the Club Media France and the local Institute of Italian Culture. It is divided into two sections. The first talks about how the Vatican presents itself to the outside world through its press office, through the daily newspaper “L’Osservatore Romano” and through a very unusual Jesuit magazine, “La Civiltà Cattolica”.
The second section talks about how the foreign press
Vatican news. The “foreign press” in this case means Vatican
who are not part of the Holy See: who they are, how they work, what
they follow, and what problems they have to deal with.
A. HOW THE VATICAN PRESENTS ITSELF
1. The press office and its director. It is what it
Historically, the Holy See press office is the descendent of the Information Office that in 1936 was set up alongside “L’Osservatore Romano” with the purpose of providing accredited journalists with information.
It took on its present name in 1966, at the end of the Second Vatican Council. The Council was really its test-bed, but it was already a demonstration of its shortcomings. The journalists reporting on the council preferred to resort to other information sources in order to get the news not provided by the official Vatican channels.
But it was through John Paul II that the press office took on its current shape. In a letter from the secretariat of state in 1986, and then in the “Pastor Bonus” constitution on the Roman Curia in 1988, the press office was given the responsibility of “spreading news of the acts of the supreme pontiff and the activities of the Holy See”, making it accountable to the first section of the secretariat of state.
But even before then, in 1984, a decision was made that shaped the destiny of the press office to the present day. Because in 1984 Joaquín Navarro-Valls – Spaniard, journalist, Opus Dei member who had taken a vow of chastity – became the press office’s director. He was nominated by a prelate of the Curia called Crescenzio Sepe, who today is a cardinal but at the time was the director of the information office of the secretariat of state. It was this same Sepe who in that same year also named the new editor of “L’Osservatore Romano”, Mario Agnes.
In his more than twenty years as the head of the press office, Navarro has proved himself to be much more than a simple means of communication. He has been a spin doctor, an editor, a PR man, and investigator, advisor, diplomat and ambassador for the pope.
He likes to recount that his working day never ends: “I’m in touch with the entire world, 24 hours a day. In the daytime I receive phone calls from Europe and Africa, in the evening and at night from America, then just before dawn from Japan and Asia”. But the actual journalists accredited to the Vatican see him very rarely. His office is inaccessible. He’s practically impossible to get on the telephone. He sees only a very limited circle of privileged professionals: the correspondents of the world’s main news agencies, and the important American media channels, Mexican and Spanish TV, the news agency ANSA and the newspaper “Corriere della Sera” from Italy, and hardly anyone else.
Navarro has turned the Vatican’s grey press office into a full-scale factory of the pope’s public image. Everything comes second to this objective: sometimes, even the factuality of the information that he himself provides. The most famous case of the imaginary news presented as accurate by Navarro was the make-believe audience which John Paul II supposedly gave to the Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú, in Guatemala City in 1996. The meeting never took place, but Navarro gave journalists a detailed account of it, making it credible by quoting from the conversation the two allegedly had.
As an editorial promoter, Navarro thought up and in 1994 launched the most widely read and translated book by John Paul II: the interview conducted by Vittorio Messori entitled “Crossing the threshold of hope”.
However, he was rather less successful in a different instance. As a counter-blow to the best-seller about the assassination of pope Albino Luciani, “In God’s Name” by the Englishman David Yallop, Navarro called on the help of another Brit, John Cornwell, the brother of the famous crime writer John Le Carré. The end result? In this counter-book “A Thief in the Night”, Cornwell discredits the murder theory, but describes a Vatican curia so cynical and cruel that it actually caused pope Luciani to die of a broken heart.
As an investigator, Navarro personally took in hand the case of the commander of the Swiss Guards, Alois Estermann, who was killed in the Vatican on 4 May 1998 along with his wife Gladys, by a subordinate, Cedric Tornay, who then committed suicide. Just a few minutes after the shots were fired, Navarro was on the scene of the crime. Four hours later, in the middle of the night, he presented his solution to the world: “a moment of madness in the course of a personal conflict”. The following day, he presented his proof to the world: two letters he had found himself. His conclusion was that “in just two days I have defused a story that would otherwise have been in the newspapers of the whole world for months, causing serious damage to the Holy See”.
As a medical doctor, he closely followed Pope Karol Wojtyla’s health problems. It was a surprise declaration from Navarro, rather than a medical bulletin, that declared in 1996, during a papal trip to Hungary, that John Paul II was affected by “extra-pyramidal” problems: Parkinson’s disease. To be honest, he also reported as an “unknown viral infection” in the pope’s intestine, what turned out to be an ordinary appendicitis.
