Pa­pal ‘spin doc­tor’

Pope John Paul II’s long­time spokesman dies at age 80

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OBITUARIES - BY VIC­TOR L. SIMP­SON

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a suave, sil­ver-haired Spa­niard who was a close con­fi­dant of Pope John Paul II, serv­ing for more than two decades as chief Vat­i­can spokesman, has died at the age of 80.

Manuel Sanchez, spokesman for the Opus Dei move­ment in Rome of which Navarro-Valls was a mem­ber, said he died Wed­nes­day after a long ill­ness.

Navarro-Valls was fiercely loyal to John Paul, ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Pol­ish pope on most of his 104 in­ter­na­tional trips. He also per­formed del­i­cate diplo­matic mis­sions, such as help­ing to pre­pare the pope’s his­toric pil­grim­age to Cuba.

Known for his cool­ness and re­straint, Navarro-Valls nearly broke into tears when John Paul was dy­ing in April 2005. He choked up and walked out of a con­fer­ence room when a Ger­man re­porter at a brief­ing on the pope’s con­di­tion asked him how he per­son­ally felt.

“I was try­ing to keep my emo­tions in check, but then a re­porter asked how I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the pass­ing of the pope per­son­ally, and I couldn’t con­trol my­self,’’ he ex­plained later.

Navarro-Valls, who spoke four lan­guages, was a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for the Span­ish news­pa­per ABC when John Paul of­fered him the job as di­rec­tor of the Vat­i­can press of­fice. He was the first jour­nal­ist to hold the post.

He was a lay mem­ber of the con­ser­va­tive Catholic move­ment Opus Dei, an or­der much favoured by the pope, but Navarro-Valls al­ways in­sisted the fact he was pres­i­dent of Rome’s For­eign Press As­so­ci­a­tion at the time weighed heav­ily in his hir­ing at the Vat­i­can.

Navarro-Valls was cred­ited with bring­ing com­puter tech­nol­ogy to the press of­fice, pro­mot­ing the use of mul­ti­ple lan­guages in the Ital­ian-cen­tric press op­er­a­tion and giv­ing jour­nal­ists bet­ter ac­cess - mak­ing him the per­fect press aide for a pope known for his me­dia savvy.

Navarro-Valls held de­grees in both jour­nal­ism and medicine, spe­cial­iz­ing in psy­chi­a­try.

Some saw the com­bi­na­tion as per­fect for his job as pa­pal “spin doc­tor.’’

In 1997, just a few months be­fore the pa­pal pil­grim­age to Cuba, he flew to Ha­vana and was sum­moned for what turned out to be a six-hour-long en­counter with Cuban leader Fidel Cas­tro.

Navarro-Valls said he told Cas­tro that the pope had one par­tic­u­lar re­quest — that the regime re­store the Christ­mas hol­i­day that was abol­ished un­der com­mu­nism. Cas­tro kept his word to do so, and the hol­i­day is still cel­e­brated to­day.

With three suc­ces­sive non-Ital­ian popes, Navarro-Valls helped lead a quiet rev­o­lu­tion to in­ter­na­tion­al­ize the Vat­i­can. The cur­rent spokesman is an Amer­i­can, Greg Burke, a for­mer Fox cor­re­spon­dent.

Burke’s as­sis­tant is the first a woman to hold a rank­ing po­si­tion in the press of­fice. Paloma Gar­cia Overo worked as a Span­ish TV jour­nal­ist be­fore ac­cept­ing the Vat­i­can post.

Burke said that Navarro-Valls “em­bod­ied what Ernest Hem­ing­way de­fined as courage: grace un­der pres­sure.’’.

“I got to know Navarro when I was work­ing for Time, and the mag­a­zine named John Paul II Man of the Year,’’ Burke re­called in a note. “I ex­pected to find a man of faith, but I found a man of faith who was also a first­class pro­fes­sional.’’

He re­called Navarro-Valls work­ing at the U.N. Pop­u­la­tion Con­fer­ence in Cairo in 1994, call­ing it “one of the best ex­am­ples of what Pope Fran­cis calls ide­o­log­i­cal col­o­niza­tion. It was fas­ci­nat­ing to see some­one who was de­fend­ing the faith, but he wasn’t on the de­fen­sive. He was lead­ing the fight.’’

Burke con­tin­ued, “I didn’t al­ways agree with Navarro, but he al­ways be­haved like a Chris­tian gen­tle­men, and those can be hard to find these days.’’

As the Vat­i­can spokesman, Navarro-Valls nat­u­rally sought to put the pope in the best light. He said he al­ways re­gret­ted over­re­act­ing when he barred the Vat­i­can cor­re­spon­dent of the Ital­ian news­pa­per La Repub­blica from the pa­pal plane for crit­i­ciz­ing the pope in a col­umn.

He faced some ridicule when he de­scribed a meet­ing in Gu­atemala of the pope and Rigob­erta Menchu, a No­bel peace prize win­ner known for her crit­i­cal views of the Ro­man Catholic church.

Navarro-Valls told re­porters Menchu seemed much more mod­er­ate and un­der­stand­ing than she had been de­picted in the me­dia.

A short while later, he sent an aide to tell re­porters to for­get the re­marks be­cause the meet­ing never took place. No ex­pla­na­tion was ever given.

He found him­self un­der fire from some in the Vat­i­can when he be­came the first of­fi­cial to pub­licly hint that John Paul was suf­fer­ing from Parkin­son’s dis­ease. The pope’s con­di­tion clearly was ev­i­dent, but not some­thing many wanted to dis­close.

Dur­ing a 1996 trip to Hun­gary, at a time when John Paul looked ex­tremely frail, Navarro-Valls said the pope suf­fered from an “ex­tra pyra­mi­dal syn­drome.’’ His com­ments re­fer­ring to drug-in­duced side ef­fects nearly cost the Spa­niard his job.

After John Paul died, Navarro-Valls re­mained as spokesman for 15 months with the new pope, Bene­dict XVI.

“I am con­scious of hav­ing re­ceived in these years so much more than I have been able to give,’’ he said upon re­sign­ing in July 2006.

He was not mar­ried and lived in an Opus Dei res­i­dence in Rome.


Simp­son re­tired as the Rome bu­reau chief of The As­so­ci­ated Press in 2013 after four decades cov­er­ing the Vat­i­can, in­clud­ing the en­tirety of John Paul II’s pa­pacy.

In this photo taken on April 25, 2014, for­mer Pope John Paul II spokesper­son Joaquin Navar­roValls smiles prior to the start of a press con­fer­ence at the Vat­i­can.

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