A shake-up has hit Vatican communications on the last day of 2018. The director and deputy director of the Holy See’s press office, Greg Burke and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, have resigned. The Vatican announced the news today in a brief statement and said Pope Francis has accepted their resignations, effective Jan. 1.
Alessandro Gisotti, 44, an Italian journalist who is the social media coordinator for the Dicastery for Communications, has been appointed by the pope as interim director of that office, according to the Vatican. Mr. Gisotti, a married man with children and professor of journalism in the Pontifical Lateran University, has worked alongside Federico Lombardi, S.J., at Vatican Radio since the year 2000 and was its deputy director from 2012 to 2017.
The surprise announcement came in the lead up to the February summit meeting of the presidents of all the bishops’ conferences, called by Pope Francis to address the protection of minors in the Catholic Church and the sexual abuse scandal that has done so much damage to the church worldwide. The summit is expected to attract worldwide media attention.
Pope Francis appointed Mr. Burke and Ms. Ovejero to the Vatican press office on July 11, 2016, as part of his effort to radically reform the whole field of Vatican communications. He wanted to internationalize the Vatican press office and to bring in persons with proven media expertise to enable this important office to meet the needs of the 24-hour news cycle.
Mr. Burke, 59, an American layman and member of Opus Dei, has been the director of the Holy See’s Press Office since Aug. 1, 2016, the first American to hold that post. He served as deputy director of that same office beginning in December 2015 and prior to that was the senior communications advisor at the Secretariat of State from June 2012. Before his appointment to the Vatican he worked as a reporter for Fox News and as Rome correspondent for Time magazine.
Ms. Garcia Ovejero, 43, has been deputy director of the Holy See press office since Aug. 1, 2016. She was the first woman ever to hold that post, and her appointment was seen as a sign that Pope Francis wanted to assign key Vatican roles to women. Before her nomination, the Madrid-born journalist was a correspondent from Rome for “Cadena Cope, Radio Española,” the radio of the Spanish bishops’ conference.
The Holy See has not provided an explanation for their sudden resignation.
They took up their positions on Aug. 1, 2016, and worked well together, overseeing some 20 people at a difficult time while a major reform of Vatican communications was underway. Despite having limited human and financial resources at their disposal, they sought to modernize the Vatican press office and brought significant changes to its functioning that greatly facilitated the work of the press corps accredited to the Holy See and other journalists.
The Holy See has not provided an explanation for their sudden resignation, but sources to whom America has spoken believe that it was motivated by the fact that their vision and understanding of their role as spokespersons for Pope Francis and the Holy See, and of the role of the Vatican press office, was not fully shared within the Vatican. It seems that this contrast in visions and the conviction that, notwithstanding their suggestions, change was unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, led them to conclude that their positions were no longer tenable.
Their resignations came at the end of a turbulent and complicated year in the Vatican Dicastery for Communications. On March 21, its first prefect, Msgr. Dario Vigano, whom Pope Francis had appointed on June 25, 2015, to carry out a total reform of Vatican communications, resigned following his public mishandling of a letter to him from the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Three months later, on July 5, Pope Francis appointed Paolo Ruffini, an Italian journalist and layman, as the new head of the dicastery. He was then head of the Italian bishops’ conference’s television and radio channels and held solid professional qualifications both in state and church media. He is the first ever layman to head a Vatican dicastery. He began his challenging work at the end of summer and completed the task of incorporating the different Vatican media operations—including L’Osservatore Romano and the Vatican publishing house—into the dicastery. In addition, his major task is to manage a staff of some 600 persons, including more than 200 journalists from over 30 countries, while avoiding redundancies and cutting costs.
On Dec. 18, 2018, Mr. Ruffini appointed Andrea Tornielli, an Italian Catholic journalist as editor in chief of all Vatican news media, and Andrea Monda, another Italian journalist, as the new editor in chief of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily. Today’s resignations indicate that, even after four years of changes, there are still some fundamental problems to be resolved within Vatican communications, not the least of which is the role and function of the Holy See’s press office in the new dicastery.
In a tweet following the announcement, Mr. Burke wrote: “Paloma and I have resigned, effective Jan. 1. At this time of transition in Vatican communications, we think it’s best the Holy Father is completely free to assemble a new team.” In a second tweet, he said: “I joined the Vatican in 2012. The experience has been fascinating, to say the least. Thank you, Pope Francis. Un abrazo muy fuerte.”
Mr. Ruffini, the prefect of the dicastery for communications, said that in these few months of working with them “I have been able to appreciate their professionality, their humanity, and their faith.”
Ms. Garcia Ovejero also sent a tweet, saying: “Termina una etapa. ¡Gracias, Santo Padre, por estos dos años y medio! Gracias, Greg, por tu confianza, tu paciencia y tu ejemplo.” (“A stage ends. Thank you, Holy Father, for these two and a half years! Thank you, Greg, for your trust, your patience and your example.”)
Commenting on their resignation, Mr. Ruffini, the prefect of the dicastery for communications, said that in these few months of working with them “I have been able to appreciate their professionality, their humanity, and their faith.” He thanked them “for the dedication with which they have carried out their work hitherto” and said that “faced with their free and autonomous choice, I cannot but respect the decision they have taken.”
Noting that the new year is full of “important appointments that require the maximum effort of communication,” Mr. Ruffini expressed “total confidence” that Mr. Gisotti would be able to act as “interim” director until the new leadership is appointed “as quickly as possible.”
Mr. Gisotti, for his part, thanked Pope Francis for putting trust in him at “such a delicate moment for the communications of the Holy See.” He also thanked Mr. Burke and Ms. Garcia Ovejero for their work and recalled that he has been united with them by “a relation of esteem and friendship.”