And then there is Navarro the diplomat. His initiation in this role was in September 1994, in Cairo, at the international UN conference on population and development. The secretariat of state put Navarro amongst the 17 members of the Vatican delegation, and he took control of the group, become a star of television around the world.
But the biggest feather in his diplomat’s cap was
preparation of John Paul II’s trip to Cuba in January 1998. It was
who found a way to Fidel Castro’s heart after the Vatican’s foreign
Jean Louis Tauran, had failed. In an endless conversation all through a
Havana night, the two of them spoke about everything under the sun,
the possibility of human life on other planets. A minutely detailed
of this conversation – of which Navarro is the only source – can be
in the nearly official biography of John Paul II by the American George
2. “L’Osservatore Romano”. Vaste monde, petite
To tell the truth, the expression coined by the great theologian and later cardinal Yves Congar goes the other way around: “petite paroisse, vaste monde [tiny parish, big world]”. But the daily newspaper of the pope and Vatican curia has been the opposite ever since Mario Agnes became its editor. “L’Osservatore Romano” has a world-wide readership. It reports news from the most remote corners of the planet. It sings the praises of the Catholic and universal nature of the Church… but at the same time, it’s a very “parochial” newspaper, and from a very narrow-minded parish – both in terms of the news it reports, and in the way it reports it.
“L’Osservatore Romano” has been published since 1861. Its daily edition is in Italian. In addition to this, there are six editions of a selection of articles that come out once a week in as many languages, plus a monthly publication in Polish.
The editor, named in 1984 by the then head of the secretariat of state’s information office, Crescenzio Sepe, is Mario Agnes, ex professor of mediaeval history, celibate, former president of Azione Cattolica Italiana and brother of Biagio Agnes, ex super manager of the Italian state radio and television broadcaster.
The Agnes family comes from Irpinia, a region in southern Italy that borders on the area where Sepe himself was born. Sister Tekla Famiglietti, general abbess of the Sisters of Saint Brigit and another good friend of Sepe, is also from Irpinia. She is an important entity in Vatican circles due to her high-ranking connections and the abundant offerings made as gifts to the pope.
Today, more than 20 years after Agnes was assigned his post, both he and Sister Tekla still have their positions, while Sepe has become the cardinal prefect of the congregation for the evangelisation of peoples. Their friendship is extremely close. In Vatican circles, they are known as the “Irpinia clan”.
And “L’Osservatore Romano” bears the mark of this close friendship. The actions and words of Sepe and Sister Tekla are always given great importance in the Vatican newspaper. The most sensational example of this dates back to March 2003, set on the scene of Cuba, co-starring Fidel Castro.
Sepe and Sister Tekla had gone to Cuba to receive a gift of a convent from Castro, for the nuns of Saint Brigit, in the centre of Havana.
Agnes had sent a correspondent with them. In the course of four days, “L’Osservatore Romano” dedicated no less than seven pages of reporting and triumphant photos to the event. One of these photographs showed Sepe, Sister Tekla and Castro hugging each other, with in the background a photo taken five years previously of the Cuban leader hugging John Paul II.
The articles reported a growing affection between the abbess, the cardinal and the bearded dictator: the nun and Fidel “walking hand in hand”, the nun conferring on the dictator the “decoration of Saint Brigit”, the cardinal thanking Castro on behalf of himself and of the pope for his “generous openness and brotherly help”.
But one person was conspicuous by his absence at the ceremonies: the archbishop of Havana, cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino. And he had good reason not to be there. He knew that while Castro was charming his guests from Rome and was broadcasting live coverage of these affectionate hugs on television, he was preparing handcuffs for 75 peaceful opposition members, most of them Catholic, who were then arrested a few days later and condemned to a total of over 1,500 years in prison.
The Vatican had been informed of this, but did nothing to stop Sepe, Agnes and sister Tekla. Cardinal Ortega and the other Cuban bishops were furious at this, and on 11 March they issued a joint declaration against “the excesses, both in words and actions, which we have witnessed in these circumstances by certain representatives of the Church”.
After this, Cardinal Ortega flew to Rome and complained in no uncertain terms to the cardinal secretary of state, Angelo Sodano, and was granted an audience with the pope.
So you can see that the fellowship in control of “L’Osservatore Romano” is capable of making waves even beyond the boundaries of its own “little parish”…
As for the “vaste monde”, three cases in particular stand out.
