After 36 years given to the Vatican's communications ministry, the Jesuit priest shares life lessons drawn from his close encounters with John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis
After being a close collaborator of three popes, 10 years as the Director of the Holy See Press Office and 26 years at the helm of Vatican Radio, Fr. Federico Lombardi opens his heart to us in this exclusive interview.
In our dialogue he shared how he discovered his priestly vocation and what he learned from the last three popes, who have changed the history of the Church and the world.
It is a story that, like his life, is characterized by humility and authenticity.
Aleteia: How old were you and what compelled you to one day to leave behind all the possibilities life was offering to become a Jesuit priest?
Fr. Lombardi: A vocation is something that depends on God. For me it was something that developed gradually, without any great drama in my youth, having been involved already in groups and activities in the Church. I was a Boy Scout, part of the Marian Association, and went to a Jesuit school, which, growing up, was one of the main factors that led me to ask to enter the Company of Jesus. I entered the novitiate at the age of adulthood, when I was 18. The decision was something that had matured through high school.
After your time as Provincial of the Jesuits in Italy, in 1990 you began your collaboration with John Paul II as the director of Vatican Radio. What are the life lessons you took away from your work with Pope Wojtyla?
The work of Vatican Radio in the years of John Paul II represented for me a true opening towards the global horizon of the world and the Church.
As a Jesuit, I already have a vocation that seeks to look out to the world, and as Provincial I took many trips and visited our missionaries across the globe. Thus, my horizon was already fairly vast. But with the work at Vatican Radio and accompanying John Paul II, particularly in his travels, the universal horizon of the Church and her attention to history and all human affairs from a spiritual perspective of faith became for me truly a continuous, daily focus.
I remember in my first days at Vatican Radio a consultation with the international press agencies, in which we were able to follow minute-by-minute the events taking place in various parts of the world; it drew me in. It moved me to broaden my spirituality, recognizing the presence of God, seeing the signs of His work in the everyday lives of persons and nations, thus becoming the substance of my daily life.
And in this John Paul II was a great master.
I remember two things that touched me deeply: one, his authority in speaking to people; he seemed to be truly an expert of people. During his trips, he had this ability to enter into the history, the culture, and the spirit of the different nations. Working at Vatican Radio, which has always striven to be multilingual, multicultural, open to differences and the variety of cultures in their uniqueness…it really drew me in. John Paul II, in my opinion, was an expert both of peoples and individual persons.
And then, his deep faith, which was manifested so clearly in moments of personal prayer, where he was collected and strong, even in the midst of great confusion and the great expectations surrounding the trips he took. You could tell that a personal relationship with God was at the center of his life, his focus, and his service, and in this sense his canonization corresponded to a very clear testimony of life and faith.
On July 11, 2006, Pope Benedict appointed you Director of the Press Office of the Holy See. What have been the most difficult moments in this mission? And the most beautiful? What have you taken away with you in your heart from your relationship with Pope Benedict?
I certainly participated in a profound way in the events of his pontificate, including those which could have been the greatest challenges he faced. I have to say that the difficult moments were those challenging moments for the Church, which the pope faced with the greatest courage and willingness. We can think of, for example, the debate on Islam, the crisis in the Church surrounding clerical sexual abuse, or other internal debates within the Roman Curia, which were later reflected in public opinion. Benedict faced these situations with the greatest courage, laying the first steps on which the Church can move forward, on a foundation of personal suffering in these difficulties, but also a foundation of great courage and sincerity.
I am convinced that these difficulties are the basis on which we have taken great steps forward, for example, in approaching with objectivity and depth our relation with the Muslim world, the issue of the violence we are currently witnessing, with all its depth and magnitude. And the pope faced these issues with clarity and courage, touching on the points that have yet to be confronted and resolved, both on the part of the Muslim world and on our own part in dialogue with them.
Regarding the issue of the cases of abuse, already as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later as pope, he set out the principles of the procedural basis and proper approach to be taken by the Church regarding prevention and legal recognition of these errors, which have given a direction upon which Pope Francis can continue to build. But it was Benedict who set out and confronted the way of facing this incredibly complex and painful issue.
