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The Media and the Vatican part two: building bridges

Sebastian Gomes

Friday, April 26, 2013

tom with mark phillips
Part 2 in a series of blogs about the experience of working at the Holy See during the papal transition.
We arrived in Rome on Tuesday, February 19th just one week after Pope Benedict announced his resignation.  A few days later Fr. Rosica was sitting next to Fr. Federico Lombardi at the daily press briefings, and doing interviews with dozens of English and French media for hours outside the Holy See Press Office.  As I mentioned in the first installment of this reflection, one question dominated our conversations behind the scenes of that extraordinary time in the Church:  could the Vatican and the Press learn how to communicate with each other in a respectful and mutually productive way?
From our perspective it was indisputable that the Press had an essential role to play in telling the story of the papal transition to the world, but given the always delicate and sometimes tense relationship between the Vatican and the Press, this view was not widespread, at least not in the higher levels of the Vatican bureaucracy.
In a recent letter to the Argentinean Bishops Conference, Pope Francis wrote that Mission is the key to ministry, and that a Church that does not go out of itself, sooner or later, sickens from the stale air of closed rooms.  Francis was not talking about the Vatican Bureaucracy specifically, but his observation is applicable if we can understand just how massive the opportunity for evangelization was during this papal transition.
Vatican City was temporarily transformed into mission territory.  Even as masses of people from around the world flooded there to witness the historic events, the realization of this once-in-a-half-millennium opportunity (literally) would be lost if the powers-that-be would not descend the Vatican steps and open the bronze doors to meet the people face to face.  It is ironic that the newly elected successor of Peter seems to struggle doing the opposite, namely ascending those Vatican steps; evidently he prefers to be on the ground with the people.
In any case, going up and down stairs is only symbolic of the challenge facing the Vatican in that moment, as it was forced by the unforeseeable decision of Pope Benedict  to conduct a critical examination of self under the scrutinizing magnifying glass of 21st century media coverage.  Even if we wholeheartedly believe that complete transparency is the right approach in dealing with the Press, we cannot deny the magnitude of something like a papal resignation for an institution like the Catholic Church. Granted, there is almost nothing like a papal resignation and there is certainly no institution like the Catholic Church. 
In hindsight this double exclusivity helps us understand the subtle degree of sympathy on the part of the Press for the Catholic Church during those turbulent weeks.  The truth is that Benedict's resignation shocked the Press as much as it shocked the Church.  I'm not just talking about the historical significance of the event.
The proposition that the Catholic Church is incapable of real change (i.e. progressive modernization) borders on dogma for the secular world, and a papal resignation at this time by this pope singlehandedly destroys that proposition.  That is why Fr. Rosica and I found the vast majority of the Press not only relatively patient and understanding, but also personally curious and even encouraging.  What other reaction is possible?
Nonetheless, it was up to the Curia - specifically the Secretariat of State - to dictate the tone of Vatican communications and media relations on the ground.  We took our instructions directly from them, specifically Greg Burke, an American layman working as the Senior Communications Advisor, and Fr.  Lombardi in the Holy See Press Office.  To say that both men are highly competent is an understatement.  As I worked alongside them for over a month and began to learn their methods of accessing and disseminating information, I could see how invaluable they are to a system that, quite frankly, does not function efficiently in the area of communications and public relations.
They still needed backup, so to speak, and because Fr. Rosica and I were there by invitation, we had some degree of freedom in working with the English and French media.  It would be easy (and perhaps expected) for the Vatican to seek outside help when needed, keep a close eye on things and even pull on the reigns when necessary.  That was not our experience.  Yes, we took our cues from the Secretariat of State, but this was not restrictive by any means.
From a media point of view those three weeks before the conclave were the most important, and our success in bridging the gap between the Vatican and the Press would largely depend on that little bit of freedom to introduce our own methods.  It is important to note that we always saw our role as one of bridge building.  In simplified terms, we were credible in the eyes of the Vatican because we were associated with Salt and Light, and we were credible in the eyes of the Press because we were not directly associated with the Vatican.  It would be a mistake, however, to interpret this bridge building as purely mediatory.  We stood in the middle but we were not neutral.  A better image would be that of a soldier fighting vigorously for both sides.  At once we would do everything possible to ensure the Press had information and access, and at the same time we challenged them to tell the real story, void of popular bias and slander.  At once we would follow the instructions of the Secretariat of State and disseminate information to all English and French journalists, and at the same time challenge them to be more creative in their outreach to the Press and avoid reactionary tendencies.
The key to building bridges is building relationships, on both sides.  Once we discovered that, our work started to bear fruit and the Press seemed less aggressive and negative while the Vatican seemed less frightened and distant.  I will write about how we built those relationships and specifically how they brought the Vatican and the Press a little closer together in the final installment of this reflection.  But for now, let me conclude by saying that I realize that this discovery may not seem like a grand accomplishment, but on the ground it was as if the tectonic plates of Vatican City were shifting.  They were shifting because for the second time in as many weeks something was happening in the Catholic Church that had never happened before.
(Photo:  Sebastian Gomes / SL)
Cover photo: Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB is interviewed by CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips from their temporary studio over looking St. Peter's Square during the Cardinal's general congregation meetings prior to the Conclave.

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