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VATICAN LETTER Sep-8-2006 (670 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

'Sala Stampa' style change: From toreador to low-key mathematician

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- At the Vatican press office, the Italian mathematician has replaced the Spanish bullfighter.

Since his appointment this summer as press office director, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi has developed an understated style, lowering the profile and removing some of the personality from an office that interfaces with the world's media.

Father Lombardi describes himself as a communicator and facilitator, but says he won't be a papal "spokesman" because Pope Benedict XVI doesn't need an interpreter.

"I don't think my role is to explain the pope's thinking or explain the things that he already states in an extraordinarily clear and rich way," Father Lombardi said in early September.

Father Lombardi spoke in an interview with Catholic News Service in the office he inherited from Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who directed the Vatican's "Sala Stampa" for 22 years.

On the bookshelf stood the empty photo frames that Navarro-Valls had once filled with pictures from trips around the world and encounters with global leaders. The TV, which Navarro-Valls usually had tuned to CNN, was off.

Like Pope John Paul II, Navarro-Valls was a former actor. He insisted that stories about his bullfighting talents were only legend, but he often maneuvered in toreador fashion as papal spokesman. Navarro-Valls interpreted the pope, disclosed papal quips and analyzed the significance of papal actions for reporters. He loved to spin.

Father Lombardi professed admiration for his predecessor's work, but journalists immediately noticed a difference in the air. One telltale sign was that the first Vatican communique issued under Father Lombardi did not mention his own name. Under Navarro-Valls, these statements, although drafted in the office of the Vatican secretary of state, were released as if they were direct declarations of the papal spokesman.

Father Lombardi said Pope Benedict did not give him precise instructions on how to run the press office, but his self-effacing style seems a perfect match with the pope's own low-key approach.

Trained in mathematics and a one-time student of theology in Germany, the 64-year-old Jesuit speaks French, German and passable English, in addition to his native Italian, and can read and understand Spanish and Portuguese. His linguistic skills were important over the last 16 years as program director, then general director, of Vatican Radio.

Because he remains director of Vatican Radio and of the Vatican television station, CTV, Father Lombardi's workday is an exercise in musical chairs. He begins his morning at Vatican Radio's headquarters, then spends several hours at the press office, heads to CTV in the early afternoon, and in the late afternoon returns to the radio, where he works until about 9 p.m.

He said he reads the Vatican's daily packet of press clippings in rapid fashion -- perhaps too rapidly, he added, saying he may have to devote more attention to that task. Given his schedule, he has little time for browsing the Internet during the day.

Father Lombardi well understands that journalistic and Vatican priorities are not always a perfect match. On a recent morning, for example, the pressing question from reporters was whether the pope's new red hat was made of felt or straw.

But in general, the priest said, he thinks most regular reporters covering the Vatican do so with competence and respect. He said he believes Pope John Paul's long pontificate helped raise the quality of reporting on the church.

"Throughout his papacy, including the time of his illness and death, there was a deepening of understanding about the figure of the pope and a greater sensitivity to the dimensions of spirituality and faith that animate his ministry," he said.

Reporters still sometimes complain about secrecy at the Vatican, something Father Lombardi says is understandable. The church is still finding ways to live in the new "society of communications" and at the same time trying to maintain the proper degree of prudence and reserve, he said.

"It's a balance we have to work at every day. There's no easy recipe," he said.


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