Pope Francis on Monday overhauled the staff that presents the public face of the Vatican, naming a former Fox and Time correspondent from St. Louis as his personal spokesman and director of the Vatican press office — the first American to hold that position. The pope also appointed a Spanish journalist to the second-in-command spot, the highest spot a woman has held in the church’s communications power structure.
Greg Burke, 56, will replace the Rev. Federico Lombardi, an Italian Jesuit who for 10 years has dealt with various papal dramas with a refined but distant style. Lombardi, 73, was director of the Vatican press office for a decade and head of the huge Vatican Radio — the Church’s largest communications arm — from 1991 until last February.
Paloma García Ovejero, the new deputy Vatican spokeswoman, is the first woman to ever hold that role, according to the National Catholic Register. García, 40, was the Rome and Vatican correspondent for the Spanish broadcaster COPE, according to the U.S. Catholic site Crux.
The entire Vatican communications operation has been in a state of flux for several years as it attempts to shift from a slow, massive bureaucracy that operates largely in Italian and shuts down in the early afternoon (Rome time, of course) to a fast-moving, 24-hour, global outreach machine. The Vatican has to balance being a city-state, a worldwide evangelistic effort and a modern communications body that can take advantage of the celebrity newsmaker currently at its helm.
Burke, who was named the deputy in December, is familiar to many reporters who cover Francis and is seen as more accessible to Americans because of his fluent English and familiarity with their news needs and culture.
Longtime Vatican reporter Rocco Palmo said the optics of having two laypeople speaking for the Catholic Church are dramatic. Other names that had been floated around were of priests.
“The fact that it’s a layperson backed up by a layperson is extraordinary — that you won’t see a collar commenting from the Vatican,” Palmo said Monday.
The fact is that there aren’t many clergy with the high-level journalistic chops of Garcia and Burke.
Having laypeople in such roles amplifies one of the core innovations of the Second Vatican Council, a groundbreaking, liberalizing series of meetings in the 1960’s that called laypeople to take up leadership roles in Catholic spiritual life, and not to keep such a bright line in regular life between themselves and clergy (aside from the sacraments, for the most part). In the United States most spokespeople to bishops are laypeople; it’s just been unheard of at the helm of the Vatican.
Palmo also noted the significance of having two non-native Italian speakers as the voice of the Church.
“That’s major. The Vatican still sees itself as Italian,” said Palmo, a Philadelphia writer who writes the popular church news blog Whispersintheloggia.
Longtime Vatican analyst John Allen, with Crux, on Monday called Burke’s appointment a “Steph Curry” moment for Francis — a so-called three-pointer. The decision, Allen said, does three things: puts to rest the feeling that the Argentine pontiff is anti-American (or at least America-reticent), shows that he cares about competence in his high-level staff picks and gives a high spot to a Catholic of the more conservative bent. Burke is a member of Opus Dei, a more traditional Catholic community. Allen notes that Burke is a “numerary,” which in Opus Dei means a lay person who is celibate.
Pope John Paul II for many years had an Opus Dei layman as his spokesman, a man named Joaquin Navarro-Valls. He was seen as a powerful close adviser to the pope, unlike Lombardi, who is well-liked but often seen as unable to authoritatively decipher the intentions of Francis.
Allen said the choice of García, a woman, is “in particular a game-changer. For a pope whose warnings against the dangers of clericalism have become the stuff of legend, this is a case in which Francis is, quite literally, putting his money where his mouth is.”
According to the Register, she speaks Spanish, English, Italian and Chinese.