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Vatican Press Secretary Resigns

Joaquin Navarro-Valls was a confidant of the late Pope John Paul II. A Jesuit will replace him.

July 12, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the silver-haired senior spokesman for the Vatican and longtime confidant of the late Pope John Paul II, resigned Tuesday after more than two decades in the post.

Navarro-Valls, who turns 70 this fall, will be replaced by Father Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit who runs Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Center. Navarro-Valls' retirement had been expected for some time, as Pope Benedict XVI, elected nearly 15 months ago, assembles his own team of advisors.

"I am conscious of having received in these years so much more than I have been able to give," Navarro-Valls said in a statement. He said he was grateful that Benedict had accepted his "often expressed" desire to step down.

The pope, in a statement, thanked the departing spokesman for his "long and generous dedication."

When he took the job in 1984 at John Paul's request, Navarro-Valls was the first journalist to become director of the Vatican press office. Over the years, he became more than just a mouthpiece, guiding journalists in their interpretation of the sometimes cryptic language of the pope and the thinking that went into the pontiff's voluminous speeches and writings.

Navarro-Valls is credited with pushing the creaky press office into the modern age, with computer technology, television, better distribution of pontifical documents and the use of multiple languages making the operation friendlier to the international media. In many ways, he had the perfect boss in a pope who loved media attention.

Though the Vatican could never be called transparent, Navarro-Valls did on occasion share information that traditionalists would not have revealed. For example, it was Navarro-Valls who disclosed years ago that John Paul suffered from Parkinson's disease.

While making some details more available, however, he also was determined to cast the pope's activities and the workings of the Vatican in the best light.

The Spanish-born Navarro-Valls is also a member of Opus Dei, an ultraconservative lay Roman Catholic organization that rose to a place of special influence under the papacy of John Paul.

Navarro-Valls was working as a journalist in Rome for the Spanish newspaper ABC and serving as president of the Foreign Press Assn. in the Italian capital when he was recruited by the pope. Suave and fluent in five languages, he capitalized on good contacts with the international media and soon became known by some of his former colleagues as the papal spin doctor.

In fact, he was a doctor by training: a psychiatrist. Asked by The Times in a 1995 interview whether that experience helped him in his Vatican job, Navarro-Valls displayed his frequent sense of humor. "I don't see any difference between journalism and psychiatry," he said.

Navarro-Valls, who formed part of the inner circle of John Paul's advisors, was occasionally dispatched on diplomatic missions and accompanied the pope on scores of international trips. In his most visible role, he emerged, finally, as the somber face that delivered dire medical bulletins in the late pontiff's dying days.

During that death watch in March and April 2005, the world witnessed a rare moment in which Navarro-Valls lost his composure. At a briefing in which he presented the latest news on the pope's condition, the spokesman was asked by a journalist how he personally felt. Navarro-Valls choked up and had to leave the room.

"I had been trying to keep my emotions in check," he later told an interviewer, "but then a reporter asked how I was experiencing the passing of the pope personally, and I couldn't control myself."

Lombardi, the priest replacing Navarro-Valls, will retain his positions directing the Vatican's radio and television operations. That suggests that he will be a less high-profile spokesman.

Of his predecessor, Lombardi said Tuesday, "I don't think I can aim to imitate him."

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