Pope Francis nails 3-point shot by naming American spokesman

Pope Francis nails 3-point shot by naming American spokesman

Pope Francis nails 3-point shot by naming American spokesman

Greg Burke, tapped July 11 as Pope Francis's new spokesman, participating in a Vatican press conference Dec. 3, 2012. (Credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring.)

By naming Greg Burke as his new spokesman, Pope Francis hit a three: He's debunked impressions of being anti-American, he's shown that competence matters, and he's signaled openness to groups seen as conservative. For a bonus, Francis tapped a lay woman as Burke's number two.

Though he didn’t win an NBA championship this year, Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors nevertheless put up a great individual season, the cornerstone of which was his ridiculous three-point shooting. Curry hit more threes in a year than most teams in NBA history, and more than many NBA legends in their entire careers.

On Monday, Pope Francis had a Steph Curry moment, scoring three points on a single shot by naming Greg Burke to replace Father Federico Lombardi as his chief spokesman and director of the Vatican’s Press Office.

Francis also tapped a lay woman, Paloma Garcia Ovejero, previously the Rome and Vatican correspondent for the Spanish broadcaster COPE, to the number two position in the Press Office, instantly making her one of the Vatican’s most visible female officials. A lay woman has never before held the post.

Both appointments take effect August 1.

Although there are plenty of positions in the Vatican that exercise more real power, few are more publicly recognizable than the papal spokesman. For most of the Pope Benedict XVI era, and all of the early stages of Francis’ papacy, Lombardi has been the most-quoted figure in Catholicism after the popes he served, and thus he played an enormously important role in shaping public perceptions of the Church.

In a word, the pope’s spokesman matters – perhaps not always in setting policy, but certainly in how that policy is understood and received.

By choosing the 56-year-old Burke, Francis managed to accomplish three things at once.

First, he’s helped lay to rest perceptions that he’s anti-American. It’s well known that Francis had never traveled to the United States before his papal voyage in September 2015, that much of the most strident criticism he’s drawn since his election has come from American circles, and that his comfort zone is mostly defined by Spanish and Italian-speakers.

Up to this point, Francis had not turned to an American for a single truly significant Vatican post, and the longer that drought went on, the more pronounced impressions would have become that the pontiff had imposed a “no American need apply” policy.

A native of St. Louis (and a lifetime Cardinals fan), Burke is as American as they come. Granted, he’s spent much of his adult life in Rome, he speaks multiple languages, he’s traveled widely and is a citizen of the world, but his personality and outlook are still quintessentially American.

By naming Burke to one of the most visible Vatican positions of all, Francis effectively has inoculated himself against impressions that Americans don’t have a significant place in his Church.

Second, Francis has also demonstrated that subject-matter competence is important in making important Vatican personnel choices.

Burke came to Rome as a journalist working for Catholic news outlets, which gave him a deep understanding of the story. Because he was exceptionally talented, however, he quickly transitioned to the big leagues, first to Time magazine and then to Fox News.

That background means Burke has an insider’s understanding of the dynamics of the news business, and he speaks the language of professional journalists.

Burke was hired by the Secretariat of State in 2012, and took over as the number two official as the Vatican Press Office in February. At the senior levels of the Vatican today, there’s simply no one better positioned to engage the media.

A similar observation could be made about Garcia, by the way, a veteran journalist who’s well-liked and well-respected in the Vatican press corps, and who brings enormous good will to the post.

In that sense, Francis will get credit for naming the right people to the jobs.

Third, Burke is a member of Opus Dei – in their parlance, a “numerary,” meaning a lay person who nevertheless is celibate – which is a Catholic group typically seen as fairly conservative. By conventional standards, Burke’s personal politics (which, by the way, have never interfered with his job) could probably best be described as center-right.

At a time when some see Pope Francis as a liberal stacking the deck with like-minded progressives, this appointment runs counter to the stereotypes and invites observers to consider whether for Francis, it’s ultimately more the quality of the individual than their ideology that actually matters.

As a footnote, for those with long memories, there will be a natural tendency to see Burke as a “2.0” version of Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Opus Dei layman who served as the pope’s spokesman for much of the John Paul II years.

While there’s logic to the comparison – in addition to being Opus Dei, both were also professional journalists before coming to the job – the truth is that the media landscape Burke faces today is completely different. Twitter launched in the same month Navarro resigned, in July 2006, Facebook hadn’t yet opened up to public registration, and Instagram was four years away.

Plus, Navarro and Burke are serving very different popes facing a different global situation.

If there’s any real point of contact, it’s simply that both Navarro and Burke had the respect of their journalistic colleagues in Rome before crossing the street to work for the Vatican, which meant that both bring a kind of credibility you just can’t buy off the shelf.

And he draws the foul!

Here’s the bonus shot for Francis on the Burke and Garcia appointments – they’re both laity, in an institution traditionally dominated by clergy.

Granted, lay men have held these positions before, but never a woman, making the choice of Garcia in particular a game-changer. For a pope whose warnings against the dangers of clericalism have become the stuff of legend, this is a case in which Francis is, quite literally, putting his money where his mouth is.

On the back of his astonishing performance last season, Curry won the NBA’s “MVP” award. It may be a little early to start inscribing Francis’ name on trophies just because of the choices of Burke and Garcia, but people who know the lay of the land will find it hard not to cheer.

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