At a time when it is beset with media woes, the Vatican has hired a U.S.-born television reporter in a newly created high-level post as communications adviser.
Greg Burke, 52, a St. Louis native and a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, will be working with the senior members of the Vatican Secretariat of State in a role he likens to the White House’s director of communications — crafting strategy and coordinating from behind the scenes, while the Vatican’s public face remains the overworked spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi.
|‘I know what journalists are looking for and what they need, and I know how things will play out in the media.
Burke has been in Rome nearly a quarter century, most recently for more than a decade as a reporter for Fox News, with a beat that has included war-torn Afghanistan and hot spots in the Middle East. Before that he was Time magazine’s Rome correspondent, and authored a book about the 1997-1998 season of Italian soccer, one of his passions. On camera and in person, he is affable and direct.
He is also a numerary member of the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei, as was the Vatican spokesman under Pope John Paul II, Spaniard Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
Burke told Catholic News Service he thinks his Opus Dei connection is less instrumental in his hiring than the fact he is a seasoned journalist from the Anglophone world, which plays a dominant role in global media and communications. “I know what journalists are looking for and what they need, and I know how things will play out in the media,” Burke said.
He also says he turned down the Vatican position twice before he was able to “get the courage up” to leave a job he loved and take on another that “sounds very simple, but [whose] execution will be very complicated.”
There is no shortage of recent Vatican media difficulties that underscore his point. Among the more troubling is the leak of private correspondence to and from Pope Benedict XVI, which was embarrassing less in content and more because it demonstrated a lack of loyalty among the pope’s staff. Vatican investigators have arrested the pope’s butler, an Italian layman in his 40s, but are leaving open the possibility that others were involved. One of the leaked documents was a psychiatrist’s report on the seeming erratic behavior of the Vatican bank’s now-sacked president.
All of this scandal and mystery behind the Vatican walls is irresistible for a secular news media that is all about finding compelling stories.
Burke’s new boss, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, recently accused the secular media of “malicious will” and “intentional ignorance,” likening them to controversial novelist Dan Brown because they “continue to invent fables or repeat legends.”
Burke didn’t address that accusation but did say a way to head off lies, distortions and misunderstandings in the media — as for any institution, organization or business — is by promoting “greater openness and accountability.” “The danger is [if] you say nothing, it’s a closed shop.” He envisions emulating the model of some other global organizations that have “a spokesperson on every continent with cellphone numbers in case you need an interview and free video footage.”
While the Vatican’s “secretiveness” is often overplayed, it undoubtedly took courage to create this communications position and fill it with a battle-tested layman who is unlikely to be cowed by his new ecclesial environment. That’s not just a step forward for the Vatican alone; it is a renewed commitment that should inspire all Catholic dioceses and institutions to unfailing transparency and engagement with the world.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.