One of the most delightful surprises of a brief trip to Rome earlier this year was visiting with a number of Vatican correspondents and hearing a group of diverse, hard-driving and ultra-professional journalists more or less melt when I mentioned one person’s name.
“Oh, I love Father Lombardi!” “You’re seeing Father Lombardi? Please tell him I said hello!” “You’re staying in the same community with Father Lombardi? Don’t you love him?”
It is not hard to see why Federico Lombardi, S.J., who today announced his resignation as papal spokesperson, was so beloved by the Vatican press corps. To begin with, Father Lombardi possesses a vast knowledge of the church. A former provincial superior of the Jesuits’ Italian province, he was named program director of Vatican Radio in 1991 and general director in 2005. In 2006, he was named director of Vatican Television Centre as well. That same year, he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as the papal spokesperson, replacing Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who had held the position for 22 years.
So when journalists asked Father Lombardi a question, they understood they were speaking to someone with a deep knowledge of the Vatican—as well as someone that they trusted.
Nicole Winfield, the Vatican correspondent for the Associated Press, wrote in an email today:
"Father Lombardi earned the respect of the Vatican press corps for his dry humor, reliable readouts and calm amid many Vatican storms. From sex abuse scandals to Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI's historic resignation and the election of a fellow Jesuit as pope, Lombardi rarely seemed to get flustered. Father Lombardi had the tough job of serving both the pope and the press, often in times of tumult, and he did it with patience and evenhandedness."
The press corps also knew that they were speaking to an honest man. “He always responded to reporters honestly and straightforwardly,” said David Gibson, a national reporter at Religion News Service, and a longtime Vatican correspondent. “He conveyed the reality as he found it and the facts as he knew them.” Cindy Wooden, Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, agreed. “I have always appreciated his honesty and that he never seemed to be trying to spin the news,” she said.
Father Lombardi always treated reporters with respect, no matter how unusual the query—though an inane question might earn a journalist a dry laugh. “Reporters trusted him because we knew he was being straight with us,” said Ms. Winfield. “His briefings were often studies in subtlety. He could say things without really saying them; it just took experience in reading Lombardi and his trademark coughs to figure out the hints he was giving.” Ms. Wooden said, “Although it was possible to try the limits of his patience—I did it more than once—his default position was to treat journalists with respect and assume all questions were sincere requests for information and clarification.”
They were also speaking with someone who worked exceedingly hard. (At one point, he was holding down four jobs.) And he could usually respond to reporters’ questions in their native language: He speaks Italian of course, as well as French, German and English.
He was also, to use an underutilized word, kind. “Father Lombardi is a true gentleman,” said Ms. Winfield. “I remember when Pope Francis came to New York, my No. 1 goal was to introduce [Father Lombardi] to my parents. They still ask for him.”
One of his closest associates, Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., who worked with Father Lombardi as his English-language assistant, said:
I have had the privilege of knowing Father Federico Lombardi and working closely with him since 2002. We have collaborated on synods, papal transitions and for the past three years on a Jesuit papacy! It has been a close, warm, great collaboration up to this day. We have shared together some deeply moving church experiences these past years.
Plus, he was simply himself. He was not afraid to tell journalists how tired he was during a papal trip. He was not afraid to say, “I don’t know.” And, though I will not break any confidences, I can tell that he also tells very funny stories about his job, which I won’t repeat.
Jim Yardley, Vatican correspondent for The New York Times, echoed this:
Father Lombardi has handled one of the most demanding jobs at the Vatican with grace, patience and a wry sense of humor. He has seamlessly represented two very different popes, and his devotion to his work and to the Catholic Church is unquestioned.
Indeed, as a Jesuit, it was edifying for me to see a brother Jesuit so completely at the service of the church, and like many Jesuits I was proud that he filled such an important role. And I learned a lot from the grace with which he handled even the most trying situations.
So did Father Rosica. “I have learned so much from his gentle, quiet ways, his sensus ecclesiae, his great humor and his ability to multi-task with such serenity,” he said. “His joyful disposition, humility, patience and sheer goodness have left a deep and lasting impression on me and all those who work with me. He embodies for me Cato the Elder’s sober definition of the orator: vir bonus dicendi peritus—a good or honest man skilled in communicating.”
Good, honest—and humble, said Mr. Gibson:
Father Lombardi never made himself the story. That’s hard to do in that position, especially in a place like the Vatican. Although his role clearly changed from the pontificate of Benedict, where he—and most others—were not ‘in the loop,’ to the pontificate of Francis, where he was much more involved and informed, Father Lombardi never changed the way he presented information to the press and the public.
During that trip to Rome, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Father Lombardi at the Holy See Press Office in Vatican City. Though it was late in the day, he spent an hour with me in his cluttered office, describing the overhaul about to happen in the Vatican communications offices.
At the end of our time, he brought me downstairs and gave me directions on how to find my next appointment. He drew a complicated but flawless map, but I got lost anyway. Before leaving I decided to ask him a professional question.
Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of Love,” was about to be published, after the two-year Synod on the Family. All of us at America Media were curious about the timing. So I figured I would ask the Vatican spokesperson. Father Lombardi would end up sending us an embargoed copy a few days before its release, which helped our coverage immensely, but at the time the release date was unknown.
Would it, I asked him, be published on March 19, as was expected by many?
Father Lombardi did what he did best. He told the truth. The grey-haired Jesuit smiled, raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders eloquently, and said, “Who knows?”