Meet the Vatican’s revamped press office and the challenges it faces
(NEWS ANALYSIS) The Vatican press office may be second only to the White House communications department when it comes to ranking the world’s busiest public relations operation.
Like President Donald Trump, Pope Francis and the Holy See are in some serious need of daily damage control. The resurfacing of the clergy sex abuse scandal and the allegations that led to the downfall of Theodore McCarrick have been the Vatican’s biggest PR headaches over the past year.
Responsible for handling the Holy See’s messaging on the clergy scandal and a host of other issues will be a retooled press office. Much of the turmoil that has surrounded the pope and the Catholic church over the past year called for an overhaul of the Holy See’s press operation. The past two weeks has seen a flurry of announcements, including the naming of a new press office director and vice director (more on this position further down), two of the biggest jobs at the Vatican held by lay people.
Pope Francis appointed Matteo Bruni director of the Holy See Press Office earlier this month, replacing Alessandro Gisotti who’d been serving in the role on an interim basis following the abrupt resignations of Greg Burke, a former Fox News Channel reporter, and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, who had also worked as a journalist in her native Spain, at the end of last year. Gisotti was in charge throughout the Vigano saga. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano has claimed that Francis covered up the misconduct of McCarrick, something the pontiff has repeatedly denied.
With Bruni’s appointment, Gisotti has been given the role of vice editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication. He will serve under editorial director Andrea Tornielli, who’s been in the job since December, and Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication since July 2018.
Bruni, Gisotti, Tornielli and Ruffini are all Italians, experienced PR men loyal to the church. All will be expected to carry out Francis’ message to the world’s press and the 1.1 billion Roman Catholics spread out across the planet. These men join another Italian, Sergio Centofanti, a former journalist for Vatican News, who was named a vice director of editorial direction for Vatican communications.
The most interesting appointment — and last one of the bunch — took place just last week when the Holy See announced Cristiane Murray as the press office’s vice director. Murray, 57, hails from Brazil and has worked for Vatican Radio for more than 25 years, providing commentary during papal events.
“For all the journalists and my colleagues at the Dicastery for Communication, this represents an important sign of recognition for our daily work in bringing the message of the Gospel, the Pope and the Church to the world,” she told Vatican News this past Thursday.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Murray, a married mother of two, speaks five languages: Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French and English. She has worked most of her life in radio, chronicling international visits by this pope and past ones.
Ruffini said Murray’s appointment is key since “the choice of a woman with roots in Brazil and an open gaze on the world is a testimony of the wish to build a team that knows how to speak to all.” Indeed, Murray’s appointment is no coincidence. The church needs more female voices and ones from outside of Europe.
Ruffini’s comments are spot on. Francis, an Argentine of Italian heritage, knows that South America remains one of the areas of the world where Catholicism remains vibrant and rooted in history, but has also suffered greatly over the past decades.
Brazil, where Murray hails from, has seen a drop in people who identify as Catholics, opting instead for Protestant churches. The number of evangelicals, for example, has grown immensely since the 1990s. Pew Research found that the number of Brazilian Protestants rose from 26 million (15% of the population) in 2000 to 42 million (22%) in 2010. It isn’t lost on the church’s first Latin American pope the importance of the region to the past and future of Roman Catholicism.
“I am sure that Cristiane, who has been working in Vatican media for so many years, and whose professionalism and humanity have always been appreciated, will make a fundamental contribution of intelligence, sensitivity, historic memory and foresight in the service that we all seek to offer the Church,” Ruffini added.
The rise of Brazilian evangelicals isn’t the only issue. Since April 2018, Murray has been collaborating with the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops in preparation for the upcoming Synod for the Pan-Amazon Region. The synod is scheduled for October 6 in Rome and expected to last three weeks.
On the agenda is the issue of married priests. In June, the Vatican announced the possible ordination of “elderly people” to guarantee that remote communities scattered throughout the Amazon have access to the sacraments.
“Affirming that celibacy is a gift for the church, it is requested that, for the most remote areas of the region, the possibility of priestly ordination for elderly people is studied,” according to a document prepared for the upcoming synod.
The document also says that these ordained men should “preferably be indigenous people, respected and accepted by their community, even if they already have a family that is established and stable, in order to ensure the sacraments that accompany and sustain the Christian life.”
The candidates for ordination would be married men who are virtuous, many of whom already serve as deacons. Catholic priests are not allowed to marry and expected to remain celibate following their ordination. Theologically, the church teaches that priests, while working as sacramental ministers, act in persona Christi — in the person of Christ — and therefore calls for them to be chaste.
Murray’s experience and knowledge on this issue will certainly help as bishops from across South America convene to discuss priesthood in the Amazon and a host of other issues. Nearly 70 percent of people living in South America identify as Catholic, a religion brought to the continent by Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the 15th century.
The Vatican press office has plenty of work ahead of them. While the selection of so many Italians isn’t surprising given the church’s location (the press office also communicates primarily in Italian, although news releases, speeches and other information is also available in other languages), Murray’s appointment gives the press office someone with plenty of experience and knowledge of South America. It comes at a time when the church’s actions in that part of the world remain key to its future growth.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He currently teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.