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Joaquín Navarro-Valls: the man who changed Church communication

El portavoz vaticano, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, durante una rueda de prensa celebrada en 2005 a la muerte de Juan Pablo II.

The 3 secrets of the layperson who was Peter's spokesman for 22 years

This man permanently changed the Church’s communication.

That was the first thought that came to my mind Wednesday when I got news that Joaquín Navarro-Valls had died.

He was for 22 years the spokesman of the Holy See, working under John Paul II and for the beginning years of Benedict XVI.

A psychiatrist, journalist, correspondent in various countries, a numerary (consecrated in celibacy) in the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei, his biography merged with that of Karol Wojtyla in 1984, when the Polish pope named him the director of the Vatican press office.

What was Navarro-Valls’ secret? What did he do to transform Church communication, up to that point decidedly amateur? How did he transform it into an identifiable and tremendously credible voice on the global scene in the communication era?

The key to this work, which history books will note in the future, was in three secrets.

A true communications professional

When I met Navarro-Valls at the beginning of my career in Church communications, in September of 1991, I asked him the same question. “What is your secret as a spokesman?”

He didn’t take even a half second in answering: To be an authentic spokesman for the pope.

He explained to me how, when John Paul II called him to  offer him this role, Navarro-Valls presented one necessity that would be a condition of success: To have a direct line with the pope himself.

“I am the spokesman of the pope, not of a cardinal who perhaps doesn’t know well what the pope has wanted to say,” he told me.

John Paul II understood his proposal very well. When he had called Joaquín, the doctor-journalist was serving as president of the International Press Association of Rome. That is to say, he was a journalist, a correspondent of the Spanish newspaper ABC, and chosen by his colleagues to represent them.

During the whole of his service to John Paul II, Navarro-Valls clung to professionalism as the best guarantee that he would truly serve his beloved pope.

And the pope, up to the very end of his pontificate, always kept his doors open to him.

That was the first secret of Navarro-Valls: He was capable of making it understood that communication is not a side-note, but part of the essence of the petrine ministry. He achieved this only because he was a true professional.

A real humanist

But what most impressed me about Navarro-Valls was his authentic humanism. He had studied in a German school, then went on to medicine and surgery, winning a scholarship at Harvard. From there to psychiatry. Philosophy was his passion and he had to dive into the complexities of theology to stay up to date on the various themes he had to address on a daily basis.

This rich history, as well as what he inherited from his family and from the influence of friends, molded in him a profound humanity.

I remember that one time, when an Italian journalist had invented a scandalous piece of news about the Holy See, he told me: “It’s easy to judge, but think about this journalist, with his three kids, and his director telling him, ‘If you don’t publish it, tomorrow you won’t have a job.’”

This profound humanism — which also conquered John Paul II — was decisive when the pope entrusted him with a totally revolutionary mission: to participate in the World Conference on Women, convoked by the United Nations in Beijing in 1995.

Instead of sending a cardinal or archbishop, the pope named as his representative a woman, Mary Ann Glendon. And so that she would feel backed up, as a member of the delegation, he sent his personal spokesman.

They managed at the summit to change the perception of the Christian message on women.

An authentic layman

But above all this, Joaquín Navarro-Valls was a Christian. Perhaps this was the great inheritance he received from St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer: to feel proud of his dignity as a member of the baptized faithful, as a layperson.

The great temptation of many laypeople who work in the Church is to clericalize themselves, to act as if they are priests. Instead, Navarro-Valls brilliantly applied the charism of Opus Dei: to seek sanctity in ordinary life, in work, as an authentic professional.

Good-bye, Joaquín, my friend. Until we meet again in eternity.

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