Italy

The Vatican press office has turned over, again. There are new challenges ahead

The Vatican press office has turned over, again. There are new challenges ahead

The Vatican press office may be second only to the White House communications department when it comes to ranking the world’s busiest public relations operation.

Like President Donald Trump, Pope Francis and the Holy See are in some serious need of daily damage control. The resurfacing of the clergy sex abuse scandal — year after year for decades — and the allegations that led to the downfall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick have been the Vatican’s biggest PR headaches over the past year.

Responsible for handling the Holy See’s messaging on the clergy scandal and a host of other issues will be a retooled press office. Much of the turmoil that has surrounded the pope and the Catholic church over the past year called for an overhaul of the Holy See’s press operation.

The past two weeks has seen a flurry of announcements, including the naming of a new press office director and vice director (more on this position further down), two of the biggest jobs at the Vatican held by lay people.  

Pope Francis appointed Matteo Bruni as director of the Holy See Press Office earlier this month, replacing Alessandro Gisotti who’d been serving in the role on an interim basis following the abrupt resignations of Greg Burke, a former Fox News Channel reporter, and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, who had also worked as a journalist in her native Spain, at the end of last year. Gisotti was in charge throughout the Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano saga. Vigano has claimed that Francis covered up the misconduct of McCarrick, something the pontiff has repeatedly denied.

With Bruni’s appointment, Gisotti has been given the role of vice editorial director of the Dicastery for Communication. He will serve under editorial director Andrea Tornielli, who’s been in the job since December, and Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication since July 2018.

Bruni, Gisotti, Tornielli and Ruffini are all Italians, experienced PR men loyal to the church.

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Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

Familiar journalism question: Why did New York Times ignore Franco Zeffirelli's Catholic faith?

The lengthy New York Times obituary for the Franco Zeffirelli features lots of material — as it should — about the legendary director’s off-stage and off-screen private life, which was colorful, to say the least. The headline proclaimed: “Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96.”

The word “bastard” plays a dramatic role in this story, since that social stigma loomed over Zeffirelli throughout his life. The word “homosexual” is in the mix, as well. The Times also noted that, in his political career, Zeffirelli was a “conservative” who fiercely opposed abortion. Then again, he also fought with the Communists opposing Mussolini’s Fascists and the German Nazis.

Zeffirelli lived a sprawling, complex life that, at times, was almost as dramatic as the designs for his opera productions.

But there was something else that, when describing his life, Zeffirelli always stressed — his faith. In fact, the word “Catholic” never shows up in the Times piece. Also, there is only a passing reference to one of the works that, via television, made him famous with mass audiences around the world — his popular 1977 mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth.”

That’s rather strange. As my colleague Clemente Lisi noted, in a Religion Unplugged feature about Zeffirelli’s complex career and faith:

“Faith has been my life,” Zeffirelli said in an interview two years ago with Italian state television RAI. “How can you live without it?”

The Times piece covered so many bases. So why ignore this man’s faith — which he openly discussed — as well as his complex personal life? Here is one large chunk of the obit:

A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films and plays past the age of 80, but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director of film, theater and opera. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel and Leonard Bernstein.

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Populist surge continues in Europe: Was Pope Francis a big loser in these complex results?

Populist surge continues in Europe: Was Pope Francis a big loser in these complex results?

After elections gave right-wing populists sweeping victories in the Catholic nations of Italy, Poland and France in the European elections, it seemed clear that the biggest loser wasn’t the political left or moderate political parties.

The side that suffered the biggest defeat was Pope Francis.

In Italy, The League party snagged 33 percent of the vote, a remarkable achievement given the country’s fragmented political system. The pro-European Democratic Party could only muster 22 percent of the vote, while the left-wing populist Five Star Movement finished third at 18 percent. The League victory highlighted the divisions within Roman Catholicism. Party leader Matteo Salvini — known for his nationalistic and anti-immigration rhetoric — didn’t shy away from his faith. On the contrary, he used church symbols to win seats.

