ROME, DEC. 6, 2004 (Zenit.org).- It was 1974 when Dr. Joaquín Navarro Valls, together with Giovanni Caprile, stirred a public debate about the scant official information available on the Synod on Evangelization.
The relator of the synod was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.
Ten years later, on Dec. 4, 1984, Cardinal Wojtyla, now John Paul II, appointed Navarro Valls director of the Holy See’s Press Office.
The appointment of a layman and member of the Opus Dei to the Vatican press office caused some stir, but at the time no one could have imagined the extent to which relations were to change with journalists and the mass media.
In fact, John Paul II has revolutionized the image of the papacy and the Roman Curia in the mass media. He is the first pope to hold press conferences, to regularly answer journalists’ questions, and to allow the publication of a book in which he is interviewed.
The choice of Navarro Valls was part of this revolution. With his arrival in the press office, meetings and briefings with journalists multiplied, and documents distributed under embargo increased. Now, more than 80% of the news on the activity of the Church and the Pope comes from the Vatican press office.
In an interview some time ago with journalist Antonio Gaspari, Navarro Valls said: “The work we try to do in the Vatican press office is to combat prejudices, which at times remain so, not through our fault, but because of the obstinacy of some individuals.”
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Navarro Valls’ appointment as director of the Vatican press office, ZENIT decided to publish the text of that interview.
Q: Could you give some examples of how relations with journalists have changed?
Navarro Valls: There are many examples; I will mention a few that seem significant to me. Journalists have been able to follow John Paul II everywhere. The Pope even allowed television cameras to film his meeting in the Rebibbia prison with Ali Agca, the man who tried to kill him.
He has never imposed censures, not even when it was a question of his health. When, in July 1992, it was discovered that he had cancer, before knowing if the tumor was benign or malignant, he called me and said: “I will mention this in the Angelus, you tell the journalists what you think best.”
During the whole period of his recovery in the hospital, we willingly furnished exhaustive information. After the surgery on his leg for a broken femur, we showed the RAI [Italian Radio and Television] film crew the X-ray plate with the prosthesis inserted in his leg. For this transparent conduct, I even received some criticisms.
I would like to stress that behind this attitude there is not only an informative technique but also a way of conceiving the Church and the very figure of the Pope.
Q: What were your relations with the Holy Father and what did you think when you were called to head the Vatican press office?
Navarro Valls: When I learned that the Pope had appointed me director of the press office, I was prey to many doubts, but time was limited.
I was then president of the International Press Club. Five hundred journalists who were in Rome had re-elected me for a second term even though at that time I had decided to end my journalistic adventure in order to return to Spain and take up the initial role of my career, namely, as a teacher in the school of medicine.
At the time, my knowledge of the Pope was quite limited. I had made some trips as a journalist and part of his retinue and not much else. I often wondered why he chose me precisely.
I did enjoy the trust of the journalists of the foreign press who had elected me their president, but I don’t think this was the decisive factor.
I think, rather, that in the Holy Father’s plans there was a desire to meet the expectations that were created at the world level from the beginning of his pontificate.
In order to respond to the challenges of global communication it was necessary to change many things: the language, structure and above all the mentality.
At the beginning of my work I spent a great deal of my time trying to understand what the Roman Curia is, to understand well the subjects of each of the dicasteries, to be able to establish the basis for an effective and efficient interactive collaboration.
Then, of course, we tried to effect those structural changes necessary to carry out an endeavor of constant information.
Q: What were the problems you had to address?
Navarro Valls: The changes the Pope wished to make in connection with the transmission of a message at the universal level implied a close collaboration with the means of communication.
The problem is that the logic of the Church and that of the media are different. The logic of the mass media is conditioned absolutely by daily events. Ideas are not covered in depth but presented through personal positions, in this way even the cultural parameters of non-essential questions become definitive.
Moreover, news must be something that strikes one; it matters not if it is for good or evil. They are what communication theoreticians call the structural limits of journalism.
On the other hand, there is the logic of the Church, where everything is looked at over a long time, and where every particular is part of the whole, where the coherence and unity of the whole implies that one cannot separate moral doctrine from man’s life and the divine filiation.
The problem for us was how to make these very different logics able to coexist. Our comforting answer was given by this pontificate which has succeeded in combining these two logics. John Paul II has not lagged behind public opinion; on the contrary, the mass media has followed the Pontiff.
This pontificate has renewed the language with which people are addressed, it has been able to touch upon the central subjects of that entity that we call modernity, and has furnished answers within and outside the Christian realm to the problems of man. The interest has been enormous and there is no hint of it diminishing.
Q: What is the typical day of the director of the Vatican press office like?
