‘Voice’ of John Paul II
Joaquín Navarro-Valls speaks about John Paul II
Memoirs of the former director of the Vatican Press Office
Handsome and elegant though not young. I met him on 2 April 2009 in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. For over twenty years he was one of the closest collaborators of John Paul II. He was the director of the Vatican Press Office and all journalists regarded him as ‘the voice’ of the Pope in the world of the media. No wonder, the Holy Father John Paul II had great confidence in him and he received him in his apartments almost every day. I talked to him on the anniversary of the death of the Polish Pope, asking him about that great pontificate.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – The years 1978-2005 were the time of the pontificate of John Paul II. These are 27 years that marked the lives of all Catholics of our generation. Let us begin with the memorable day of the election: what did you do on 16 October 1978?
Prof. Joaquín Navarro-Valls: – Of course, as a journalist I watched the conclave and tried to understand the sense of the election of Karol Wojtyla to the Holy See in the year we had three popes. What I witnessed seemed a little unreal. But I had to inform about those events. I tried to limit my stories to the facts and analysed everything with cold realism, which was not easy at all.
– Did you suppose that some unknown cardinal from Krakow would not only become the Head of the Catholic Church but also the greatest spiritual leader in the world in a short time?
– It is true that Cardinal Wojtyla was not known to the public opinion but his activities were appreciated in the Church. For the first time I saw John Paul II the next day after the election. Someone informed me that the Pope would go to the Gemelli Policlinic. I went there and introduced myself as a medical doctor, which was true [Navarro-Valls, known as a journalist, had completed medical studies]. I entered the room of Cardinal Andrzej-Maria Deskur who was unconsciously lying in bed. And I met the Pope there. John Paul II did not speak a lot but his attitude, I would say ‘his body language’, was very meaningful. I thought that for a man who was so full of youthfulness and natural spontaneity, all things would be possible. I understood that something really new had happened in the old institution of papacy.
– When did you first go to the Pope and what were your impressions after that meeting?
– As a journalist I accompanied John Paul II in his first visits abroad. Then I met him in his apartments when I was invited for dinner. The Pope wanted to listen to my suggestions concerning the transmission of information through the Holy See. The thing was to transmit the Christian message to the world, overloaded with news and various sources of information, in a clear and decisive way. I shared what I thought about that and after some time, to my big astonishment, the Pope appointed me to be the director of the Press Office. I had many doubts since it was a big challenge. I trusted the Pope and concluded that if he had chosen me I should accept the proposal although it was a risky task.
– For over twenty years of John Paul II’ s pontificate you were the director of the Vatican Press Office although the journalists regarded you as the Pope’s spokesman, his ‘voice’ than as an ‘ordinary’ director of Sala Stampa. What did your relationships with John Paul II look like?
– They were above all professional relationships thanks to which I could fulfil my task. Accompanying the Pope during his visits, being with him on holiday and during his stays in hospital I had long talks with him. I had the chance to get to know his thoughts, viewpoints and his personal relationship with God. I was enriched by the hours and years I spent with him. That made me admire the Pope and in some sense there was a feeling of friendship.
– Why did John Paul II care so much for contacts with the media?
– We can reverse your question: why were the media so much interested in John Paul II? Because the journalists were fascinated by him almost from the very beginning of his pontificate. The reason for that interest was what he said and the way he spoke; old message, the Gospel was proclaimed by the way that aroused their interest. Moreover, many non-Christians felt being drawn by that message as never before. Modernity that oscillated between arrogance and being lost had to be confronted with a deeply human vision and at the same time a completely spiritual vision. Thanks to that people of our times could find their points of reference to understand themselves and their relationships with God.
– Who was Karol Wojtyla for you after so many years of working together?
– Karol Wojtyla was first of all a great Pope. And also the person I loved in a human way. He was very noble, open to people who were around him. The man from whom I learnt a lot.
– Recently you said that many things were written about John Paul II but these were mainly facts concerning the Pope – we lack a real ‘portrait’ of man. What kind of man Karol Wojtyla who became the Pope was?
– I would need to have a lot of time to answer this question. I would like to focus on one trait of his character, which many may not know. Karol Wojtyla was full of joy and always in good mood, expressed by his smile. With time Parkinson’s disease made his muscles ‘stiff’ and this characteristic smile disappeared from his face. He remained a joyful man at the depth of his heart. And that was not some emotional optimism but true joy, which sprung from his deep convictions.
– What did John Paul II’s death mean to him?
– The end of sufferings, return to God whom he loved madly and consequently – moment of great joy.
– And what did the Pope’s death mean to you?
– During the press conference after the Pope’s death one of the journalists asked me, ‘Don’t you miss John Paul II?’ I answered, ‘no’ and tried to explain that to her, ‘before I used to talk to him one hour or two almost every day, depending on the circumstances and now I can talk to him 24 hours…’
– What Church did the Polish Pope leave?
– The Church that is full of hope. The Church where God became closer to people and less mysterious, became more of the Father.
– What is the former director of the Vatican Press Office doing now?
– I have returned to academic life. I am the president of the Council Board of the University Campus Bio-Medico in Rome. I also preside over the Foundation Telecom Italia, which finances various educational, charity and cultural initiatives. Besides, I write commentaries on cultural and social topics to one of the Italian newspapers.
– Are you thinking of writing your memoirs about the unforgettable years spent beside John Paul II?
– I should. I think it is my moral duty but this task needs time and peace…