One is to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On 2 April 2002, during Easter week, the front page of “L’Osservatore Romano” read: “The Land of the Risen Christ laid to waste”. The article began as follows:
“Rarely has history been violated so crudely and taken backwards by the desire to offend the dignity of a people. With irritating haughtiness it is declared that Israel’s attacks are in launched in defence against terrorism. In reality, what is happening is attacks against people, territories, Places: Holy Places. The land of the Risen Christ is desecrated with violence and suffers daily as the victim of what equates to extermination…”.
“While the violence escalated in Bethlehem, a priest was killed in the convent of the sisters of the order of the SS. Salvatore of Saint Brigit. He had gone there to bring comfort to the nuns and to celebrate Holy Mass. A number of the Brigidine religious were wounded…”.
In actual fact, “L’Osservatore Romano” itself admitted two days later that no priest had been killed and that the nuns of Saint Brigit had escaped the danger. However, the article did provoke an indignant reaction from Rome’s Jewish community, which accused the Vatican’s newspaper of “anti-Semitism”.
That is not the only time in recent years that the Vatican’s diplomacy has found itself in difficulties due to the excessively anti-Israeli editorial line of “L’Osservatore Romano”.
A second example concerns Iraq. That John Paul II was against war was well known. But “L’Osservatore Romano” went a step further, becoming a self-appointed standard-bearer of extreme pacifism, screaming this attitude even graphically, with front pages laid out to look like placards, which were even carried in demonstrations as posters. This was the case until 12 November 2003, when 19 Italian soldiers and civilians were killed in a terrorist attack in Nassiriya.
Already towards the end of that summer, however, the pope and the secretariat of state had decided to support the western military presence in Iraq in support of the fledgling democracy there. But “L’Osservatore Romano” disregarded this. The full-page announcement of the Nassiriya massacre carried an ice-cold headline: “Cruel attack”. And underneath: “Another terrible attack has taken place, giving a terrible and disconcerting expression of the inhuman logic of war.” Stop. To find the words “peace-keeping mission”, which was how the activity of the killed Italian soldiers was described, you had to read the condolence telegram from John Paul II – only in that text could the phrase be found, without any reference of it in the headlines.
But it was exactly this which the pope and the secretariat of state wanted to see emphasised at any price. Agnes was told to fix it. And he obeyed, to the extreme. The following day’s edition opened with the headline: “The blood of the peace workers”. And underneath: “Their blood was shed in the course of a noble and generous service, aimed at maintaining and promoting peace in a land dramatically marked by the violence of war and post-war. The victims of the cruel Nassiriya attack were sentinels of peace. Deep in their hearts, they sincerely believed that they could contribute to the creation of peace…”.
A third example concerns the United States. Unbelievable but true: “L’Osservatore Romano” did not report the victory of George W. Bush over John F. Kerry in the American presidential elections of 2 November 2004.
In its 4 November issue – which was in actual fact printed at mid-day of the 3, Italian time, when the final result was already known but Kerry had not yet formally recognised his rival’s victory – the headline at the centre of the front page was : “United States: results of presidential elections still uncertain”.
And the following day? On a front page composed of no less than 14 articles on a very wide range of subjects, the presidential elections were given only a small box in a column, with the title: “USA. Bush indicates his priorities following the elections”. In the article, no details on the election results was given. There was also total silence on the 11 referenda won on the subject of natural marriage, against homosexual weddings.
Anti-Americanism and especially hostility towards
“warmongering” Bush are wide-spread sentiments in the Vatican, and more
so in “L’Osservatore Romano” than in other offices. But what is even
striking in this example is, very simply, bad journalism.
3. “La Civiltà Cattolica”. The secrets of the
“La Civiltà Cattolica” is a very special magazine. Actually, it’s unique.
It is written entirely by Jesuits, and all of its articles, even those published under one person’s name, are the collective responsibility of the entire “college” of the magazines writers, who live together in a building, Villa Malta, in the centre of Rome. Currently there are eleven Jesuit writers, plus another five who have the status of emeritus collaborators. The latter hold his position because they are over 75 years of age, and like bishops, have stepped down from their position.
The editor is appointed by the superior general of the Society of Jesus, but must be approved by the Holy See. The current editor is GianPaolo Salvini. The penultimate was Bartolomeo Sorge, and before him, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, it was Roberto Tucci, who is now a cardinal.
One of the editor’s tasks is to liase between the magazine and the Vatican authorities. The draft proofs of every issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica” are sent to the secretariat of state of the Holy See for examination.
“La Civiltà Cattolica” comes out on the first and third Saturday of every month. The Monday before publication, the magazine’s editor goes to the Vatican and is received in audience by the cardinal secretary of state or by one of his closest collaborators. He is informed of the observations on the articles that were submitted prior to the meeting, and these are discussed in order to decide what modifications must compulsorily be made to the magazine’s copy, and which changes can be left to the discretion of the editor.