Navarro Valls: My day begins very early in the morning around 6 o’clock with a press review, which was never done before, and eventually was done using only the Italian press. Now, instead, it is virtually universal.
Thanks to television networks, we are able to acquire all the articles that are of interest and that are published in different parts of the world.
The press review is classified in five topics: “Evidence,” namely front page news, the most prominent; “Holy See” news relating to the Vatican; “Local Churches” relating to the activities carried out by the different Churches; “Morals and Society,” which relates to lifestyles; finally “International Politics,” the important topics on which we are questioned every day by journalists.
When I arrive at my office the first task is to study the press review. After analyzing the topics of the day, we study the Holy See’s day. It starts with the Pope’s activity, and continues with the eventual release of documents, the activity of the Curia’s dicasteries, the announcement and explanation of important trips of representatives of the Holy See, and so on.
All important events are considered, which are then taken up in the press office’s bulletin which is distributed every day after 12 noon.
Before 10 o’clock in the morning we have a working meeting to verify how topics proposed by us the day before have been taken up by the media. And we discuss how to effect eventual adjustments and improvements. In the meantime, already in the morning this office begins to receive telephone calls, faxes, and e-mails from the East requesting information.
Toward midday, Europe wakes up, until 5 o’clock in the afternoon when Canada, the United States, and the countries of Latin America begin their requests.
One of the difficulties of this office is that it must work taking into account the time zone of the whole world, so requests arrive round-the-clock and it is necessary to be always available. When my information is not sufficient to give adequate answers, I turn to the first and second sections of the Secretariat of State; consequently, I have a constant relationship with the secretary of state.
I must say that the availability of the people who work in the Secretariat of State and, in particular, of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, is extraordinary.
I have always had the same availability from the Holy Father with whom I have a regular meeting. If I see in the morning that the Pope is receiving a personality on whom I will be questioned by public opinion, I leave immediately and no sooner the Holy Father has finished, I ask about the topics discussed.
I would like to emphasize that in so many years of collaboration with the Pontiff I have never heard him say, “Be careful, this information is only for you.”
Q: Have you ever suggested to the Holy Father how he should conduct himself before the mass media?
Navarro Valls: I have made very few suggestions to the Holy Father: absolutely elementary and strictly necessary particulars. But it is signs of his pontificate that have had an enormous effect on the media. They are signs that have a strong symbolic value, which refer to something that belongs to a higher sphere.
The Pope has never been concerned about his image. After long study of the Pope on TV, a New York Times critic was convinced that John Paul II goes against all the standard canons of appearance on TV, and it is this that gives him his success: He ignores the television, and because of this, dominates it.
Q: Has the Pope ever lamented what journalists have written about him?
Navarro Valls: Never that I am aware of, and never with me. Not even for vignettes or satire that might have wounded him.
The only occasions I have heard him say that it was necessary to react were those when essential points of doctrine were distorted. I have always found him very understanding in meetings with journalists and their difficult work of information.
Q: Not even the many voices about his health have succeeded in making him lose patience?
Navarro Valls: What he doesn’t accept is not the voices on his health, but speculation on his greater or lesser capacity to be Pope.
John Paul II does not accept that for some ailment doubt is cast on moral theology. He is not jealous of his image. He is not afraid of being seen as suffering; he knows well that pain is a characteristic experience of the life of every man.
Q: You are, perhaps, the best-known man of Opus Dei. Has this ever created problems for you?
Navarro Valls: Opus Dei is a personal choice of mine, the way in which I live in the great family of the Church. And this membership has not created problems for me in my relationship with others because I do a professional job.
For this reason, I have never been concerned to know what kinds of religions journalists profess who are accredited to the Vatican press office. The one and only parameter, which we take into account when requests arrive for accreditation, is professionalism.
Q: Are there criteria that you can indicate to be a good Vaticanist?
Navarro Valls: It is not my custom to give advice to colleagues. However, I can refer to my professional experience as journalist because I was first a doctor and a teacher. I was a foreign correspondent in the eastern Mediterranean area of the world, where religions play an essential role.
Whether in Greece or Turkey, in Israel or the Muslim countries of North Africa, my experience was that I could not understand certain facts about the public and social life of these countries unless I studied the religious hinterland.
For the same reason, it is very difficult to understand certain positions of the Holy See if one is ignorant of the Christian anthropology, doctrine and ethics of the Church. To read Vatican events with purely political parameters means not to understand anything.
With this I don’t wish to say that one must become a Catholic to be a good Vaticanist. I did not become a Muslim to understand why Sadat was assassinated. To write good news it is necessary to take into account a series of religious, ethical, historical and cultural parameters. The more vast the journalist’s view, the better and more complete his services will be.