An abrupt firing leads to a reboot of a Vatican communications reform doomed from the start - Robert Mickens
Robert Mickens, Rome
January 4, 2019
Pope Francis with Greg Burke on Sept. 30, 2016.
The sudden and unforeseen resignations of the Holy See press office director and his deputy have caused quite a buzz in the Vatican and throughout much of the Catholic media.
In case you are one of the few people that have still not heard, Greg Burke and Paloma García Ovejero surprised even top Vatican officials early on New Year’s Eve when they announced, out of the blue, that they were stepping away from the key positions that Pope Francis assigned them in July 2016.
“Paloma and I have resigned, effective Jan. 1,” Burke tweeted at noon on Dec. 31.
“At this time of transition in Vatican communications, we think it’s best the Holy Father is completely free to assemble a new team,” he continued, offering the only explanation up to now as to what prompted the move.
Burke, a 59-year-old American and non-married member of Opus Dei, and Ovejero, a 43-year-old Spaniard who is part of the Neocatechumenal Way, are journalists who covered the Vatican in the years before they became Vatican employees.
Many of the writers who have been commenting on their resignations know both of them well. So it is not surprising that most of the commentary has been sympathetic to a couple of former colleagues and full of praise for their attempts to modernize and improve the work of the Holy See press office.
But, as always, this is not the whole story. Not in the least.
Later on the evening of Dec. 31, Burke sent out another message on Twitter to further explain his and Ovejero’s resignations. “Just so you know, we had been praying about this decision for months, and we’re very much at peace with it,” he tweeted.
It was a clue that tensions had been brewing for some time.
Though very few will admit it publicly, a clamorous event that took place on Dec. 18 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. On that day Pope Francis abruptly and unceremoniously sacked Gian Maria Vian, the longtime editor-in-chief of L’Osservatore Romano.
Even more significantly, on that same day Francis appointed Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, who has long been the most prolific non-Vatican-employed apologist of the pope, as editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication.
Shortly we’ll examine why this is essential for understanding why the two press officers suddenly quit. But first it must be made clear that the backstory to this latest “time of transition in Vatican communications” began much earlier. And a bit of recent history is important for comprehending what’s happened these last several days.
The chain of events that caused the latest Vatican media shake-up
Almost immediately after his election in March 2013, Pope Francis began a lengthy and, what has been in many cases, a bumpy process of Church reforms. They included the re-organization of the Vatican’s financial institutions and a greater oversight of general office expenditures; moves to give an expanded role to the Synod of Bishops and implement synodality at all levels of the Church; and a plan to restructure the Roman Curia.
Also included was an effort to revamp and consolidate the various disjointed branches of what is generally called Vatican communications. This particular reform got a promising start in July 2014 when Lord (Christopher) Patten of Great Britain was named head of the newly-formed Vatican Media Committee to study the current state of affairs and offer suggestions for its improvement. The “Patten commission”, as many called it, carried out its work between September 2014 and March 2015. It then delivered its suggestions to the pope and his C9 Council of Cardinals in late April 2015.
On June 27 of that year Francis named Mgr. Dario Viganò prefect of the newly established Secretariat for Communication (de-classified in Feb. 2018 as the Dicastery for Communication) . The Milan priest had been head of the Vatican Television Center (CTV) since 2012, a job he got presumably because of his expertise in cinema -- Italian cinema.
Viganò set about quickly and, often haphazardly, to bring the all the branches of Vatican communications under his central control. He and his secretary, Mgr. Luis “Lucio” Ruiz, routinely alienated many of the some 650 people that are consolidated under their direction.
The Argentine priest’s appointment as secretary (which he still maintains) was surprising, given that he had never been a great supporter of Pope Francis in the days that his fellow countryman was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Ruiz had worked at the Vatican since 1997, most of that time as a communications assistant to the conservative Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, former prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy.