There are two main angles to the checks made by the Vatican authorities.
The first is that every article in the magazine must conform to the official teachings of the Church, both in terms of faith and morality. If an article is particularly delicate, then it is also reviewed by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, or by other dicasteries of the curia.
The second aspect is the conformity, or at least the “not substantial divergence” with the policies of Holy See in its relations with states. Particular attention is paid to anything written about Italian politics.
The Vatican’s revision of an article can force quite significant changes compared to the first draft. Not only that. The Vatican can even totally prohibit the publication of a story.
This unusual production process of “La Civiltà Cattolica” – which has been part of its production ever since it was created in 1850 – is not a secret. A detail account of it is given on the magazine’s web site. What is top secret, however, is the content of the meetings the editor and the Vatican authorities hold, as are the documents that track the development of each article.
“La Civiltà Cattolica” is not an official outlet of the Holy See, neither formally nor unofficially. However, an understanding of how it is put together gives you an important decoder key: you can read it as a mirror of the orientations of the top echelons of the Vatican.
To understand it even better, there is a recent text from cardinal Roberto Tucci, who was the editor of “La Civiltà Cattolica” during the years of pope John XXIII. In the latest issue of “Cristianesimo nella Storia”, published by the Institute for Religious Sciences of Bologna, which was founded by Giuseppe Dossetti and is under the management of Giuseppe Alberigo, Tucci reveals some very interesting details from his time as editor.
First of all, Tucci points out that the Jesuits who were part of the college of writers at the time (between 1958 and 1963) did not agree amongst themselves. There was an “old guard” which showed resistance to the “new arrivals”. These included Tucci himself and fathers Giovanni Caprile and Giuseppe De Rosa, who came from the progressive Lovanio university and who had the support of the authoritative Jesuit Bible scholar Augustin Bea, who was made a cardinal by John XXIII.
It’s no different today. It is well known that there
differences of opinion between the elderly De Rosa and the younger
Simone, the current assistant editor and political specialist. Padre
is credited with having written the most critical statements about the
American war in Iraq, and with the theory that Islam and democracy are
not compatible. De Rosa has written the strongest pieces against
fundamentalism and terrorism.
B. HOW THE FOREIGN PRESS REPORTS ON THE VATICAN
1. Vatican correspondents. Who they are and how they
The “who” part of the Vatican correspondent question is answered with a doctoral thesis in social communications, presented in 2003 at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce, by Frederick Njoroge Kairu. It is entitled: “The Vaticanologists: Who They Are and What They Do”.
The number of journalists permanently accredited to the Vatican press office was 200 in 1970; today it is 450. But there are many more who gain temporary accreditation for special events. At the last conclave, it was 6,000. During the course of the jubilee year 2000, it was 8,650.
Amongst the permanent journalists, two out of three are men. The average is 50 years.
70 per cent of them are Europeans; 19 per cent are from North America. In the country breakdown, the Italians are in the lead with 42 per cent of the total. They are followed by the United States with 11 per cent, Germany with 8 per cent, Spain with 7, France with 5, then Poland, Japan, Mexico… Countries that have a large catholic population but are poor, like the Philippines, Peru, Nigeria and other African countries, have no correspondents to the Holy See.
Of the sample of journalists at the centre of the doctoral thesis quoted above, 9 out of 10 have at least a university degree. Of these, 5 per cent have a degree in theology. Regardless of nationality, practically all of them speak Italian, three out of four speak English, one out of two French, and one in three Spanish. Only very few know Latin.
Of the sample, 84 per cent say they are generically catholic. Of these, 60 per cent say their religious background influences the way they carry out their profession. The others say it doesn’t.
43 per cent of them considers themselves to be on the left of the political spectrum, 25 per cent in the middle, and 32 per cent on the right.
Of the journalists permanently accredited to the Holy See, 37 per cent deal exclusively with the Catholic Church and religious subjects. The others cover Vatican news on a part-time basis, as part of the wider coverage of news from Italy, Mediterranean countries, or Europe.
Most of the full-time religious news reporters are Italians. In Italy, practically all of the most important newspapers, news agencies and television networks have a specialised “vaticanologist”, sometimes even more than one.
Amongst the international media, full-time Vatican correspondents are rare. Amongst them are: Sophie de Ravinel for “Le Figaro”, Philip Pullella for Reuters, Victor Simpson for Associated Press, and Juan de Lara for the Spanish news agency EFE.
