All in a day's work

Journalist Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, hustles from the Vatican’s press office to its radio station and then to its TV station on a daily basis; he’s able to direct all three organizations with aplomb.

by Emer McCarthy

Journalists and news anchors have taken on a star-like quality in the minds of many viewers. At times the person reading the news is more important than the news itself. In this climate of fifteen minutes of fame, the figure of the official spokesperson—whether for presidents or international corporations—can capture the imagination of the public. This was the case with Dr. Joaquín Navarro-Valls, who led the Vatican press office for over 22 years. During the illness and death of John Paul II, his became a household name, his face synonymous with the Vatican. A serious man, he found himself in a glaring media spotlight.

The same has happened to his successor, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, but the Italian Jesuit’s reserve and simple manner has so far managed to keep the onslaught of media attention at bay and the emphasis firmly on his work: to deliver the pope’s words to the world.

In July 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Lombardi director of the Holy See Press Office. The appointment—made when the pope was on vacation—took many by surprise for a number of reasons. First, few had expected it; Navarro-Valls had served John Paul II for his entire pontificate. Also, many were taken aback by the appointment of a religious to a post regarded as the prerogative of a layperson. The assumption was that only a non-cleric would be capable of translating the complex theological and doctrinal issues of the Church into lay terms. Last, Lombardi already had a job, actually two: he headed Vatican Radio and also the Vatican Television Center. Was all Vatican media going to be amalgamated into one organization headed by Lombardi? How would he reconcile the demands of the three jobs?

Almost a year into his new job, the 64-year-old Italian Jesuit maintains, “It’s all in a day’s work.” That was his simple reply when I put those questions to him one evening in his office at Vatican Radio.

Fr. Lombardi: I suppose it’s extraordinary that one person fills all three roles, but I would like to underline that the Jesuits have been at the helm of Vatican Radio since it began in 1931. As director general of the radio, my job is primarily one of organization and administration, dealing with questions relating to personnel, technical issues, relations with Vatican institutions, and planning ahead for radio coverage of papal events.

In this area collaboration with CTV (Vatican Television Center) and to a lesser extent the press office is key. It’s important to emphasize that these are separate entities within themselves, each having a specific and distinct purpose. Both the radio and CTV’s primary function is to serve the pope’s ministry by carrying his voice and image to the world. The press office, however, is quite a different matter insofar as it deals with the secular media. Each structure has diverse needs and problems that can only be dealt with separately. My role, I would say, is one of coordinating collaboration between them.

Q: How difficult then is it to reconcile these different needs in one day’s work? You can hardly be present in all three offices at once.

Fr. Lombardi: No, obviously, but I’m always reachable. What helps is the vicinity of the offices to each other and to the Jesuit Curia and Casa dei Scrittori, the House of Writers, where I live. They are all within walking distance of each other in Vatican City or along Via della Conciliazione, and my daily routine is surprisingly a lot more regular than most people would think.

My mornings are spent between the radio and press office. I generally try to arrive early at the radio to get ahead of correspondence, answer e-mails, and so on. But the busiest time for the press office is the morning. If there’s going to be a statement by the pope or a Vatican document issued, I will be contacted by the Vatican secretary of state’s office in the morning with the information. The statements will usually be released around noon, so I need to be there to answer journalists’ questions. After this I go to CTV, which is within the walls of Vatican City, to deal with anything that needs immediate attention—anything from contracts with television stations who want to use our feed of papal ceremonies to deciding on the lineup for our weekly program Octave Dias or authorizing requests for archival material. My afternoons are spent here at the radio or, if necessary, at CTV if the press office is closed. I’m usually here until nine in the evening answering calls and correspondence and—sometimes—even giving interviews. It’s a lot of moving about, so it’s a good thing I like walking. You know, the short trips from one office to the other often offer me important space for reflection.

Q: This is the first time a Jesuit has been appointed to the press office ...

Fr. Lombardi: To the press office yes, but as I said before, not to the radio or CTV. It’s quite an honor.

Q: You have, however, a long career in journalism. This was one of the attributes that Pope Benedict underlined in his letter appointing you as his spokesperson. It was also an aspect you highlighted yourself in your letter to journalists accredited to the press office when you took over the post. Previous to your arrival at Vatican Radio as director of programming in ’91, you wrote for and were deputy director of Civiltà Cattolica. You were also Jesuit provincial for Italy from 1984 to 1990. In your formation both as a journalist and as a Jesuit, who do you feel has had the greatest influence on you?

Fr. Lombardi: That’s a difficult question to answer, there are so many really ... But I suppose it would have to be the priests at the Jesuit novitiate in Turin, where I received not only my education but, more important, my vocation. You could say that it was born of my relationship with them. I have particularly fond memories of the brothers during that time. They had such a profound and beautiful sense of their mission and vocation, and it had a great effect on me.

There are also the German Jesuit theologians with whom I studied at the Jesuit faculty of St. Georgen in Frankfurt; Breitmeyer or Semelroth to name but two. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, without doubt, stands out as a leading figure that inspired many of the Jesuits of my generation. On a personal level I’d add Fr. Roberto Tucci, who preceded me both at Civiltà Cattolica and here at the radio. Again there are just so many, but my college fathers in Turin really take precedence.

Q: How hard is it to reconcile the spiritual aspect of your vocation and your work?

Fr. Lombardi: I celebrate Mass every morning with the members of my community; that’s when I’m not needed at the radio for our morning broadcast of Mass. I usually find time for prayer in the early hours before the working day gets underway. My days are full and busy; when I return to the Jesuit house in the evenings I am only fit for sleep. But I thoroughly enjoy the pastoral aspect of my vocation. I am involved with two lay associations—this is quite separate from work. I am a spiritual advisor to couples in the Equipes Notre Dame Association, and then there are also the Scouts ...

Q: The Scouts?

Fr. Lombardi: Yes, here in Italy there is an association for adult scouts. It’s a Catholic organization and a little different from in the United States. It’s quite a big movement ...

A phone call interrupts our interview. It’s a young aspiring journalist asking about work at the Vatican. With great patience, despite the late hour and the veritable mountain of paperwork that covers every surface in his office, Lombardi explains the procedure of applying for an internship at Vatican Radio. He asks the young journalist’s name and takes notes. Another phone call follows immediately; someone needs information about an upcoming conference at the Vatican. Lombardi handles the request with the same quiet manner, the same patience.

I take my leave. He shakes my hand and smiles. “It’s all in a day’s work,” says Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, Director General of Vatican Radio, Director General of Vatican Television Center, and Holy See Press Office Director. Formidable titles for formidable jobs.  *

Emer McCarthy, a native of Wicklow, Ireland,
has lived in Rome for the last ten years,
writing and reporting on the Vatican
for print and radio.

Author, Emer McCarthy

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