Joaquin Navarro-Valls, spokesman of John Paul II and then of Benedict XVI, as Director of the Holy See Press Office from 1984 to 2006, died quietly on July 5, 2017 at the age of 80, after a long illness. Spanish, born on November 16, 1936, he was the first layman and the first non-Italian to hold such a post. He was at present President of the Consultative Council of the Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome.
A turn about, a flash of humor, brilliant eye, burst of laughter, a firm and open handshake, he leaves the souvenir of his enthusiasm and profound joy, as the photo recalls, posted by Greg Burke, who occupies the same post today at the Vatican. The souvenir of an “eagle,” who was able to fly high and see clearly, anticipate, avoid loaded questions, appease, move ahead.
This doctor journalist was a consecrated layman, a “Numerary” of the Opus Dei, who lived in the 70s at Rome near the founder, Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer.
His professional life reflected the spirituality of the vocation of laymen engaged in the world and sanctified in their work. His role close to Popes and the press accredited to the Vatican was fundamental: he modernized the premises and style, but not only.
Once in retirement, he confided, during a dinner of journalists in Rome, that his position as a layman had been particularly useful for his mission: he did not belong to the ecclesiastical “hierarchy,” which gave him the freedom this role needed.
One evening, during one of Benedict XVI’s trips, as he always read the Popes’ addresses before they pronounced them, he realized there was an important word missing. He asked to be received by the Pope that same evening. The papal entourage asked him if it was important. He answered that it was for the Pope to judge if it was important. He was received and he said something like: “Holy Father, tomorrow the newspaper won’t report what you said. They will speak of a word that was expected and that wasn’t pronounced.” The word was inserted in the Pope’s address.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls concluded: a layman can do that. If in such a circumstance I was not allowed to approach the Pope, I could tender my resignation, because the conditions would not exist for me to accomplish the mission entrusted to me. There’s the freedom of a layman in that post, he said essentially.
He shared with John Paul II most dramatic moments, such as the murder in 1998 of the Commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, of his wife and the suicide of the young recruit who killed them, but also moments of profound prayer, and of great enthusiasm, such as the first World Youth Days (WYD).
And the most historic moments, such as the visits to the Vatican of the President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbatchev, on December 1, 1989, and of Fidel Castro, on November 19, 1996: the Holy See Press Office has perhaps never been such a focus of the world’s media.
He took part in all the official journeys, and was part of the Holy See Delegation to important UN Conferences, such as at Cairo in 1994, Copenhagen in 1995, Beijing also in 1995, and Istanbul in 1996.
With his doctor’s eye, he shared the most painful moments of the illness and death of his friend, the Polish Pope, which was the most difficult news to live, which he announced with a lump in his throat, on April 2, 2005.
He also accompanied Benedict XVI on his journeys, including the WYD at Cologne in 2005, until the arrival of his successor, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, in July of 2006, after the German Pope’s trip to Spain for the World Meeting of Families at Valencia.
Navarro-Valls studied medicine at Granada and Barcelona, specializing in Psychiatry and Social Psychology. He also received a grant to study at Harvard. He studied Journalism and Communication at the University of Navarre, collaborated on a number of publications and founded “Diagonal” at Barcelona. From 1974 to 1977 he was correspondent for two Reviews and spokesman of the Opus Dei, which he entered in 1959.
He became a correspondent in Rome, for Madrid’s daily ABC in 1977, covering Italy, the Vatican and the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. It was at that time that he became President of the Foreign Press Association in Italy before being called by John Paul II to head the Holy See Press Office, during a dinner at the Pope’s table. He was taken aback and answered “yes.”
When he left this post, after 22 years, he was 69. He was a commentator for Italian Public Television (RAI), and President of the Consultative Council of the Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome, dependency of the Opus Dei. He also headed the Telecom Italia Foundation.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls was decorated by King Juan Carlos I and was awarded a number of national and international journalistic prizes. He was the recipient of Doctorates Honoris Causa from the Universities of Valencia, in 2005, and Catalonia in 2010.
“Joaquin Navarro. RIP. Grace under pressure,” said Greg Burke on wednesday evening in a Tweet, quoting Hemingway in alluding to Navarro-Valls’ courage: “Courage is grace under pressure,” from “The Old Man and the Sea.” And then there is the photograph of Saint John Paul II laughing, holding the arm and shaking the hand of his friend, which accompanies a second Tweet: “Joaquin Navarro, 1936-2017. Keep Smiling”. Courage, smile, his legacy.