For some inexplicable reason, however, the 82-year-old pope has stood steadfastly by Dario Viganò and Lucio Ruiz. Francis only reluctantly allowed Viganò to resign in March 2018 after he was assailed for photoshopping and giving a misleading interpretation of a letter written by Benedict XVI. But instead of sending the decapitated prefect away, the pope quickly invented the position of “assessor” for him inside the communications department. Viganò remains there to this day and no one knows why.
But it was a mixed blessing for Greg Burke and Paloma García Ovejero. Mgr. Viganò had personally chosen the two to head up the Holy See Press Office. He presented them to Pope Francis on the morning of July 11, 2016, the day their appointments were announced.
“I have prayed a lot, done discernment, (and) questioned myself,” the pope told them. “You are the fruit of all this. I think you are the best able to communicate the Holy Father and his magisterium,” he added.
On the face of it, Francis’ words sounded like a ringing endorsement. But, in reality, it was an admission that he had allowed Viganò to make the choice and that, as pope, he had to think hard about it.
Mr. Burke, a former Fox News and Time Magazine correspondent in Rome, had been deputy director of the press office since the previous December, assisting Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ. Before that the St. Louis native had worked in the Secretariat of State since 2012 when Benedict XVI made him media advisor.
Mr. Burke’s appointment as director of the Holy See Press Office was surprising for many reasons, but none more than the fact that he never showed any great enthusiasm for Pope Francis or his vision for the Church. Burke has admitted that he hesitated to accept the position. But because of his loyalty to the Church and out of obedience to his Opus Dei superiors, he took the job.
So why did he quit? And why did he do so on the very last day of the year without giving Pope Francis any advance notice? It came as a complete surprise to the pope and his aides.
With the arrival of a new prefect, the writing was on the wall
When Pope Francis named Italian journalist Paolo Ruffini to replace Mgr. Dario Viganò as prefect of the Dicastery for Communication in July last year, things began to change for the press office. Not long afterwards, it became clear that the positions of Mr. Burke and Ms. García were under scrutiny.
During last October’s gathering of the Synod of Bishops on young people, Mr. Ruffino took the unprecedented step of sidelining the two press officers and assuming control over the daily briefings of the synod proceedings. This had never happened before. Up until then the director of the press office or one of his deputies moderated those gatherings with journalists.
By this point Mr. Burke had already been speaking privately with other colleagues and certain allies in the Vatican about his desire to step down. He complained “off the record” that he and his deputy had not been given access to Pope Francis or his inner circle, and he lamented that the press office was woefully understaffed.
In one respect he was right. But Fr. Lombardi was also in the exact the same situation. He wasn’t granted frequent meetings with the pope, either -- in this pontificate or the previous one.
Most commentators these past several days have overlooked this fact in expressing their justified sympathy and esteem for Burke and García. In fact, the two streamlined the flow of communications between press office and journalists, especially on papal trips. And, thankfully, they discouraged prelates from reading long, prepared statements at press conferences.
But too many commentators have been less than honest by not admitting that they also were often frustrated with the Burke and García. Most notably were those moments when Pope Francis or the Vatican were facing a media crisis and the press office issued no statements, or published communiqués only days later.
The excuse that the pope and his aides routinely kept the two press officers out of the loop does not wash. Lombardi faced that same predicament, and yet he still managed to respond to such episodes in a timely and prudent manner.
An impulsive pope unceremoniously sacks the editor of L’Osservatore Romano
It was a dramatic change of events in another section of the Dicastery for Communication that seems to have pushed Mr. Burke and Ms. García to finally relinquish their positions.
On the evening of Dec. 17. the dicastery’s prefect, Paolo Ruffini, informed Giovanni Maria Vian that Pope Francis had decided to remove him as editor-in-chief of L’Osservatore Romano, a post Vian had held for eleven years. The official announcement would be issued the next day.
Vian was blindsided. It was well-known that the pope would be replacing the 66-year-old editor, but it was pretty clear that it would not happen until some months later.
Sources inside the Vatican said the pope took the abrupt decision to sack Vian on the morning of Dec. 17 after L’Ossservatore Romano printed an article that was interpreted as the Vatican signalling its support for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s push for autocephaly and independence from the Patriarchate of Moscow.
