Friday, December 7, 2012

Is Former Time and Fox Journalist Greg Burke Next Vatican Spokesman ? The Papal Twitter Roll Out Subplot

It is Friday which means the always informative column by John Allen has come out. See Mixed bag of Catholic life, Twitter, Denmark, and Obama’s ambassador .

There is an interesting part on the possible names that Obama might pick and would be acceptable to the Holy See as to the new Envoy to the Vatican.

However what caught my eye was the part about Greg Burke. As a part of the big Pope is on twitter story its struck me in many ways this was huge outing for Burke ( or at least the first that have noticed ) . This all might have some big importance. Allen states:

.....Speaking of Vatican storylines, the sexy news story this week was the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will begin dispatching tweets on Dec. 12, under the handle “@pontifex.” There would certainly seem to be an audience for it, as the pope has already amassed over a half-million followers.

I attended a Vatican press conference announcing the initiative on Monday, where Gian Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, cited Pope Paul VI’s famous line that the church should be “both ancient and modern” at the same time. In truth, you’ll rarely see the church’s past and future collide more clearly than at that Dec. 3 presser.

It isn’t just that the leader of an ancient institution is now using 21st century tools of communication to get his message out. We also caught a glimpse of the Vatican itself evolving in two ways, one cultural and the other in terms of personnel.

First, while most Vatican news conferences are conducted in Italian, this one unfolded largely in English – in part because the presentation was led by Greg Burke, the veteran American journalist recently brought on as the Vatican’s media adviser, and in part because that’s the dominant tongue of the Twitter universe.

Other players included Irish Monsignor Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and Spanish CEO Gustavo Entrala, who presented a new iPhone and Android app to provide video streaming of papal events and other Vatican resources. (Entrala also spoke in English.)

Benedict’s first tweet will be in response to questions about the faith from people around the world. Tighe actually pulled up the first such inquiry, which came in Spanish, on his tablet while sitting on the dais in the Vatican press room.

The news conference thus offered a sense of the Vatican stepping out of its Italian shell, into a more global milieu.

Second, many Vatican watchers believe the Dec. 3 event also provided a glimpse of the future of the Vatican’s media operation, in the person of Burke. Italian writer Marco Ansaldo decreed in the pages of La Repubblica that the former Time and Fox News correspondent is “already incarnated as the future spokesperson for the Sacred Palaces.”

No doubt, Burke’s performance was a contrast with the normally restrained and formal tone of Vatican briefings. (Let me concede that Burke is a friend, so I’m hardly unbiased, but I still saw what I saw.)

For one thing, Burke didn’t subject his audience to any lofty theological or historical rhetoric before getting to the news. (Vian had already done that, tracing Benedict’s Twitter debut all the way back to Christianity’s role in the transition from stone writing tablets to the codex in the ancient world.)

Burke focused instead on the practical details, which is what most journalists came to hear. The closest he ever came to a philosophical statement was a one-liner when asked if the Vatican is worried about on-line backlash against the pope.

“It’s an open marketplace of ideas,” Burke said, “and I think that’s good.”
Burke also flashed a keen sense of humor. At one point, veteran Reuters correspondent Phil Pullella asked if the pope might use his Twitter account to push back against media coverage he doesn’t like. Pullella cited stories about the pope’s new book on the infancy stories of Jesus, which irked some in the Vatican by suggesting that Benedict had “cancelled Christmas” because he cast doubt on whether there really were oxen and donkeys at the stables, or whether angels actually sang.

The “cancelled Christmas” headline was based partly on Pullella’s own write-up, and Burke didn’t let the irony pass.

“Great job of calling attention to your own story, Phil,” he shot back, saying he’d actually love it if the pope would tweet something on the order of, “Pullella got it wrong.”

Burke added, naturally, that it’s probably not going to happen.

When a reporter from the U.K. cheekily asked if the pope’s tweets would be infallible, Burke simply burst out laughing. He turned the question over to Italian Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Council for Social Communications – warning the reporter that he was probably in for a catechism lesson. (He proved prophetic, as Celli invoked terminology such as “ordinary magisterium” and “dogmatic declarations” to distinguish among various categories of papal utterances.)

Many believe it’s only a question of time before Burke takes over from Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, spokesperson since 2006, as the public face of the Vatican. If so, it may not betoken a change in message, but it would be hard not to detect a significant shift in style....


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