An example of a full-time religious correspondent for the United States is John Allen. He is the Rome correspondent for the weekly “National Catholic Reporter”, author of the on-line newsletter “The Word from Rome”, a CNN commentator, as well as the author of various books on the Vatican and the Church.
In terms of the information at their disposal, the Vaticanologists necessarily have to be selective. What is striking is that this selection is largely homogenous. Under pressure from their deadlines, journalists tend to single out the elements that they think are most newsworthy. The first ones to select and spread these elements are the Vatican writers for the news agencies. In the newspapers, the news editors scan the wire services and ask their Vatican correspondents to proceed along the lines of what they see. An example? A long papal document was published on 22 November 2002 at the end of the synod on Oceania. The wires concentrated on just a few lines of the text: the ones in which John Paul II apologised for the “sexual abuses carried out by some priests”. The newspapers only wrote about this; no one covered the rest of the document.
Another form of selection is that done by sticking to schemes laid out in advance of an event. During John Paul II’s last trip to Poland in 2002, in every one of his speeches he reiterated the mercy of God as preached by sister Faustina Kowalska, a saint he venerated greatly. But the press did not pay any attention to this. With a considerable lack of imagination, the reporting centred on the pope’s farewell to his home country, his memories, the possibility of him retiring to a Polish monastery, or otherwise on the pope’s opinion regarding Poland’s entry into the European Union.
National and international political implications are another criterion for the selection of news that is covered. In liberal American newspapers, “The New York Times” and “Washington Post”, of the Vatican news during the entire Holy Year 2000, 55 and 66 per cent respectively were dedicated to one event: the pope’s pilgrimage to Israel.
This political dimension in coverage of Church events contributes to the perpetuation of a portrayal of conflict between good and evil, winners and losers, conservatives and progressives, the official Church and grass-root Christians.
But the underlying roots of this bipolar
runs even deeper. It comes from within the Church itself.
2. Conservatives and progressives. Origins and
of a format
The bipolar conservatives vs. progressives format of interpreting Church events came about in the early 1960s, parallel to the Second Vatican Council.
In order to make more understandable the enigmatic proceedings of these meetings, and to help decipher the obsolete language used by the fathers of the council, some commentators introduced this very confrontation between progressives and conservatives, between those who wanted to modernise and the reactionaries.
In the United States, the initiator of this polarised style of reporting was Xavier Rynne, pseudonym of the Redemptorist Francis X. Murphy, in the liberal magazine “The New Yorker”. In France it was Henri Fesquet in “Le Monde”.
This language was quickly taken on by the majority of the press. It became the “lingua franca” of the media to report the news of the Church. But this language was not just descriptive: it was prescriptive. Any sensitive and modern person reading these reports was “obliged” to side with the progressives. Furthermore, the polarisation spread to the Church itself and was mirrored within it. The council assembly itself was influenced by it. And after the council, it became clear how deeply-rooted it was. The bipolar format came to dominate even the issues of the Council, where “the spirit” was set against “the word”, and even the papacy itself, where John XXIII was set against Paul VI…
Even today, four decades later, the journalists who write about the Church are still influenced by this dualist format: progressives vs. conservatives. But in the meantime there has been a long pontificate, that of pope Karol Wojtyla, who could not be put in this box. Is a pope who contributes to the peaceful revolution that caused the collapse of the communist empire conservative or progressive? Is it conservative or progressive for a pope to contest the dominant mindset of the entire West with criticisms that are akin to the philosophies of, for example, the Frankfurter Jürgen Habermas?
John Paul II did not just contribute to the fall of the Berlin Wall; he also contributed to the fall of the dualist format, progressive vs. conservative, that dominated the analyses of Catholic Church news.
The reporting of the transition of the pontificate from John Paul II and Benedict XVI provided spectacular evidence that this format has been destroyed.
Last April, the media were reporting the most
things. None other than cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi was touted as an
papal candidate for the progressives, for example by the left-wing
newspaper “Liberation” and by the Brazilian opinion-maker Frei Betto, a
champion of liberation theology. In the past, Tettamanzi had been the
of pope Wojtyla’s texts on sexual morality, which had caused outrage
that pontificate amongst liberal left; only to switch sides when a few
fashionable no-global discourses were heard…
3. New models for religious reporting
In the light of the bewilderment and confusion that the majority of the media demonstrated during the recent papal transition, it seems appropriate to recall that the duty of Vatican correspondents is to understand and explain the basic reality of the facts of the Church, without artificial dressing up or deviations.
A glaring example of this separation from reality is the usual way in which TV commentaries of papal liturgies are conducted almost everywhere.
