[Austen Ivereigh] Two journalists with long experience in Rome have been named as the director and vice-director of the Holy See Press Office following Fr Federico Lombardi’s retirement. In a major break with precedent, both are lay people, one of them is a woman, and neither is Italian.
Greg Burke, 56, a former Time and later Fox News correspondent, replaces Fr Lombardi as director of the Holy See Press Office, moving from the vice-director role to which he was appointed back in April after a successful tenure as communications adviser at the Secretariat of State. Burke is a native of St Louis, Missouri, and — like St John Paul II’s communications director, Joaquín Navarro-Valls — a numerary (full-time celibate) member of Opus Dei. As well as English, he speaks Italian, Spanish and French.
The new press office vice-director is Paloma García Ovejero, 40, who since 1998 has been with Spain’s second-largest radio network, COPE, which belongs to the Spanish bishops’ conference. Rome-based since 2012, as well as Spanish she speaks English, Italian and Chinese.
Both begin their roles on 1 August.
Fr Lombardi, who turns 74 next month, retires after almost 25 years in Vatican communications, for most of that time as Director-General of Vatican Radio, and for the last ten years as a much-loved papal spokesman.
He told the Associated Press on Monday that “I don’t foresee disappearing completely from the Vatican”, suggesting a possible informal communications advisory role down the line.
He said he had always offered to step aside as part of the Vatican’s revamping of its communications strategy and said the time simply had arrived for the change.
That change has been designed and implemented by the director of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications, Mgr Dario Viganò. The Secretariat’s role is to overhaul the Vatican’s many different communications outlets in order both to reduce costs and to create a coordinated strategy more appropriate to the age of the internet.
The new body was the fruit of a year-long review by a 12-strong committee chaired by Lord Christopher Patten of Barnes, former chairman of the BBC and currently chancellor of Oxford University. The “core insight” of the committee’s report, Lord Patten said in a speech in London in May last year, was that “meaningful improvements in the Holy See’s media operations would not be possible without a complete integration of the existing media entities and the creation of a single structure with overall responsibility for management, technology and finances.”
Burke is credited with improving strategic communications in the wake of the first Vatileaks crisis and with developing Pope Benedict’s and later Pope Francis’ presence in social media. (On the basis of the number of retweets, @Pontifex is now the world’s most influential Twitter account.) He also has become a key point of contact for the U.S. media, a role he is set to develop in his new position.
Burke is a TV natural, looks good on screen, is a master of the soundbite, and is at home in the visual, soundbite-driven environment.
García Ovejero, the first woman to hold a senior communications role in the Vatican, is a gentle but incisive journalist who has been at the heart of many of the stories about the Francis pontificate.
At a communications conference in Rome in April, she drew attention to Francis’s oft-expressed opposition to clericalism and valuing of lay people as a key element of the pontificate. That is certainly one of the messages that comes with her and Burke’s appointment.
Another is to recognize the significance of English and Spanish as the most important media languages in the coverage of the Vatican. The most powerful and influential media is in English, while Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the Catholic world.
The Vatican press office has new directors at a time when coverage of Rome and Vatican affairs has never been greater.
“Pope Francis sells papers,” Frank Rocca, Vatican correspondent for the US’s largest-circulation paid-for newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, said at the same conference. “The paradox is that the most relevant institution in today’s globalised world is also its most ancient. Outside of a few war zones, the Vatican is the only boomtown in journalism right now.”