And regarding the internal discussions on the functioning of the Curia, on transparency, on the adoption of a system of regulation and administration that meets the standards of our contemporary culture, on correct administration at the international level, the pope put into motion a whole series of legislative norms and regulations on which we continue to work, and which have brought with them many fruits. In all of this, he was a person who faced these great problems with patience, simplicity, and fidelity. I am happy to have been able to work together in this undertaking.
Naturally we cannot forget the beautiful moments during this papacy, like the trip to the United Kingdom, the trip to the United States, and many other occasions which were encounters with nations where Catholics were not a majority. These were extremely festive and beautiful moments. And then some of his great addresses to the world and to contemporary society – the Westminster Hall Address, the Addresses to the United Nations and the German Parliament – which remain important chapters in an in-depth and serious dialogue by the Church with society and the contemporary world, and which were received with great respect for their spiritual and cultural quality, of which Benedict XVI was a master.
Since the election of Pope Francis, you have been one of his closest collaborators. They have been incredible years for the Church in terms of communication. What is Pope Francis’s secret? How has he become one of the greatest communicators on the planet?
Everyone is struck by Pope Francis’s communication. He is very spontaneous, and I would say that it is an aspect of his charismatic character, and that it comes from the direct relations with people which he has cultivated for decades as pastor of a very large diocese. His communication is sincere, free, and open, not the result of calculations made at a desk or a complex study conducted by experts. It is the sincerity, freedom, and openness of a pastor who meets the people of God and meets the men and women of today without barriers, with an ability to touch the heart and mind of each person.
All of this invokes a deep gratitude by those who feel a need for a testimony, a message, a presence that clearly manifests his attention, love, and solidarity, particularly for those who are poor, who suffer, who are on the margins of society; they feel welcomed, sought out, and respected by so many of the little gestures and words of Pope Francis.
So, then, this direct relationship, this concrete language, not speaking many languages, Francis speaks a language of gestures and has an approach that with extreme ease moves to the heart of the various peoples of Asia, of Africa, of Latin America where he is at home, and Europe.
The attitude of Pope Francis to which I have related the most, and which I think characterizes this pontificate, is that of trust in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church of God: a Church on the move, a Church that goes out into the world. A Church that begins to move even without knowing exactly where to go, knowing that she is guided by the Spirit of the Lord as long as she listens attentively to his word, because he accompanies us with the word in Scripture, and with the living closeness of the Spirit to the believers who daily seek to know the will of God and hear his call. This being a Church on the move, courageous and trusting, seems to be one of the spirits of this pontificate, which I have very much related to.
A classic word, also in Jesuit spirituality, is discernment. We see how Pope Francis invites the Church, pastors, and individuals to discern, that is, to seek to understand the will of God for them, to which we must respond with generosity.
On August 29 you will turn 74. An entire life dedicated in service to the Church, in particular to the Holy See. What advice would you give to those Catholics who are discouraged or disappointed by the scandals caused by the pastors or sons of the Church?
The believer is a pilgrim, a person on a journey in the world, in life, and can walk with trust, tranquility, joy, and courage if that believer knows the Lord is at her side, if that believer seeks to direct his life according to the calling that is at the origin of his very life, the calling to service, to solidarity with others, to an encounter with others, in particular with Jesus Christ who is for us guide and model for all other encounters.
Along this line, one of the Fathers of the Church said something very beautiful: “Abraham was ever more confident because he did not know where he was going.” It’s a bit paradoxical, but he was sure because he trusted in and felt the presence of the Lord accompanying him. That was the foundation of his confidence. Not knowing that there was a goal that had been established for him personally to achieve could not have given him any confidence. Confidence, the peace of mind that we have in our life is dependent on the knowledge that we are on a journey with the Lord by our side. And this is true at all stages of life.
This is the only piece of advice I can offer, and seems foundational for not fearing that which surrounds us in the situations in which we find ourselves: If we know that the Lord is with us, we can place our trust in Him, and there is no discouragement to be had; we must only have hope.