Common sense suggests that the aim is to provide the TV viewers with one simple thing, the same way that you would if it were a concert or an opera being broadcast: the opportunity to watch the pope’s mass, via the airwaves, in the most authentic way, and as similarly as possible to how the faithful actually present in Saint Peter’s Square are experiencing it.
These faithful simply take part in the mass, with its readings, its rites and its singing. That’s all.
Instead, the TV audience is bombarded with something quite different: an avalanche of reporting, commentary, interviews, re-enactments, translations. Instead of making it easier to see and understand the event being covered, this covers up and misinterprets it.
This adherence to reality should apply to all other reporting of Church events too, in order to give a faithful account of them. If Joseph Ratzinger’s career path since the middle of 2004 had been followed attentively, if his speeches had been read carefully, if his gestures had been analysed, if the growing consensus about him in the college of cardinals had been registered… then his election as pope would not have come as a surprise, as it did for practically all of the media, but rather as a natural occurrence.
In order to do this, however, a Vatican correspondent needs to supply himself with a special virtue: “epistemological humility”. He needs to avoid drawing hasty conclusions on every small or large event, he needs to shun cookie-cutter formats, and simply study the actual matters.
That is why the job of Vatican correspondent is particularly difficult and demanding. Because the “matter” of the Church is one of the most grandiose, complex, vital and mysterious concepts that has ever existed on this earth. And for believers, also beyond earth.
Vatican Spokesman Given a Journalism Prize
ROME, JUNE 9, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Joaquín Navarro Valls, director of the Vatican press office, was awarded the St. Vincent Prize for Journalism by the president of Italy.
President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi described the Vatican spokesman as a person "who for years was beside an extraordinary man who has marked the history of the contemporary world: John Paul II."
"The grief over his death has not been extinguished in all of us," said the president today with tears in his eyes.
Ciampi recalled that Pope John Paul II gave the world "an extraordinary example of modern communication, opening a dialogue with young people, surmounting the differences of generation, custom, ethnicity and religions."
The journalism award, one of the most prestigious in Europe, is conferred by the autonomous region of Val d'Aosta, under the patronage of the president of the Italian republic, with the endorsement of the National Federation of the Italian Press and the College of Journalists.
Navarro Valls told the newspaper Il Secolo d'Italia will he continue in his post under Benedict XVI's pontificate.
The spokesman, who took up his post in 1984 at the request of John Paul II, added: "It is not easy to say 'no' to a Pope."
From "L'espresso" no. 27, July 8-14, 2005]
ROMA – "No one chooses his own love," says Joaquín Navarro-Valls, and with that he seems to have said it all. He is quoting the poet Antonio Machado, who expressed in these verses his fascination with the spectacle of human love. But he is speaking of other manifestations. He speaks of solid ideas and rewarding sacrifices, of vocations and decisions.
You don't expect a Vatican spokesman to be like this, even if you've seen him on television a thousand times and have grown accustomed to his handsome face and his musical Spanish intonation. After long wooing, the man who was Karol Wojtyla's public voice for twenty years and has just been reconfirmed by the new pope agreed to this emotionally intimate interview.
Speaking about himself for the first time in public, he recounts private and family details, and seems to enjoy the new experience. He relies upon his proficiency in conversation, his artfully crafted allure, and the mastery of communication that has allowed him to transform the murky, homespun Vatican press office into a perfect media machine. Over two hours of conversation, Navarro-Valls is by turns professional and charming, diplomatic and dynamic, light-hearted and melancholic. We will begin with this ongoing melancholy, which is linked to a recent loss.
Q: The whole world watched, live, as you wept for the death of pope Wojtyla.
A: "Yes, in the end I displayed all of my vulnerability. Until that moment I had been able to carry out my duty of providing information on the worsening condition of John Paul II while keeping my emotions in check. But then, when a German colleague asked me: 'But how are you experiencing this bereavement personally?', I was pierced with sorrow and could no longer hold back my tears."
Q: Three months have gone by. Is the pain going away, too?
A: "It is in fact diminishing, and the reason for this is precisely the rich and full character of the pope himself. It is easier to reconcile oneself to the death of a man who has left a mark like he has. I would like to tell you about something that has been kept private until now. Do you know what was the first prayer said by the persons in the room at the moment of his death?"
Q: A Requiem?
A: "No, a Te Deum, which is a solemn hymn of thanksgiving. The religious sisters, the secretary, and the few others who were present spontaneously intoned it to thank God, not for his death of course, but for those 84 years that were so fruitful. I myself found it extraordinarily difficult in that moment to recite the usual prayers on behalf of the deceased."
