She is a veteran Vatican correspondent, who started working as a journalist in the 1970s, and has covered five pontificates and taken part in 154 international papal visits. Valentina Alazraki, the Vatican correspondent for Mexico’s Noticieros Televisa, has also interviewed Pope Francis twice, most recently last month.
It was an explosive interview in which the pope spoke openly about a lot of issues: From the Viganò case to the accusations of heresy against him. Katholiek Nieuwsblad spoke with Alazraki about her interview and her relationship with the Argentine pope.
Katholiek Nieuwsblad: How did this most recent interview come about?
Alazraki: Every Christmas I write a letter to the pope on the occasion of his birthday. I use that opportunity to tell him about my doubts and questions that arise in my daily work. In 2017, I wrote to him that there were some topics that I would have liked to discuss with him. In his reply he told me he had already promised to do several interviews on the occasion of his fifth anniversary as pope. So, with some irony, I said that I could interview him for the sixth anniversary. Then in February, during the abuse summit, right before my speech, the pope told me that we could do the interview.
Did you already send him letters before he became the pontiff? Did you know each other before that time?
Absolutely not. I didn’t know him, but during his first trip to Brazil in 2013 I was introduced to the pope by [then-head of the press office] Father Federico Lombardi as the senior veteran Vatican correspondent, since I was the only journalist already active when St. John Paul II took his first trip.
Since that day and especially after the first interview I had with him during the second year of his pontificate, we created a sort of bond, also due to the fact that I take part in all papal trips and that we both speak Spanish. He is always very nice to me. During one of his trips I turned 60 and he brought me a cake. He did the same during my 150th flight on the papal plane.
The atmosphere during the interview seemed quite relaxed, despite some thorny questions, like the one about the Viganò affair.
Indeed, although I had full freedom to ask all the questions I wanted. I believe the atmosphere was so relaxed, due to our good relationship. At times the pope even laughed out loud.
He even called you ‘my child’.
True, he called me hija. I was very surprised. I think he was using a colloquial form; I don’t know. But he was affectionate.
What do you think were the most important topics of the interview?
The more delicate questions were certainly those relating to the Church and the scandal of sexual abuse. Some questions were related to the consternation amongst certain Catholics who feel as if they are pushed aside in some way, compared to other people who are more distant from the Church. Some are confused because the pope’s spontaneity exposes him to the danger of being misunderstood. But it’s a risk he is prepared to take. He prefers it that way, rather than losing the freedom to meet people.
During the interview I wanted to give him the opportunity to explain some of his behavior that caused some Catholic believers to doubt him. I wanted to address these doubts. The pope explained to me that nothing had changed in the doctrine.
You have been following the Vatican since the times of pope Paul VI. How has the job of a Vatican correspondent changed over the years?
When I arrived on the scene there was no such thing as internet, computers, or cell phones. Today it really looks like another world. I followed Paul VI as a mere intern. My relationship with the Vatican communication really took off during the two conclaves of 1978.
I saw how communication was transformed by St. John Paul II. From the moment he appeared on the balcony, we all realized that he was an absolutely mediagenic pope.
On an informative level he changed everything because he was not only a religious leader, but also a political and diplomatic one. He was a man who was changing the world and we who were there with him really had the impression of being witnesses of history being made. The information regarding the Holy See no longer ended up in some column in the internal pages of the newspapers, but on the front page. I started my work in this new era.
But I believe in the present time, of social media, much more responsibility and ethical sense is needed. Before there was way more time to deepen the news and get it confirmed. Today everything goes so fast that there is a risk of sharing news that you didn’t have the time to verify properly.
What about popes Benedict and Francis?
Unfortunately, pope Benedict XVI was a victim of many prejudices against him created by the media. He made headlines only when there was a problem, only in a negative way. Like when he made polemical statements about condoms, or after the Regensburg incident. And then the scandal of sexual abuse that exploded during his pontificate. Those were very unpleasant years from my point of view, it was difficult to witness all this and try to tell a different kind of story.
With Francis, we returned to a front-page pope and, especially in the first few years, the media always reported about him in a positive way.
However, as you noted in the interview, the media honeymoon seems to be over.
Yes, even though he maybe thought I meant that his honeymoon with the media was over and not the other way around, as was my actual question. In fact, he said that he considers the media to be useful because they also make him reflect, or make him realize that he has made mistakes, as happened for example during his trip to Chile.
You were asked to speak at the Vatican abuse summit in February. How did you prepare for this important task?
I must confess that I lost quite some sleep over it. I knew what I wanted to say, but it is not every day that you get the chance to address the pope and the presidents of all the episcopal conferences! I prepared myself thoroughly. I think my intention was to speak as a mother. The victims somehow felt represented, because I was talking about focusing on the victims. What I had never imagined … I was actually afraid of their reaction.
I also tried to explain that the media are not the enemy of the Church. We can be allies. The enemies are the abusers.
As a speaker and as a journalist, are you satisfied with the steps taken after the summit?
The documents are important, and the guidelines are indispensable, but I believe that above all we need a change of mentality. The mentality to keep everything under the covers must be overcome. There is also a need for greater awareness. We have seen many bishops who on the first day of the summit declared that there were no such problems in their dioceses. Then they realized that the problem is everywhere and belongs to everyone.
This article was originally published in the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad on June 7, 2019. It was translated for Crux by Susanne Kurstjens-van den Berk.
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