Interview with Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, Holy See Press Office
1 June 2011
Interview with Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, Director of the Holy See Press Office
Please see below an interview with Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, Director of the Holy See Press Office, which was published in the June issue of Intercom.
Intercom magazine is a pastoral and liturgical resource of the Irish Bishops’ Conference.
Q: 1 Can you tell me a little about your background, and how you became Director of the Vatican Press Office?
I am a Jesuit priest and as a young man I would never have thought of becoming a journalist or of running a press office. I studied mathematics at university and I thought I would teach the philosophy of science. Then, during my theology studies in Frankfurt – where I was involved in pastoral care for Italian immigrant workers –I was contacted by Jesuits from the Rome based cultural magazine La Civiltà Cattolica. They asked me to write two articles on the topic, which were evidently well received, because when I finished my studies they obtained from my superiors permission to have me join their editorial department. This is how I entered the world of social communications. I stayed at La Civiltà Cattolica for 11 years, then I was Italian Jesuit Provincial for six years and finally in 1991 I was sent to Vatican Radio as Programme Director, because the direction of Vatican Radio is entrusted to the Jesuits. This is how I came to work for the Holy See. In 2001 Card. Sodano, former Vatican Secretary of State, decided he wanted to “temporarily” entrust me with the Vatican Television Centre, which was unexpectedly left without a director. In 2006, when Dr. Navarro Valls ended his service as Director of the Press Office, I was asked to succeed him. I think those in charge thought of me because I already knew a lot about the world of the Vatican and the journalists who frequent it, and they knew me too, because I had already served the Holy See in the information field for 15 years. I did not have to “discover” the Vatican, and they knew how I work.
Q:2 Which services are offered by the Vatican Press Office and what is its relationship with Vatican Radio and the Pontifical Council for Social communications?
The “Holy See Press Office” (this is its official name) offers its services to accredited journalists – about 400 in all from many different countries – and through them to the world of global information. It uses the standard tools of all press offices: Bulletins containing Press releases, Texts of the Pope’s speeches, documents of various departments and offices of the Roman Curia, important Vatican news events, etc. Of course, today these bulletins are mainly sent out by electronic means. The press office also organizes press conferences and briefings to present documents or give important information, for example on the programmes for Papal journeys. We organise the accreditation of journalists who come to Rome to follow Vatican events (Audiences with heads of state, canonizations or other celebrations, Synods, meetings, etc..) and the journalists pool which attends audiences or similar events. In particular, the Press Office is in charge of the logistical organisation of those journalists (usually between 50 and 70) who are part of the papal entourage on the Pope’s visits abroad. The Press Office also provides daily news in several languages during the Synod of Bishops, bulletins, briefings, etc.. We answer journalists questions, help journalists find people to interview or collect data and analysis on the Vatican or the Church’s life. We advise Vatican personalities on matters concerning relations with the press, prepare a daily press review, for internal use but also for the several Vatican offices that request it.
The Press Office and Vatican Radio are two separate institutions, but, being both director of both, I have tried to develop stronger links between the two in recent years. The Press Office is an authoritative source of information for Vatican Radio, which broadcasts the press releases and texts circulated by the Press Office in many languages. At the same time, Vatican Radio, in its precious “Documentation Service” makes all of the material it produces available to journalists at the Press Office. For example, the “Monthly programming schedule”, a continually updated comprehensive preview of Vatican or Church (even international) events, conferences, and so on, is considered an indispensable tool for all journalists covering the Holy See. As well as numerous background documentation on papal trips, Synods, the visits to Rome of the various national bishops’ conferences, and so on. Vatican Radio and Vatican Television Center provide the audio and video material of all Papal and Vatican events for journalists in the Press Office enabling them to follow everything live.
The Pontifical Council for Social Communications (PCCS) does not have, in itself, the task of giving directions to the Press Office, as this depends directly from the Secretary of State, however, the PCCS has many dealings with journalists and the institutions of social communications at an international level, and many TV networks must first contact it when making television reports and documentaries on the Vatican, so there are plenty of opportunities to collaborate. The PCCS helps the Press Office to broaden contacts and circulate its information. Moreover, we are currently looking to increase collaborative projects between the Holy See’s different social communications institutions, and the PCCS has a growing role for coordination and guidance in this process, as well as in fostering the growth of awareness of the importance and “culture” of communication within the Vatican itself and in indicating the “way forward” in this process to the Roman Curia and its organizations. The Press Office and PCCS are collaborating closely in this direction.
Q:3 What are the main challenges you face in your role and what part of your job gives you the greatest satisfaction?