It isn’t the first time in European history that the Catholic church, and the papacy, has been viewed with disdain. Over the past few years, the political populism that has enveloped Europe has sought to blame much of its social and economic misfortune on elites. While many of these elites traditionally hail from the political left, the doctrinal left — and with it the current Vatican hierarchy headed by Pope Francis — has also become a target in recent elections.

The election results capped off a bad week for the pontiff. While having to deal with populism undercutting Catholic social teaching, Pope Francis denied he knew about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s history of sexual misconduct with seminarians in an interview with Mexican TV network Televisa. The scandal has plagued the papacy since last summer.

The European election, contested every five years, firmly places populism among the continent’s most powerful political forces. Never shy about brandishing a rosary or invoking God’s help, Salvini has provided Italians with an alternative to the pro-migrant stance and the church’s traditional social teachings put forth by the pope.

“I thank the man up there — with no exploitations,” Salvini told reporters, while kissing a rosary he was clutching in his hand, as results came in on May 26.

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Overlooked during Vatican summit blitz: New York Times looks at sexual abuse -- in Italy

Overlooked during Vatican summit blitz: New York Times looks at sexual abuse -- in Italy

What a wild week it has been on the religion-news beat, with the Vatican sexual-abuse summit blitzi rolling over into the long-awaited United Methodist special conference on marriage, sexuality, church tradition and the Bible.

Please allow me to pause and grab something out of my GetReligion “guilt file” — as in an important story from the Vatican coverage that I didn’t have time to address at the time.

Early on in the Vatican summit, I wrote a GetReligion piece with this headline: “'Abuse of minors' — Rare chance to hear New York Times sing harmony with Vatican establishment.” I found it interesting to see the world’s most powerful newspaper sticking really close to the Catholic establishment’s media-message line that the conference was about the clergy sexual abuse of children and that’s that. What about seminarians? What about the abuse of teen-aged males? What about the nuns? I thought it was strange.

I stand by that post. However, that doesn’t mean that the Times didn’t offer other coverage that turned against the Vatican tide.

So let’s flash back to this important headline: “The Vatican Is Talking About Clerical Abuse, but Italy Isn’t. Here’s Why.” Things get interesting at the very beginning, in the anecdotal lede:

SAVONA, Italy — On camping trips, Francesco Zanardi and other boys from his local parish always dreaded being called to sleep in their priest’s tent.

“We all knew what would happen to the boy in the tent,” said Mr. Zanardi, who said he was first abused by his priest at age 11.

Speaking in Savona, a port city in northwestern Italy that gave the church two popes, Mr. Zanardi, 48, said the victimization went on for years, traumatizing him and leading to a substance abuse problem. It also led him to help found Rete L’Abuso, the first support group for clerical abuse survivors in Italy — a country that, in an added indignity, often doesn’t seem to care.

That indifference is largely due, experts say, to how tightly intertwined the Roman Catholic Church is with Italian culture and history. Even today, though the Vatican and its popes don’t wield the power they used to, parish churches and priests often play a central role in the life of a community.

Note these words — “first abused by his priest at age 11” and the “victimization went on for years.”

In other words, what we have here is a classic case of grooming a post-pubescent male as he enters the teen years.

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Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

Another strong EU anti-Semitism warning. And yes, journalists should keep covering this story

My wife was born in Israel and most of her extended family still lives there. We have several close friends living there, plus I also have journalist friends and acquaintances in Israel.

It’s wonderful to have so many people I care about in a nation to which I’m deeply connected. However, this means that when we visit, which is often, we generally have a packed schedule. This leaves us little down time for rest and seeking out new experiences, even when we’re there for a couple of weeks or more.

So for that we schedule stopovers in Europe, either going or coming. Just the two of us and a rented car, exploring and hanging out where our interests take us, including  beautiful and nourishing environments. We're also drawn to Jewish historical sites, old synagogues and the like.

We’re now thinking about another trip to Israel this spring or summer. But this time, we’re considering skipping our usual European respite. Why? Because of the increasingly overt anti-Semitism.

We have no desire to either experience it anew or spend our money in societies where the dislike of Jews and Israel are menacingly on the rise.

