Catholic News Agency
During his 22 years as spokesman for St. John Paul II, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls became somewhat of a legend in the Vatican – not only for his keen professional abilities and insight into the Pope's mind, but also for his genuine kindness and deep spiritual life.
In a word, most who knew the late Spanish layman, who died earlier this week, have referred to him as a “gentleman” who was elegant, professional, kind and incredibly savvy.
Nevertheless, there are lessons for today from Navarro-Valls’ example.
First, a spokesman is only as effective as his principal permits him to be. A spokesman who does not regularly have direct access to the pope will be very limited in his effectiveness. The Vatican press corps must know that the press spokesman has sufficient access to the Holy Father and that his statements do in fact reflect the reality of the situation, and not merely his commentary upon it. When Navarro-Valls clarified something for the press corps, they knew that he was speaking the Holy Father’s mind.
That was not the case after Navarro-Valls retired. His successor, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, was a true gentleman, whose genial manner and generous spirit served the Church well in many difficult moments, but he did not have similar access to either Pope Benedict or Pope Francis. Thus his comments were too often regarded as attempts to spin the events, rather than an authoritative presentation of them.
Second, professional competence matters. It is not essential to have been a journalist to serve as an effective spokesman, but it is necessary to know what journalists need and how they think. That Pope Francis appointed Greg Burke, like Navarro-Valls a veteran journalist, to the post underscores that this lesson has been learned.
Though Navarro-Valls’ principal work was in the Holy See Press Office, he also was a key figure behind the professional training offered to Church communications personnel at the University of the Holy Cross, the Opus Dei university in Rome. Indeed, by sheer force of example, Navarro-Valls led a global shift in the way the Church approached communications. The Holy Cross courses were an institutional expression of it.