An audience with the Pope's PR man Father Federico Lombardi

With the Catholic Church under new management and undergoing major reform, Alex Benady talks to the man responsible for communicating 'the Francis effect' to the masses.

The Pope’s PR man, Father Federico Lombardi, occupies a corner office in the headquarters of Vatican Radio, an elegant fascist-era building overlooking the Via della Conciliazione in central Rome.

Laden with history, some of it shameful, the grand thoroughfare’s name suggests a path to some sort of consensus and is an apt address for the man charged with explaining the Roman Catholic Church to the rest of the world.

And boy, has he had some explaining to do.

For years the Catholic Church has been mired in scandals relating to child abuse, cover-ups of child abuse, corruption in its finances, reports of money laundering for the mafia and accusations that its refusal to sanction contraception has condemned millions to poverty and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands to a slow painful death from AIDS.

As director of the Holy See press office, Lombardi is presiding over what is arguably the biggest relaunch in the history of mankind. Under new management thanks to the appointment of the ultra media-friendly Pope Francis, the Church is modernising and communicating to its 1.2 billion followers in a manner that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. Not that Lombardi can or will acknowledge recent events as such. "It’s not a revolution and it’s not The Reformation 2.0," he says. "The best word to describe it is a reform."

As we meet in the reception area of the Vatican Radio building, there is a reminder that though we are in an office block, it’s an office block with a higher purpose. A woman laden with carrier bags emerges from nowhere and asks to be blessed. For a moment his face clouds, but what can he do? This is the other day job after all, interview or no interview. So she kneels in front of him and while people mill all around them, he rests his hands on her head and blesses her. It looks positively feudal and it’s a reminder of the devotion the Church inspires among its followers.

A few minutes later, in a drab, spartan conference room, Lombardi describes his brief. "It is two jobs really," he says. "First, I am director general of Vatican Radio. We broadcast in 40 languages and we have 200 journalists from 61 countries producing programming." He stood down as DG of Vatican TV last year.  

The second job, comms director of the Holy See press office, aka Vatican spokesman, is more difficult. He admits that fronting the Vatican’s response to a succession of scandals has been a painful and bruising personal experience for him:   "Obviously for anyone who loves the Church, the idea that there are negative aspects or crimes in some part of it is something that is not a joy."

One of his big problems, he says, is that while some of the accusations are true, some are not. "Many times there is a context in which the criticism is augmented by a broader antipathy or prejudice against the Church. But we have to recognise what is true and, if it is, we have to correct it," he observes. For example the Vatican Bank has been repeatedly accused of corruption. A senior Vatican cleric was arrested in June trying to bring $26m into Italy from Switzerland. Priests in Calabria in southern Italy have been accused of laundering funds for the Ndrangheta, the local mafia: "Some of these things are true, but some are not true. You have to distinguish between them."

Italians are given to grandiloquence and the Church is used to being listened to. Given he is an Italian priest, it’s no surprise Lombardi’s answers tend to be long, complex and open to interpretation. In response to a question about the Church’s attitude to homosexuality, for instance, he quotes three difficult paragraphs of the Pope’s writing on the subject. "These are complex matters," he explains.  "I have no intention to give you a sound bite."

A PR man who doesn’t deal in sound bites? He might not, but his colleague, senior comms adviser Greg Burke, has a nice line in them. The former Fox News reporter has made a considerable impression with his tweets, sporting analogies and ten things to know about the Pope and has been described as "the PR genius who helped make the Pope popular".

Lombardi declines to squabble over who takes the credit – he makes it clear that it should go to the Pope himself. He explains that Burke doesn’t work for the comms function but for the secretariat of state and his role is to provide Lombardi with information from inside the secretariat.

Forgiveness is one of the distinguishing features of Catholicism and often during the interview Lombardi extends the indulgence of forgiveness to the Church itself. "If we know why we are Christian and faithful we also know that sin is part of our story. It is just not possible to have a perfect community of one billion people," he says. "It’s not quite a ‘mea culpa’ – more of a ‘sua culpa’ really."

Crisis of faith

The outside world has taken a less generous view. Church attendances in the West have been declining for decades, while the Church was increasingly seen by non-believers as an irrelevant and hypocritical anachronism, more interested in its own power and glory than the welfare of its flock.

But all that changed in February when little known Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to the papacy.  Since then, as Pope Francis he has led what could be one of the most astonishing reputational turnarounds of all time. Described as a "Pope star" by one newspaper, in a matter of months Francis has become a red-hot search on the internet. He is the new beacon of hope for the world. This year’s Barack Obama. Church attendances are up for the first time in decades – by as much as 20 per cent, according to one survey. And even among non-believers the Church is regaining some of its lost moral authority.

You can see why. Francis is a PR man’s dream. While his predecessor Benedict XIV was remote and authoritarian, Francis is a man of the people with a populist touch. He rides the bus to work. He lives in a hostel. He kisses people with extreme disfigurements. He phones people who write to him asking for help. And he sneaks out of the Vatican at night to give money to the poor.