Q: But there is now a new pope who is fully occupying the stage. How have you experienced this substitution?
A: "It has been very easy. There is a twofold continuity between the two pontiffs, on both the personal and intellectual levels. John Paul II was the one who called Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the beginning of his pontificate, and they carried out a continual exchange of ideas. If you only knew the delight of witnessing a conversation between those two! On the one side the philosopher-pope, on the other the cardinal-theologian, and between them an uninterrupted flow."
Q: But from the outside one can see a few differences.
A: "There are certainly differences of personality and character. But do you really believe that a millennia-old institution like the Church can be radically changed by the activity of a pope? There are adjustments and interactions with the historical context, but this always takes place within the dynamic of man and institution. At bottom, a pope is a known quantity, because he always deals with the same deep issues: what man is, what woman is, what human love is. These are anthropological as well as religious concepts."
Q: But it is precisely in regard to these topics that there is the risk of igniting controversy. There are already those who are hoping to see a renewed division between Church and state.
A: "Do you want my opinion? There should be separation, but not mutual ignorance. Church and state are two distinct realities that come together in the citizen and in the believer. From this point of view, the secular state is a great victory for humanity, a sphere of liberty in which all, believers and nonbelievers, should be able to express themselves freely."
Q: Let's get back to you. Were you counting on being reconfirmed as the head of the press office?
A: "Not at all. I was making other plans, and hoping to return to my first love, medicine, which I have neglected for too many years."
Q: Then why didn't you turn down the reappointment?
A: "If you've never had the experience, then let me tell you that it's not so easy to say no to a pope."
Q: And yet you have said no on some important occasions in your life.
A: "To what are you referring?"
Q: For example, you have given up human love. Was that difficult?
A: "I'm glad to see that, unlike many, you do not confuse unmarried chastity with the vow of celibacy."
Q: Is there a difference in practice?
A: "Not in practice, but celibacy is a vow taken by religious, while mine was the choice of a way of life and behavior as a numerary of Opus Dei. In any case, in answer to your question, it was not difficult. Unmarried chastity has helped me to master myself. Every choice in life necessarily involves leaving something else behind. Those who want to have everything end up without ever truly marrying one idea, and so do not generate children in the analogical sense; that is, other ideas."
Q: Don't you even miss the closeness of family life?
A: "I've never felt that kind of longing. I have found my own path within the Church, and it has permitted me to hold onto the things I care about most: my professional calling as a doctor and the transcendent dimension."
Q: And what was your family of origin like?
A: "It was wonderful and close. My father, a liberal lawyer of great intellectual rigor, permitted me to become a doctor without insisting that I follow the juridical tradition of the family. My mother, who is now 91, was a mother through and through, devoted and affectionate. I wanted to unite both of their last names with a hyphen, in order to keep both of them always with me. And then there was my sister Assunta: it was wonderful to be with her."
Q: Your face lit up just then. Did you love your sister very much?
A: "I loved her very much, but she died suddenly of a brain aneurysm at the age of 35. She left four little children, and I was present when each of them was born."
Q: Now your face has become very troubled. It seems that this is still an open wound.
A: "It is. We were almost like a couple, with an extraordinary mutual understanding. She was just a year older than me, and we did everything together, we even danced together. When we were young, at parties people would ask us to perform the tango. My girlfriend would be there, too, but I danced with Assunta. It seems that we were quite good."
Q: I don't think anyone would imagine you as a great dancer. Was this at the time when you were also a bullfighter?
A: "That is a legend invented many years ago, perhaps simply because I am Spanish, and I've never been able to dispel it. If you will write very diligently that this is false, in exchange I will tell you something true."
Q: Let's hear it.
A: "I was once an actor, and I was even pretty good at it."
Q: This explains some of your mannerisms and your appeal. Where did you act?
A: "At the university, and this took a bit of sacrifice, because my medical studies were very demanding. The company was led by a good director of the Spanish theater. In the winter we had a modern playbill with Elliot and Priestley, and in the summer we acted Shakespeare."
Q: What parts did you play?
A: "Almost all of them, but especially Hamlet and Romeo."
Q: You're doing this on purpose, Doctor Navarro. You're arousing curiosity about a past that seems to be the opposite of the present. What made you change your way of life?
A: "The choices of which I have already spoken, and my encounter at just over twenty years of age with the thought of Josemaría Escrivá, which permitted me to integrate my faith with my work as a doctor."
Q: Medicine keeps popping up in your remarks. And yet for 30 years you have worked strictly as a journalist, although this has been in an exceptional capacity.
