“He is a Jesuit before he is the papal spokesman.” During my four years with Vatican Radio’s English Programme, I had the privilege of seeing Fr Federico Lombardi SJ almost on a daily basis. At the time, he was the Programme Director of Vatican Radio and the Director of Vatican Television and the Vatican Press Office. He also regularly celebrated the early morning Mass for a small multinational, multilingual congregation in the quiet intimacy of Vatican Radio’s chapel, a liturgy broadcast live in Latin to the world. He regularly contributed to the broadcasts of the Italian Programme and, far from using his “free” time for a few minutes of well-earned relaxation, was also chaplain to Italy’s Boy Scouts.
New additions to Vatican Radio staff quickly discovered that Fr Lombardi’s office door only closed when his work was completely confidential: otherwise anybody and everybody could approach him at any time. He knew each member of staff personally although they numbered over four hundred. “Probably every young employee who has just broken up with her boyfriend has cried on Fr Lombardi’s shoulder”, one colleague commented.
A fellow Jesuit remarked that he left the house at about six in the morning and often did not return until late at night, often missing meals because of his complete dedication to his work for the Church. On innumerable occasions he would be present in the studio with the team responsible for the live telecasts of papal ceremonies, often looking utterly exhausted, but not leaving until the last moment, when he could be sure that all had gone as well as it possibly could.
Fr Lombardi, in his years as papal spokesmen, has encountered moments of great joy but also times which have required sensitive diplomacy, explaining the meaning of what the world’s media might have misinterpreted, either accidentally or deliberately. It has frequently fallen to him to explain what Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis “really” meant to say.
For Fr Lombardi, words, there was that special moment when a new pope was also a fellow Jesuit… He did not exactly give a public “thumbs up”, but it would be hard to deny the special link between the two Jesuits. Yet it would also be true to say that it would be hard to find anybody less in search of personal aggrandisement: a Jesuit pope has only given a deeply humble spokesman a new and different opportunity to serve the Church.
Fr Federico Lombardi is about to retire as papal spokesman and head of the Vatican Press Office, but he is unlikely to sit around doing nothing. He is not retiring from active service. He has earned the opportunity to take a few minutes for himself, but, until he draws his last breath, he is a Jesuit whose vocation to serve has truly and uniquely been spent in service to the Church.
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