Predecessor’s spokesman, fellow Jesuit helps new pope stay on message

AFP-JIJI

As Pope Francis starts out in the Vatican, a trusty fellow Jesuit will be helping him broadcast his message: the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

The head of the Vatican’s press office under the recently retired Benedict XVI, Lombardi has so far kept his job and has shown evident enthusiasm over the new pontiff, underlining Francis’ tradition-breaking style.

The 70-year-old press officer said it was “very strange” to have a pope who is a fellow Jesuit, a religious order once shunned by the Vatican.

In the leadup to the conclave, Lombardi had been the star at news conferences for more than 5,000 journalists who descended on Rome for the event.

A reserved priest with blue eyes, Lombardi has amused journalists with his dry sense of humor and earned their gratitude with his untiring work, even setting off applause in the press office at times.

Since Benedict XVI announced on Feb. 11 that he was stepping down as pontiff, Lombardi faced the difficult task of trying to explain the implications of the first papal resignation in seven centuries.

There was confusion over whether Benedict would continue to have the power of infallibility on doctrinal matters that popes have, or whether he could continue to wear his white papal cassock.

Always keeping his calm, the 70-year-old Lombardi fielded questions with his characteristic wit. Infallibility, he said, was “rather associated with the post.” What would the pope do immediately after his resignation? “Have dinner, I suppose.”

Originally from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, Lombardi was ordained in 1972 and has also studied mathematics and theology.

Last year, he was one of the organizers of an unprecedented international conference hosted by the Pontifical Gregorian University on how to ensure that sex crimes by the clergy against children never again occur.

It remains unclear whether the Argentine pope will ultimately keep Lombardi in his current role, as the custom is usually to change the head of the press office when a new pope is picked.