A: "The decision to study journalism was a secondary choice. I got a degree in journalism and communication sciences only in order to carry out better my work as a doctor."
Q: How was that helpful?
A: "In the dynamic of modern society, where the means of communication can have a profound influence on people. As a psychiatrist, I continually saw patients afflicted with anxiety not because of problems in their lives, but because of a sense of inadequacy in comparison with the models imposed by advertising or the newspapers. Think about wrinkles and the myth of eternal youth that vexes so many women, and now even too many men."
Q: From your special point of observation, where you see the press of the entire world pass by, what is your assessment of contemporary journalism?
A: "It is more varied and rich that it has ever been before, offering an enormous range in every area. But this brings with it a mortal danger: self-reference and the loss of contact with reality. Think about all the major American newspapers that declared Kerry as the winner. What country were they talking about?"
Q: And you? Are you ever afraid of making a mistake in your work?
A: "I quit being afraid when I said to myself: 'If one day I make a gigantic error that is printed in block lettering in all the newspapers of the world, what is going to happen to the Church?'"
Q: What was your answer?
A: "That nothing would happen. The Church isn't hurt by a man's mistake. Do you know what I feel like in my work?"
A: "Like an envelope with a message inside it. It needs to be attractive and the handwriting must be good, but it is only a container. Woe to anyone who confuses it with its contents."
Q: Was it this way from the beginning?
A: "Well, 21 years ago, when John Paul II entrusted me with the task of reorganizing the information service of the Holy See, I felt the enormity of the challenge. But I took the risk. The world was changing. There was a pope who was addressing communication in a totally new way, throwing himself into it body and soul. It was worth trying."
Q: Doctor Navarro, even though you look very good for your age, you are 69 years old. Do you feel the sadness of declining?
A: "My reaction to growing old is rather one of surprise. Good grief, I say, I'm no longer capable of the great mastery in tennis that once was laughably easy. Am I perhaps out of training? No, I’m just getting old."
Q: And this doesn't make you afraid?
A: "Not at all. I look at the limitations of our culture, which experiences old age as an insult. Once the child making his first communion was dressed as an adult. Now the adults dress like children, and they are ridiculous. But the wonderful way in which the pope grew old may have been a corrective. He taught that life leads to death, but that this is not the final end of life."
Q: But the great difference remains between those who believe in an afterlife and those who do not.
A: "Less than is believed. Look at my countryman Seneca, or at Socrates, who drank hemlock. What did these great men say when they died?"
Q: I don't know. Something of help to nonbelievers, I imagine.
A: "They said: even when I am five years old, death is telling me that I can profit by it. If I keep it in mind, I live my life fully. If I accept the trumped-up values of a culture that wants to conceal death, I will die without ever having truly lived."
A LIFE IN THIRTEEN DATES
1936. Joaquín Navarro-Valls is born in Cartagena in Spain on November 6. His father, Joaquin, is an accomplished attorney. His mother, Conchita Valls, dedicates herself to her five children.
1953. Having finished his classical studies at the "Deutsche Schüle" of his hometown, he enters the faculty of medicine at Granada. Three years later, he goes to the University of Barcelona. The scientific journal "Actualidad Medica" publishes his first research work.
1960. He meets Josemaría Escrivá and joins Opus Dei as a numerary member.
1961. He receives a degree in medicine and specializes first in internal medicine and then in psychiatry. He fulfills his military service as a doctor in Marina, and obtains a scholarship at Harvard University.
1961-70. While exercising his profession of internal medicine and then psychiatry at the hospital, he receives two other degrees: in journalism in 1968, and in communication sciences in 1970. He publishes his first non-medical essay: "Manipulation in Advertising."
1970. He moves to Rome, where he continues his studies in psychiatry and lives beside Josemaría Escrivá until his death in 1975. He publishes two essays on evolutionary psychology.
1977. He becomes a correspondent for the Madrid newspaper "Abc," covering Italy and the eastern Mediterranean. He is frequently sent as a correspondent to Japan, the Philippines, and equatorial Africa.
1983. He is elected president of the Foreign Press Association in Italy, and reconfirmed the following year.
1984. John Paul II calls him to reorganize and direct the Vatican press office.
1994-96. He is a member of the Holy See delegation to the international conferences of the UN in Cairo, Copenhagen, Beijing, and Istanbul.
1996. He begins to teach as a visiting professor at the faculty of institutional communication at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
1997. He is sent as a speaker to the world congress of psychiatry in Madrid.
2005. Benedict XVI reconfirms him as director of the press office. He recently received the latest of many honors: an honorary doctorate from the University of Valencia.