PR dream he may be, PR construct he is not – although he might just be a PR genius. He understands that actions speak louder than words and that the Church’s archaic technical language is a serious barrier to communication.  Deep in the text of Evangelii Gaudium, a densely argued 50,000-word paper archaically described as an "apostolic exhortation", Francis wrote recently: "The greatest risk for a preacher is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks everyone else naturally understands and uses it."

But when it comes to matters of personal style, Lombardi implies that Francis is a maverick. The Pope’s pop-up appearances are certainly not part of a grand plan because there is no grand plan.

"They are totally spontaneous. They are his way. Like John Paul II he has no communication strategy in the sense of priorities. He just has a way to be… the strength of communication does not come from a prepared strategy but is the result of the strength of personality and charisma; the human way to be. That’s why he has broken the barriers between him and the people. Totally. Absolutely."

He also seems to break barriers in the Vatican. There are very clear lines of communication in the Curia, the Vatican civil service. So in theory the press office should be briefed on the Pope’s activities by the Vatican’s secretariat of state, the ‘dicastery’ or department founded in the 15th century to manage the Vatican’s political and diplomatic functions.

Loose canon 

While Benedict XVI was a procedures man, Francis happily cuts right across internal lines of communication to micromanage his messages:  "Normally if I want information [from the Pope] I send a message to his secretary and wait for an answer. But sometimes the Pope phones me directly. Not often. But sometimes he has something to say to me personally." It’s usually to tell Lombardi to give a message emphasis in the press or communicate something he feels is important: "He might say [he is] giving a speech this morning, so will I stress this or that point." This Pope is a bit of a loose canon, it seems.

Even on what might be considered diary stories in other organisations, such as the Pope’s trips abroad, there does not seem to be a strategic approach.

Instead, comms are task-related. "Our perspective is different. Our mission is to communicate the love of God for the people and this is done through the concrete life of the Church." Messages are not segmented by either target audience or geography.  The Church may seem to be an old-fashioned command and control organisation, pumping out one message from Rome. That is true when it comes to the Curia, the Pope and matters of doctrine. But on other matters, such as local culture and practices, it is surprisingly flexible.

Like many global brands in the commercial sector, Lombardi says the Church has discovered that it cannot enforce a centralised view. It needs to respect local culture and practices to retain its power. So it may think global, but it acts local. "The Church is alive in the different regions and I cannot know what the Church in the US has to do to communicate to its society and people," says Lombardi. "I am not a substitute for the Church in Japan because they have to do it themselves. I am not explaining to Tanzania what they have to do in family life. That is the task of the local church. I have not to answer the problems of the Church in Germany. The bishops of Germany have to give this."

While this sounds quite reasonable, the subtext is that on many matters – and that includes child abuse – the Vatican cannot be held accountable for the behaviour of institutions or individual Catholics around the world. Just a few days after the interview, however, Pope Francis announced a commission to advise him on new measures to fight sexual abuse by priests and improve the provision of pastoral care for victims.

The Church extends its surprising flexibility even to things you might think were non-negotiable. Take the right of priests to marry. According to Lombardi that is just cultural practice, not core doctrine: "Married priests exist in several parts of the Catholic Church. In Asia priests marry. In the Catholic Churches of the Oriental Rites, priests can be married. The Anglican priests who were already married before they joined Catholicism are allowed to be priests and marry. It is normal."

In addition to his populist engagement, Francis has started what appears to be a fundamental repositioning of the Catholic Church. In Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope declared a back-to-basics agenda designed to rekindle its missionary zeal. He wants the Church to become more evangelical. He wants power to move away from the Vatican. He wants to reform the Curia, the Vatican civil service, and overhaul the secretive IOR, the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, better known as the Vatican Bank.

Francis has also written that he wants "a poor church for the poor". He has criticised free market capitalism as "idolatry of money" and complained the Church is preoccupied with preaching about abortion, homosexuality and contraception. "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security," he wrote.

A change of accents

It might sound like a revolution in the Vatican, but a lot of it is spin.

When it comes to the role of women in the Church, the Pope has said they must be respected and given roles beyond charity work and being nuns. So a brave new future awaits them – admission to the priesthood perhaps? Well no, says Lombardi. "I recognise the incredible role performed by women in education, missionary work, healthcare and the spiritual life of the Church. Women occupy many roles in the Church. They are section chiefs in Vatican Radio and they could be chiefs of some departments in the Curia.

But the Pope has said clearly that the ordination of women will not take place." Similarly, on the issue of homosexuality, though the language has softened the tune remains essentially the same.

There may be changes in emphasis, style and presentation, but not in the underlying doctrines: "A change of accents is given by the Pope when he says not to be obsessed by some particular points of moral teachings, like abortion. But in the new document you have a point against abortion that is very clear. It is in the same tradition. Our idea is to be in continuity with the gospel, to respect the tradition of the Church, but to renew continuously. We have to change our structures so they are not too rigidly protecting the past. The Pope is finding a way to express, maybe with new accents, the same fundamental message."

It would be cruel to conclude that the changes are mere window dressing. Lombardi and the Church have to address a constituency ranging from right-wing traditionalists to radical revolutionaries.  The new tone and sense of purpose is allowing the Church to reconnect not only with its own internal constituencies, but with the world outside. Having an office overlooking the way of reconciliation is indeed an apposite address for the papal mouthpiece.

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