Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, was often unfairly maligned for the Vatican’s communications strategy. In fairness, he was often left out of the loop, says Fr. de Souza. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Let the communication begin

  • March 28, 2013

VATICAN CITY - As Pope Francis leads the Church through his first Holy Week, there is great interest in what he does, how he does it and what the new Pope has to say. The communications apparatus of the Holy See is essential to addressing that interest.

The Vatican communications shop, including the Holy See press office, came in for heavy criticism during the pontificate of Benedict XVI. But the last few weeks have been different.

“Many in the Vatican press corps believe the period from Benedict’s resignation on Feb. 11 through the first week of Francis’ papacy will go down as the finest hour for Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman,” wrote John Allen, one of the most respected Vatican correspondents. “In addition to Passionist Father Ciro Benedettini, Lombardi also brought on Basilian Father Tom Rosica of Canada’s Salt + Light network to handle the English- and French-speaking press and Fr. José María Gil Tamayo, a well-known communications expert in Spain, to handle the Spanish-language side. All four drew rave reviews for their accessibility, stamina and understanding of media needs.”

There was genuine Canadian pride at seeing the key role played by Fr. Rosica in Rome, and many journalists, especially those unfamiliar with covering the Vatican, told me how helpful he had been to them in getting their stories right. Give credit to Fr. Lombardi for providing services in English, French and Spanish, all international languages. Italian is the language of Rome, but being spoken in only one country, it is of limited utility in a global story about a global Church.

“It’s not yet clear whether, and for how long, Lombardi will stick around as the Vatican spokesman,” Allen writes. “Whoever plays the role, one signal of reform would be to put the spokesperson on the Pope’s regular weekly schedule of meetings with department heads so he or she doesn’t have to suffer the indignity of reporters whispering that a few of them have better access to the Pope than his alleged mouthpiece.”

Access is key. While Fr. Lombardi took much criticism for communications failures during his tenure, I thought that he was rarely to blame. To the contrary, his kind demeanor and gentleness often made difficult situations better. A spokesman can only be effective to the extent that he knows what is going on, and can implement a well-co-ordinated communications strategy. Fr. Lombardi had minimal access to the papal apartment and there simply was no co-ordination among senior officials during much of Benedict’s pontificate. Asking the papal spokesman to be an occasional spin doctor is one thing; asking him to fashion a silk purse of evangelical proclamation out of the sow’s ear of bureaucratic ineptitude is another.

For example, during the 2010 international furor over the attempt by The New York Times to malign Benedict’s record on sexual abuse cases, there was simply no co-ordinated response at the highest levels of the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Faced with a lack of co-ordinated messages, and a lack of access to the Pope himself, Fr. Lombardi could hardly be an effective spokesman in the middle of a media firestorm.

In the new pontificate, the press spokesman must have regular access to the key decision makers, including Pope Francis himself. Aside from deploying able assistants in the major world languages, one reason Fr. Lombardi had his finest hour in the last several weeks is that he did have such access. In the sede vacante period, he had daily access to the general congregations of the cardinals, and therefore could provide accurate and timely information. He could tell the journalists what they wanted to know, and what he himself knew. Fr. Lombardi was at his best because he was no longer shut out of the papal apartment; the papal apartment had been shut down.

Much of the desired information about conclave and papal ceremonies was relatively easy for the press office to explain. After all, the information was readily available, and it was a matter of helping journalists to understand it. A press office can be faulted if it does not help journalists understand what they need to know; it cannot be faulted when it itself does not know what is happening.

Whenever I am asked by bishops about communication strategies, I respond that, after the bishop himself, the communications officer is the most important person in the diocese. Not because press relations are more important than, say, parish life or Catholic education, but because without an effective and evangelical press operation, the bishop’s primary obligation to teach the faith and proclaim in the Gospel cannot be done. That applies too in Rome.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life:

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