The pope, who has taken bold steps to build better relations with Moscow and is keen to visit Russia, was furious. The paper’s article was evidently not vetted by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. And to reassure the Russians, the apostolic nunciature in Ukraine was forced to issue a highly unusual statement denying that the piece reflected the Holy See’s official policy.
Francis is said to have asked Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ, director of the La Civiltà Cattolica and a member of the pope’s inner circle, to take over L’Osservatore Romano. But the Sicilian Jesuit suggested that the post be given to Andrea Monda, a religion teacher in a Rome high school who is well-known to both Spadaro and Ruffini.
The pope’s sudden act of dismissing Vian stunned the staff of the Vatican newspaper. It was seen as impulsive and unceremonious. The former editor was angry that Francis did not have the courtesy to give him advanced warning or personally inform him. Two days later the pope sent Vian a gushing letter to thank him for his years of service, but most people saw the gesture as less than sincere.
The arrival of Andrea Tornielli
However, Vian’s ouster was only the first of a one-two punch in the guts of Greg Burke and Paloma García Ovejero. The naming of Andrea Tornielli as the man that will effectively decide the editorial line and content of all the Vatican’s media operations -- including the Holy See Press Office -- was the final straw.
Ms. García, who did much of the heavy lifting at the press office, could see that at least her position was all but untenable. She had often upbraided Mr. Tornielli, even publicly on social media, for giving unauthorized information on Vatican affairs. But the 54-year-old native of Northern Italy did not work for Ms. García or anyone else at the Vatican.
The tables suddenly were turned. She would now be working for him!
Did Opus Dei pull the plug?
Just thirteen days after Vian’s ouster and Tornielli’s appointment, Burke and García resigned as director and deputy director of the press office. If it is true that they had been “praying about this for some months”, then why did they quit so hastily without giving anyone advanced notice? And why during one of the busiest times of the liturgical year and at the start of what promises to be a very difficult period of meetings and foreign travel for the pope?
They blindsided Pope Francis much in the same way that he had blindsided Giovanni Maria Vian just two weeks earlier.
But celibate members of Opus Dei (numeraries) cannot just quit high-profile positions without consultation with and approval from their superiors. This would have to have been a decision Mr. Burke took only after such consultation.
And it would not have been arrived at easily. The personal prelature puts high value on having its members in key positions in the Church and society. Indeed, it works actively to help them obtain such positions. It is a way for Opus Dei to wield influence.
So, in a sense, not only has Greg Burke distanced himself from Pope Francis at a critical juncture of his pontificate, but so has Opus Dei. And one can only wonder if there may not be other reasons for doing so, such as trying to strengthen the personal prelature’s leverage at the next conclave and in the next pontificate.
The need for someone to promote and defend the pope
No matter what the reasons for these latest resignations, it is absolutely vital that Francis chooses a press office director (a Vatican spokesperson) -- hopefully someone with a good theological and ecclesiological background -- who is 100% committed to enthusiastically communicating, explaining and defending his words and actions.
For now the job will be handled by Alessandro Gisotti, a long-time Vatican Radio employee who has been named for an ad interim period. It’s hard to see how his appointment can be anything but temporary. Although he is a professional communicator with an engaging personality, he does not seem to have a strong and confident command of any language except Italian.
The director of the Holy See Press Office -- or the deputy -- must be able to also communicate well in at least English and Spanish; and preferably French, as well.
Unflinching loyalty, enthusiasm, multilingualism and theological knowledge are just a few of the criteria the pope and his aides should be looking for when placing people at the top levels of its communications department.
This especially true now more than ever.
Pope Francis has entered the most difficult stage of his pontificate. He is facing serious challenges and criticism, including over his handling of the Church’s sex abuse crisis. He needs a Vatican media -- and a press office -- that will not only effectively and faithfully communicate his message, but help shape its narrative.
It is still not too late to salvage the communication reform from becoming a total disaster. But that will require several more key personnel changes.
However... it’s already the 11th hour. And the clock is ticking.