A disturbing survey, released just last week, by the European Union on the growing insecurity of the continent's Jews — and their increased desire to emigrate — prompted our reevaluation. Here’s part of how Bloomberg reported the survey's chief findings.

Insecurity fueled by anti-Semitism prompted a growing number of British, German and Swedish Jews to consider leaving their countries, according to a landmark survey conducted by the European Union.

Nine out of every 10 Jews sense anti-Semitism is getting worse with some of the most acute concern registered in northern Europe, according to the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency. The survey is the largest of its kind worldwide and polled more than 16,000 Jews in 12 countries.

“Mounting levels of anti-Semitism continue to plague the EU,” said Michael O’Flaherty, the Irish human rights lawyer who runs the Vienna-based agency. “Across 12 EU member states where Jews have been living for centuries, more than 1/3 say that they consider emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews.”

Concerns over safety are prompting Jewish communities in some of the EU’s biggest economies to question whether they should remain, according to the data. In Germany, their share soared to 44 percent from 25 percent six years ago.


The BBC ran its online story on the survey under the headline, “Anti-Semitism pervades European life, says EU report.”

Let that sink in for a moment. “Pervades.”

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Predator priests: CNN notes pope is silent on (a) secular holiday or (b) holy day celebrating purity?

Predator priests: CNN notes pope is silent on (a) secular holiday or (b) holy day celebrating purity?

Every reporter knows this truth: The typical news story -- even a longer feature -- doesn't have room for every single detail that you want to include.

Ah, but how do you decide which details make the cut? 

In my experience, reporters and editors think about the potential audience for a particular story. On the religion beat, I have always assumed that there is a good chance that people who read religion stories care about the religious details -- especially when they serve as symbols of major themes in the story. I also love details in liturgies, hymns, biblical texts, etc., that offer poignant or even ironic twists on the news.

This brings me to a rather angry note that I received from a reader -- a nationally known historian, who will remain anonymous -- about a symbolic detail in a CNN report linked to the stunning Pennsylvania grand-jury report covering seven decades of Catholic priestly sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses. The CNN.com headline: "Critics slam Vatican's 'disturbing' silence on abuse cover-ups."

The CNN report noted that Paloma Ovejero, deputy director of the Vatican's press office, simply said: "We have no comment at this time." Meanwhile, U.S. bishops of all stripes have urged Pope Francis to speak out. That led to this passage, with an expert academic voice offering commentary:

"The silence from the Vatican is disturbing," said Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "I don't think the Pope necessarily has to say something today. He needs time to understand the situation. But someone from the Vatican should say something." 

Faggioli noted that Wednesday is a national holiday in Italy, and many church offices are closed. But he also noted that it was well-known that Pennsylvania's grand jury report, which was in the works since 2016, would be released on Tuesday. 

"I don't think they understand in Rome that this is not just a continuation of the sexual abuse crisis in the United States," Faggioli said. "This is a whole different chapter. There should be people in Rome telling the Pope this information, but they are not, and that is one of the biggest problems in this pontificate -- and it's getting worse."

Ah, what was this national holiday? 

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Italy’s new government and Catholic Church increasingly at odds over migrant crisis 

Italy’s new government and Catholic Church increasingly at odds over migrant crisis 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This religion-news piece ran recently at the website of The Media Project, the global network that supports GetReligion. It was written by veteran New York City journalist Clemente Lisi, who is now one of my journalism faculty colleagues at The King's College in lower Manhattan.

ROME -- The soap opera that is Italian politics has taken a dramatic turn in recent weeks as two populist parties on opposite ends of the spectrum have decided to join forces as the Catholic Church opposes the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that has engulfed the country over the past year. 

While the outcome of the hotly-contested March 4 election was a victory for populism, there was no clear winner that day. A coalition that included Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League party featured Trump-style campaign promises such as deporting thousands of undocumented immigrants out of the country. The party -- formerly the Lega Nord that had called on the wealthy northern provinces to break off from the rest of Italy -- largely appealed to Catholics. 

