Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.” In the same vein, one might add that equally often, “the messenger is the message.” When you’re trying to put a human face on something, in other words, the best strategy is usually to have a genuinely decent person making the pitch.
For almost the last decade, that’s precisely what’s made Bishop Paul Tighe such an effective public emissary on behalf of the headquarters of the Catholic Church, because among many other qualities, the 59-year-old Irish prelate is regarded as quite possibly the Vatican’s nicest guy.
On Saturday, Pope Francis elevated Tighe’s standing, naming him the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, meaning the number two official in the department led by Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, as opposed to the ad-hoc role of “Adjunct Secretary” he’s held since December 2015.
Prior to that, Tighe had served as Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications since 2007. In that role, he quickly became a precious resource for journalists everywhere, especially in the English-speaking world.
For one thing, Tighe was remarkably accessible, always happy to take a phone call no matter how swamped he was in a particular moment. For another, he’s unflinchingly honest. He’ll tell you what he knows and what he doesn’t, he doesn’t sugarcoat situations, and there’s never any sense that he’s just trying to make himself or “the system” look better.
For another, Tighe is just a deeply real person. He’s genuinely humble, never taking himself too seriously, and he looked on journalists he dealt with not just as members of the press but as friends, taking a sincere interest in their lives as well as their careers.
When it became clear in late 2015 that the Council for Social Communications was going the way of all flesh, dissolved as part of a broader reorganization of Vatican communications, Tighe was shifted to Culture. At the time, some Vatican-watchers suspected his adjunct secretary gig might be little more than what the Italians call a parcheggio, meaning a place to park him while figuring out his long-term future.
Instead, Tighe and Ravasi developed a rapport, and now Francis has cemented the Irish prelate’s status as a key part of the Church’s outreach to the worlds of culture.
For those familiar with the Vatican, the Pontifical Council for Culture long has been an outlier. Unlike other departments, such as the Congregation for Bishops or the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, it doesn’t really come with clearly delineated areas of responsibility. In effect, it’s a bit of a blank slate, waiting for a creative leadership team to dream something up.
Launched in 1982 under St. Pope John Paul II, the Council for Culture subsumed the older Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers founded by Pope Paul VI in 1965. Basically, the idea is that it’s supposed to be the Vatican’s beachhead for engaging people who don’t necessarily share the Church’s values or worldview. One expression of that is the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project launched by Ravasi in 2011.
It’s an endeavor about which Francis is especially keen. Tighe told me on Saturday that when Francis first named him to the Council for Culture in 2015, his marching orders were, “Get out there” – meaning, Tighe said, to start conversations “in very different places and environments.”
Like Francis, Tighe takes a decentralized and collegial view of how the Vatican ought to work, or at least his piece of it.
“I think the Vatican’s at its best when it acts like a hub,” he said. “The idea is to learn what’s already happening out there, identify good, effective ‘best practices,’ and then try to leverage them throughout the Church.”
When asked to explain his own role, Tighe said that to some extent it’s no different than the job description of the secretary in any other Vatican office.
“In general, the secretary is the person who’s supposed to figure out the Cardinal’s vision and then make sure it’s put into action, serving as a bridge between him and the rest of the staff,” he said. “Part of that is making sure that the staff has the resources to do their work, and so on.”
Tighe also has assumed personal responsibility for two areas: Digital culture, and developing the council’s relationships with the English-speaking world.
How does he spend his days? Well, right now Tighe is hip-deep in organizing the Council for Culture’s upcoming Nov. 15-18 plenary assembly, which is poised to take up the minor matter of “the future of humanity.”
Specifically, participants will ponder the latest developments in genetics, neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Initially, they’ll hear briefings from leading scientists and researchers in those areas, and then try to begin making moral sense of what’s already happened and what’s reasonable to expect in the future.
Among Vatican-watchers, Tighe’s boss is known as a deeply original figure. Now 75, Ravasi is a Biblical exegete by training and a former prefect of the Ambrosian Library in Milan. He’s maybe the most voracious reader you’ll ever meet, once telling me that he’s gifted with the ability to get by with very little sleep, so he can spend the wee hours of every night lost in a book.
Here’s a typical Ravasi moment: Back in December 2015, I asked for his reaction to Francis’s now-legendary speech to the Roman Curia, in which he decried a set of 15 “spiritual diseases” from which he said the place often suffers.
“I have to say, the first thing that came to mind was Constantin Noica, who wrote a book called Six Maladies of the Contemporary Spirit,” Ravasi said, in utter earnestness.
Care to lay odds on any other Vatican bureaucrat at that moment flashing on an obscure 1978 title by a Romanian philosopher?
Despite having turned 75 earlier this month, Ravasi could still be around a while, and Tighe obviously feels comfortable working with him.
“He’s a very original thinker, a truly well-read and erudite man,” he said. “Yet he can bring it down to a very simple level. Even at something like the Masses he’ll say for the staff in the office, I always find at least three things in his sermons that help, that make me think.”
In a different key, one might say the same thing about Tighe. He’s deceptively smart, yet he has a strong common touch – driven, no doubt, by the fact that he genuinely cares not only about what he’s saying, but what you’re hearing.
All that helps explain why, three years later, Tighe’s assignment to the Council for Culture no longer looks like a parcheggio, but more akin to a missione – not a parking place, but a mission. Stay tuned, because with Ravasi and Tighe free to follow their noses and see where it leads, it’s hard to say what’ll come next, but it definitely won’t be dull.