ROME – From the beginning, Pope Francis has taken a decidedly maverick approach to the use of the media, often bypassing institutional channels of communication in order to express himself directly through personally arranged interviews, in-flight press conferences, phone calls and messages, and off-the-cuff remarks in settings both public and private.
Thus, it probably should be no surprise that Francis once again has ignored the standard playbook, creating a brand-new position of “director of communication” for St. Peter’s Basilica on Friday and naming as its first occupant Franciscan Father Enzo Fortunato, a well-known personality in Italian media who previously ran the press office of the basilica and Franciscan friary in Assisi.
At the same time, the pontiff also named the 57-year-old Fortunato as the coordinator of the World Day of Children, which is scheduled to be celebrated in the Vatican May 25-26. Last Nov. 6, Fortunato was the principal organizer of an event titled “Children Meet the Pope” which brought 7,000 children from around the world to an encounter with Pope Francis in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall.
Given that a papal basilica never before has had its own spokesman, especially one with the high media profile of Fortunato, it’s not entirely clear what his responsibilities will be, or how they will be coordinated with the existing Dicastery for Communication and the Holy See Press Office under its director, Italian layman Matteo Bruni.
Many observers believe that bringing Fortunato to the Vatican may be part of the pontiff’s preparations for the Great Jubilee of 2025, and the additional demands from the world’s media the event is expected to create.
Fortunato is the co-host of a weekly program on Italy’s national television broadcaster, RAI, called In Cammino, or “On the Way.”
He’s long been an admirer of Pope Francis, and his most recent book, Processo a Francesco (“Francis on Trial”), compares judgments faced by St. Francis of Assisi during his lifetime, including internal tensions that led to his resignation as head of the new Franciscan order, to the criticism that has dogged the pontiff over the course of his papacy.
Fortunato has an active Facebook account with more than 231,000 followers, and is in the habit of frequently posting live messages, referring to his viewers as brava gente (“good people”), which is also the title of Fortunato’s personal web site.
The phrase brava gente is also evocative in the history of St. Francis. Tradition holds that when he took refuge in the Italian community of Poggio Bustone in 1208/1209 after renouncing his father’s inheritance, he was in the habit of taking walks through town and greeting people by saying Buongiorno, brava gente!
Over the summer, the pontiff agreed to an impromptu Facebook live with Fortunato from his residence in the Vatican’s Domus Santa Marta. According to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the video marked the first time a pope has taken part in a live social media broadcast that wasn’t conducted by one of the Vatican’s own official platforms.
Fortunato explained in an accompanying message that he visited the pope along with a pilot and Italian airline official who’s accompanied the pope on overseas trips named Aldo Cagnoli.
“Good evening, good people,” the pope said. “Is it true that you’re good? That’s what Father Enzo told me.”
“Thanks for your work and for wanting to nourish yourselves with the water that is the Word of God,” Francis said. “If we lack water, things don’t work. The Word of God is like water, it’s life, it’s always with us and it makes us grow. Go forward with the Word of God, don’t leave it behind, and keep being good people.”
The video concludes with Francis delivering a blessing, and with Fortunato requesting viewers to pray for the pope and the church.
Before ending the live, Francis can be heard asking Fortunato “how many?”, apparently in reference to how many people were watching the live broadcast – to which the answer, according to Facebook, was 1,600.
In social media posts on Friday, Fortunato expressed enthusiasm for his new assignments.
“I thank the Holy Father for the faith and the affection he’s shown me, on a day in which he’s asked to serve the church with these delicate commitments and to live my vocation through the communication of the Christian message,” he said.
“I’m grateful to Pope Francis and his collaborators,” Fortunato said. “I’ll live [the new situation] with the same spirit as at Assisi, knowing that for each one of us the Lord reserves pages of our lives to be written in service.”
Originally from Italy’s Amalfi coast, Fortunato was ordained to the priesthood in 1994. In his new role he’ll work closely with the Archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, a fellow Franciscan and a former colleague from when Gambetti served as the custodian of the basilica and friary in Assisi from 2013 to 2020.