international analysis and commentary

Pope Francis between novelty and tradition: a conversation with Greg Burke (Vatican Senior Communications Adviser)


It is hard to deny that Pope Francis is a master communicator. In less than two months, he successfully put the Catholic Church in the spotlight and in a positive manner – a task that very recently seemed next to impossible. Pope Francis, in fact, accomplished this with little more than simple words and actions – and of course a lot of media attention. We spoke with Greg Burke, Senior Communications Adviser at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and former Rome-based correspondent for Fox News Channel and for Time magazine, about the young papacy’s communications strategy and the long road – and the difficult issues – that still lie ahead.

How would you describe your job?

My job is to work on communications strategy, above all try to make sure that communications – or public perception – is taken into account when decisions are made. While I don’t have a lot of direct contact with Pope Francis, I do send a number of written proposals his way, and I am in constant contact with his Chief of Staff, the Deputy Chief of Staff, and the Holy See’s top diplomats.

Much of the work consists of giving advice, and then simply getting the news out. Certainly this year we’ve had a lot of news, with Benedict’s resignation and the election of Pope Francis. This papacy is still young, and the interest is huge.

Pope Francis appears to have both an intellectual and a people approach to communications. Is he a pioneer or is he simply adapting to urgencies/crises of the times?

I don’t think Pope Francis is adapting to anything. This is who he is, and what you see is what you get. It only took about five minutes into his papacy for Pope Francis to show what an extraordinary communicator he is.

People are coming back to the Church both because of what Pope Francis says and what he does. What the Pope says is that even if you have strayed, God is never far away, waiting for your return with a big embrace. What the Pope does is give that embrace to so many people, especially those who are suffering – which we see especially at the end of every audience on Wednesday when he greets every single disabled person, one by one.

His communication style seems unique in at least one respect, i.e. the emphasis on the poverty issue and the “popular” roots of the Church: in other words, a non-elitist approach. Is this confined to his own identity and personality, or will we see a whole strategy designed on this basis?

Different popes will emphasize different issues, about the obligation to live Christian charity and help the poor. Pope Francis, because of his own formation and experience, will talk a lot about the widening gap between rich and poor. But this is hardly a recent development in the Catholic world, which has tremendous record when it comes to serving the poor, especially in health and education. Pope Benedict spoke and wrote extensively about the disparity between the haves and have-nots globally, especially in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

When we hear Pope Francis talking about taking care of your neighbor – either the one next door or the one in Sub-Saharan Africa – it is not so much a strategy as a reminder for Christians not just to read the Gospel but to live it.

Pope Francis has become famous for his creative use of metaphors. His “shepherds living with the smell of sheep” comment brought smiles to both believers and non-believers. This apparent spontaneity in his personality is clearly a communications asset. How will your team take advantage of that?

I think the best example of that have been his morning homilies. He invites different groups to Mass, while they are not public events, parts of the homilies each day are put out by both Vatican Radio and the Vatican newspaper, the L’Osservatore Romano.

Because they are off the cuff and straight from the heart – much like a good parish priest giving his short homily each morning – they are generating an enormous amount of interest. And Pope Francis is not only talking about bringing peace to the Middle East; he’s talking mostly about bringing peace to your home or your office: why we shouldn’t gossip and why we need to learn to ask for forgiveness.

The previous administration struggled with various scandals and leaks. What reforms are underway to bring new light to the Vatican’s internal workings and to repair its image?

In terms of changes, Pope Francis has already taken some initial steps in the first weeks of his papacy, most recently by setting up and advisory group of eight cardinals from around the world. But above all he has led by example. Objectively speaking, the Pope paying for his stay at the priest’s residence he lived in before the conclave was not important at all. But symbolically, the message could not have been stronger: the priesthood is not about power; it is about service. And that goes from the Pope on down.

Presenting himself as a “People’s Pope” with an open communications style, how will Pope Francis approach difficult topics such as women in the church, birth control and gay marriage? The Church has traditionally resisted change. Considering Pope Francis’s radical communications style, what are his challenges in tackling the above-mentioned issues?

Pope Francis has a tremendous warmth, and he’s a good communicator because he’s not role-playing. You can see his sincerity. While he is gentle, and clearly has a huge heart, especially for those who are disabled or suffering, he’s not trying to be simpatico at all costs.

Anyone expecting changes on the “hot-button” issues that some media love to bring out at every papal election are likely to be disappointed with Pope Francis. This is a Pope who recently said that the moment you start negotiating away the faith is the moment you’re on the road to being unfaithful, and that lukewarm Christians build small churches.

Doctrine matters for the Catholic Church, and no one knows that better than Pope Francis. He has been incredibly effective at bringing people back to the Church, but it has not been by watering down what she teaches.

Pope Benedict made headlines when he sent his first tweet, but lost appeal when it became clear that he wasn’t really doing the tweeting. What is Pope Francis’s approach to social networking?

Actually, that’s not true about Pope Benedict. The numbers grew steadily once he went on Twitter, hitting more than 2.5 million in just two months, and the rate of re-tweets was off the charts. While he was not on the keyboard himself,  Pope Benedict did see and sign off on every single Tweet. That’s not the case for a lot of world leaders.

The success of @pontifex says every bit as much about Catholics around the world as it does about the Pope – whoever he might be. Catholics feel this link to the successor of St. Peter, and they want to be connected. 

Pope Francis by nature is neither a Facebook or Twitter type of person, but he realizes that Twitter is a modern form of a telegram. It’s not the place to publish a major theological work, but it is a wonderful to way to reach a lot of people at once. You can tell them that you are praying for them – as in the case of a disaster – or ask them for prayers, or challenge them to follow Christ more closely.

A South American Pope means an East to West power shift inside the Church. How will Pope Francis keep his image appealing in the “East” (Europe, Middle East, Asia)?

That’s a pretty Eurocentric view of things. I would say the shift has been much more North to South. This is significant because roughly 50% of Catholics worldwide are currently in Latin America.

But the Church is universal and the Pope needs to address the entire world. Social media actually helps quite a bit here. We have huge numbers of Twitter followers in English in the Gulf States, and they’re mostly Filipino and Indian workers who are Catholics (and many of whom don’t have the ability to worship). For many of them, this is their only direct link to the Church they belong to, and the Shepherd of the flock.

Of course a trip to Asia would be great. Any papal trip brings hope and joy to the local Catholic community and to many other people of goodwill, as we’ve seen on so many occasions.

The Philippines is an important Catholic country, and it would be good for Catholics in Korea, India and Vietnam to get a show of support as well – not to mention China. However, the only papal trip on the schedule right now is Rio de Janeiro in July for World Youth Day. But the fact that so many invitations have already come in from both civil and religious authorities from around the globe shows a tremendous amount of love for Pope Francis.