The major challenges are of two kinds.
First, the need to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving communications system, from the point of view of the new technology being used, and thus the need to find new ways of communicating, which increasingly require up-to-the minute coverage, in different languages to reach diverse cultures, etc.. Secondly presenting the service of the Catholic Church and the Pope in an increasingly secular and multicultural context, in a simple and understandable language, so as to be able to effectively reach as broad base of public opinion as possible, one that quite often is unable to understand the language of the Church. In a certain sense the challenge is helping the Church and the world to communicate and understand each other, and render the Press Office an “Open Door” so to speak, one that opens both ways so as to facilitate dialogue for the benefit of both.
I get greatest satisfaction from my mission “to serve the Pope”. My favourite definition of the Holy Father is “the servant of the servants of God” (ie the servant of the people of God). Well, I think of myself as “the servant of the servant of the servants of God”. I believe that the Pope and the Catholic Church have a lot of good news to give to our sisters and our brothers: about human dignity, justice, human and spiritual growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, consolation of the sick and the poor, peace … Every time I travel with the Pope, I see the truly great message that he brings with him, consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of which the world has an urgent need. I try to be involved, to collaborate in making sure this news is spread. I think this is a great service to others, and am pleased to be asked to be a part of it.
Q: 4 Each year the World Communications Day message of the Holy Father reminds Catholics of key responsibilities in the context of the global media environment. Can you explain this year’s theme please?
The messages for the World Communication Days deal with a specific theme each year, but taken together they almost make up an encyclopaedia on the ethical and spiritual issues of our times. In recent years, the messages have been directed, and effectively so, toward the most pressing questions of the new “culture” of the digital age in which we live. This is a culture in which young people especially are deeply immersed, simultaneously experiencing wonderful opportunities for new relationships and increasing risks of isolation or withdrawal from everyday life. This year’s theme: “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age” is a very ambitious one. The Pope, as always, takes a positive point of view: the new communication technologies “can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being”. While the world we live in increasingly becomes a huge social network, we must never overlook the fact that the human person, his or her dignity and vocation, must remain at its centre. Relationships established on line should never be purely superficial, they must not lose their quality. What kind of “friendships” are we building online? Is the network a place where we can convincingly and credibly give “testimony”, or is it only an environment of non-committal presences, fictitious profiles where we fail to admit the truth about ourselves? In short, the message this year is a very strong call to profound reflection on how we live our human experience and Christian witness in the age and culture of Internet.
Q: 5 Exactly one year ago the Catholics of Ireland received a Pastoral Letter from Pope Benedict XVI and it was welcomed by the faithful. Did you receive feedback his Pastoral Letter from other countries?
Pope Benedict XVI’s Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland is a document which occupies a very important place in this pontificate. In fact, it is the most comprehensive text that the Pope has ever written on the question of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. As we know this issue has dramatically marked and continues to mark the life of the Church in recent years in a profound way. It has left very deep wounds and done serious damage, particularly in some countries, but also- we must add- throughout the universal community of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI has to lead the Church at this time of crisis, and he does so with admirable courage and humility, setting us the example of the evangelical attitudes to adopt and action to be taken. The Pope has spoken many times about the problem of abuse, even on his journeys to different countries, on each occasion drawing the attention of the public and media from further a field. The letter to Irish Catholics has attracted great attention especially there where the tragedy of abuse has hit the Church hardest. Moreover, even if some parts of the letter are addressed more specifically to Ireland, in light of its Christian history and commitments towards concrete renewal, most of the document could easily refer to other countries and situations, such as the intense section addressed to victims, their families, to abusers, the various components of the community. The Pope himself, in other countries, has referred to this letter to explain his personal attitude and the guidelines that he proposes to the entire Church.
Even though the Catholic Church in Ireland has been particularly tried by this terrible tragedy, one that has caused so much suffering among so many innocent people, it is also true to say that if the Church in Ireland can renew itself and rise up again, if it can prove itself worthy of its great tradition, then it will once again lend a great service to the Church in Europe and worldwide, offering its priceless experience of true penance, purification and renewal, revival of community life where children are effectively protected and secure in their human and Christian growth.
In this sense, the feedback I have received has always been characterized by great spiritual participation and sympathy for the difficult period that the Church in Ireland is experiencing, by an admiration for its strength of faith, firm despite suffering and humiliation, and by great attention to see a real progress of renewal and revival of hope, also in view of preparation for the 2012 Eucharistic Congress.
Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long 00353 (0) 86 172 7678