Another populist party, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, also won big. The party’s platform, which leans left, also included campaigning against the European Union and anti-immigration. With no party reaching the 40 percent threshold needed in parliament to form a ruling government, the deadlock caused three months of negotiations and backroom dealing that resulted in the recent appointment of Giuseppe Conte as prime minister. A relatively unknown to the political scene, Conte, a law professor, is now tasked with leading a divided country. 

The League has faced widespread criticism for its xenophobic policies -- primarily from the Catholic Church -- after vowing to deport 500,000 illegal immigrants from Italy. An estimated 600,000 people have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years. As part of the compromise over Conte’s appointment, Salvini was sworn in as Italy's new interior minister, while Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio will serve as labor and economic development minister, a position that allows him to fulfill his campaign promise of giving Italians universal basic income. 

One of the battles to emerge from all this is between the League and the church.

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Pope worries about Europe 'hemorrhaging' priests, nuns: Spot big hole in short AP story? (updated)

Pope worries about Europe 'hemorrhaging' priests, nuns: Spot big hole in short AP story? (updated)

I apologize for going on and on about this subject, but when it comes to the religion beat this is only one of the most important Catholic news stories in the world.

Come to think of it, questions about changing birth rates and demographics are important when covering Judaism, Islam, Pentecostal Christianity, Mormons, liberal Protestantism and other major faith groups, as well.

So let's connect some dots here, starting with another one of those formal Pope Francis statements that receives little mainstream news coverage, as opposed to the off-the-cuff or maybe even misquoted Francis statements (click for the latest) that leap into the headlines.

So here is the top of a short Associated Press report that probably didn't appear in your local newspaper. Yes, this is a summary of some very familiar trends:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis voiced alarm Monday at the “hemorrhaging” of nuns and priests in Italy and Europe, saying God only knows how many seminaries, monasteries, convents and churches will close because fewer people are being called to lives of religious service.

Francis told Italy’s bishops he was concerned about the “crisis of vocations” in a region of the world that once was one of the biggest sources of Catholic missionaries. He said Italy and Europe were entering a period of “vocational sterility” to which he wasn’t sure a solution exists.

The number of Catholic priests worldwide declined by 136 to 415,656 in 2015, the last year for which data is available. But according to Vatican statistics, the decrease was greatest in Europe, where there were 2,502 fewer priests compared to 2014. The number was offset by increases in priestly vocations in Africa and Asia, where the church as a whole is growing.

Let's pause for a moment and ask: Why are the statistics for vocations so much higher among Catholics in Africa and Asia? Might this have something to do with that familiar duo of doctrine and demographics?

So what did Pope Francis have to say, this time around, in terms of the cause of the current crisis in Europe?

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Extraordinary actions by pope and Italy draw little USA ink, with the Alfie Evans story (updated)

Extraordinary actions by pope and Italy draw little USA ink, with the Alfie Evans story (updated)

Once again, people who care about religion news have proof -- as if they needed more -- that not everything Pope Francis does and says is worthy of intense coverage by elite news media.

What's the overarching trend?

When Pope Francis sounds small-o "orthodox," it isn't news. When this pope sounds small-p "progressive," it's big news.

Yes, say hello to Dr. James Davison Hunter of "Culture Wars" fame.

The latest case is, of course, the struggle over the body and dignity of British toddler Alfie Evans who, as I type, is still alive and breathing on his own. His hospital room is surrounded by guards just in case his parents or anyone else attempts to carry him to the medical care that is waiting for him in Italy.

Italy? If you read European newspapers you would know all about that. News consumers here in America? Not so much. Here is the top of a short Associated Press update about this religious-liberty crisis:

LONDON -- The parents of a terminally ill British toddler whose case has drawn support from Pope Francis plan to return to the Court of Appeal Wednesday in hope of winning the right to take him to Italy for treatment.

High Court Justice Anthony Hayden on Tuesday rejected what he said was the final appeal by the parents of 23-month-old Alfie Evans, who suffers from a degenerative neurological condition that has left him in a "semi-vegetative state." ...

But Alfie's parents, who are backed by a Christian pressure group, have been granted a chance to challenge that ruling at the appeals court Wednesday afternoon.

A "Christian pressure group"?

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