For the first time, a non-journalist is Director of the Vatican Press Office

Matteo Bruni and Pope Francis (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The appointment of Matteo Bruni, a British-born layman, marks a new era for the Press Office of the Holy See

Pope Francis on Thursday tapped a long-time logistics coordinator to serve as the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, ending the interim appointment of Alessandro Gisotti, effective Monday, July 22. Gisotti will now be vice-Editorial Director under Andrea Tornielli at the Dicastery for Communication, along with another old hand at the former Vatican Radio, Sergio Centofanti.  

The replacement of Gisotti did not come as a surprise. From the day the 45-year-old former Vatican Radio journalist took the reins after former Director Greg Burke had suddenly dropped on the last day of last year, his appointment had been couched as ad interim. They said it and he meant it. Anyone who knows Gisotti has no trouble believing him when he says both that it was a tremendous honour to be tapped for the job, and that he would be happy to put it down.

Being Director of the Press Office of the Holy See “has been the greatest honour of my life,” Gisotti said on Thursday at a hastily arranged meet-and-greet with journalists in the Navarro-Valls press room about an hour after the announcement. They lined the long table in the centre of the room from end to end, and gave him a lengthy ovation when he entered. 

It’s been a tough seven months for Pope Francis and the Vatican. Gisotti’s tenure began with the explosion of the Zanchetta Affair, which took centre stage in the Anglophone press following an AP report on January 4, dominated headlines for weeks, and remains in the news. There was the meeting on child protection in February, followed by significant legislative reforms. There were eight papal trips — five overseas and three in Italy — major developments in Francs and Australia regarding two cardinals — Pell and Barbarin — who are appealing guilty verdicts against them, the arrest of the Apostolic Nuncio to France on sexual misconduct charges, news of credible allegations against Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston in the United States, and dozens of other stories connected with the still burgeoning leadership crisis in the Church.

“Objectively,” said Gisotti, “[this has been] the most intense semester of the pontificate.”

The appointment of 42-year-old Matteo Bruni — a British-born layman, married with one child, and a decade of distinguished service in the back office already under his belt — marks the first time a non-journalist has held the position of Press Office Director since the modern office was reorganized under Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

There is arguably no one with a better understanding of the Press Office’s inner workings than Bruni. For ten years, he’s been responsible for handling accreditations and for managing logistics during papal trips. His capacities in the back of the house are evident and universally attested. He has had plenty of time to observe how things work out front, and he knows four languages: English, Italian, French and Spanish.

Usually, chief spokesmen have two distinct but closely related things to do: cultivate relationships and shape stories. In order to do them both effectively, access to the principal and inclusion in major deliberations are both indispensable. In the ongoing reform of the Vatican communications department, the Press Office has been brought — on paper at any rate — under the umbrella of the Dicastery for Communications. With the comms dicastery slated to be completely subordinate to the Secretariat of State, and a fellow new to the game in the big chair, one of the questions is whether the Press Office will continue to be the go-to place for journalists in need of a quick comment, background, or confirmation of facts.

We are also waiting to hear who Bruni’s deputy will be. In the meantime, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, Paolo Ruffini, released a statement thanking Gisotti and congratulating Bruni. “I am sure that Matteo Bruni will be able to guide the Press Office with competence and wisdom, far-sightedness and team spirit, contributing to its final structure with the objective of providing the best possible service to accurate information,” he said.

The Catholic Herald asked Gisotti what his one piece of advice would be — could he give only one — to the new Director. “Trust in his colleagues — which he already knows, having worked ten years in a role that isn’t that of Director but is very important — and availability to journalists,” Gisotti said. “That’s another thing he knows very well,” he continued, “because on [papal] trips, there are many situations — many tensions, many difficulties — and I think that Matteo has on many occasions, over many years, on many often highly complex voyages, demonstrated himself a highly capable person and also most willing to help.”

Bruni did not appear with Gisotti in the Press Office on Thursday. His new gig doesn’t start until this coming Monday. Bruni spoke to Vatican News about his appointment, saying, “The press office is not a large structure, but a complex one.” He also said, “I believe that knowing it from the inside can be useful in order to more deeply carry out the reform of the dicastery itself.”