Pope Francis greets Greg Burke, the new director of the Vatican press office, at the Vatican July 11. Burke, a native of St. Louis, has worked for the Vatican since 2012 and prior to that was a television correspondent for Fox News and a correspondent for Time magazine. CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

The Pope gets it

  • July 21, 2016

Next to the Pope, the Vatican’s most quoted person is probably the papal spokesman. In an often thankless job, the spokesman makes official announcements, corrects misinformation, fields reporters’ queries and, generally, is the public face of a Church that is frequently misunderstood.

So it’s a big deal when the Pope names a new spokesman. It’s an even bigger deal when the Pope is a leader who has much to say and often goes off script to say it. Hiring the right person becomes crucial.

The position requires someone who is intelligent, multi-lingual, faithful and media-savvy, and who can co-exist with a slow-moving Vatican bureaucracy and a fast-paced international media. It’s not for everyone.

By all accounts, though, Pope Francis made two astute choices when he named an American media professional, Greg Burke, as his chief spokesman and made a Spanish female journalist, Paloma Garcia Ovejero, the new man’s deputy.

As often happens with Francis, the picks were unconventional. By itself, that doesn’t make them astute, but in this case it reflects the vision of a Pope who seeks a Church that is more inclusive and global. In horse racing parlance, he hit the trifecta.

First, the Argentine Pope turned a new page by choosing spokespeople whose native language isn’t Italian. The Vatican may operate in Italian but Spanish and English are the first two languages of the Church beyond Rome, as the Latin American Pope is well aware.

Second, he reached outside the clergy to promote two laypeople. Popes Benedict XVI and Francis were well served by their chief spokesman, the unflappable Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, 73. But the incoming tandem, with distinguished backgrounds in both secular and Catholic media, bring a more thorough understanding of today’s complex media milieu. Burke, in particular, a multi-lingual former Vatican correspondent for Time Magazine and Fox News, is well suited to be a communications bridge-builder between the Catholic and secular worlds.

Third, the Pope made sure one of the voices is female. Garcia Ovejero is the first woman to hold one of the two top jobs in the Vatican press office. That means she will occasionally speak on behalf of the Pope. To have a Spanish laywoman instead of an Italian priest at the microphone is a substantial change. But her rise should be no surprise. Francis has been vocal about the need to elevate women into more prominent and visible positions.

The Pope seems to understand that messaging is about more than words. Who delivers the message also speaks volumes. In delegating non-Italian laypersons, including a woman, to manage his day-to-day communications, the Pope is signalling that he heads a Church that is indeed universal and determined to get better at speaking to the modern world.

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