ROME — On Monday, the Vatican announced that veteran American journalist Greg Burke would replace long time papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, an appointment that’s been in the rumor mill since Burke took over the number two role in February.
The day’s big surprise came with the appointment of Spaniard Paloma Garcia Ovejero as Burke’s deputy.
“It’s not about a woman getting the job. It’s a man and a woman, two lay people,” Garcia Ovejero said Monday.
“And it’s coherent with Pope Francis’ vision of the Church: one Church that goes out, a de-clericalized Church, one of which we all feel part of, and where we all have the responsibility of announcing the Gospel,” she told Crux the day the announcement was made.
“The mission is to announce Jesus Christ, dead and resurrected, and this is something we’re all called to do, not just the priests,” she added.
The fact that Garcia Ovejero is the first woman ever to hold the position came up repeatedly on Monday, both at the press office and in social media, as peers and Vatican-watchers began to react to the news.
She, however, played down that aspect of the appointment, saying it should matter “as much as the fact that I have brown hair, that I’m from Madrid, from Spain, and not too tall.”
“Fortunately the pope knows well, as the Church does, that the first to announce the Good News, Jesus’ resurrection, were the women, who found the empty sepulcher and ran to tell everyone else,” Garcia Ovejero said.
Hence, she insisted, the appointment “is pretty coherent, right?”
The eldest of seven children, three women and four boys, she’s the proud aunt of nine: “I have seven, and two on their way, so to me that’s nine!’ she said.
She describes herself as an “apostolic, Roman, Catholic journalist,” who with her new position sees a change in her mission. Yet her biggest concern remains to “be faithful to the Church, the pope, God’s will and to the truth.”
Garcia Ovejero, 40, studied journalism in Madrid’s Complutense university, and in 2006 did a specialization in Management Strategies and Communication at New York University. She’s worked at the Spanish broadcaster Cope since 1998, eventually moving to Rome in September 2012.
The appointments of Burke and Garcia Ovejero become effective on August 1, the day after Francis’ return from a visit to Krakow, where he’ll participate in World Youth Day.
These youth rallies held every two or three years have long been part of her life and, she said, left an indelible imprint in her faith: Since Czestochowa, Poland, in 1991, she’s attended every World Youth Day but one, either as pilgrim, volunteer or journalist. The only one she missed was Sydney, Australia, in 2008, which she still shared with her audience every morning from Madrid.
When World Youth Day came to her city, Madrid, in 2011, she volunteered in the local organizing committee for a year. She’s also lent a hand in other settings, volunteering in areas hit by catastrophes such as Haiti.
After moving to Rome in 2012, her first time travelling on the papal plane was on emeritus Pope Benedict XVI’s last overseas journey to Lebanon. Since then, she’s made every one of Pope Francis’s 14 international trips, totaling close to 100,000 miles, enough to tour the world four times.
Before the announcement of their new positions was made on Monday, Burke and Garcia Ovejero met with the pope in the Santa Marta, the residence within Vatican grounds where he’s lived since the beginning of his pontificate.
Garcia Ovejero refused to share much about the private meeting.
“He was very loving, yet serious and firm,” she said. “He sees fidelity, loyalty and transparency as key elements of communication. For everything else, you can ask the spokesman!”
Burke, a former Time magazine and Fox News correspondent, had been appointed deputy of the Vatican’s press office in late December 2015 and moved into the job last February, making him first in line to replace Lombardi, who marked his 10th anniversary as papal spokesman on July 11.
Garcia Ovejero, instead, was a surprise announcement, and a very well-kept secret: She hadn’t even told her parents until last Saturday, when she flew to Madrid to speak with them.
Not even her bosses, technically the Spanish bishops’ conference, knew that she was resigning as Vatican and Italy correspondent for Cadena Cope, Spain’s second largest radio broadcaster, owned by the bishops.
“Journalists love nothing more than news about other journalists,” Burke told Crux. “And I was worried this was going to leak. Maybe from my end, although I kept it really tight. But I thought ‘She tells anyone at her radio, and we’re dead’.”
“Hats off to her,” he said.