News Headlines > More than just a spokesman: Joaquin Navarro-Valls dies aged 80

06 July 2017 | by Christopher Lamb

More than just a spokesman: Joaquin Navarro-Valls dies aged 80

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With virtually unfettered access to the Pope, Navarro-Valls was one of the Church’s most prominent lay figures of the 20th and early 21st century

One of the 20th century Church’s most visible lay figures who transformed Vatican communications as the longtime spokesman of John Paul II, has died at the age of 80.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a Spanish journalist and qualified doctor, worked at the Polish Pope’s side for 22 years as one of his closest aides, playing a key role in helping to frame the message of that pontificate. 

He was offered the job of Director of the Holy See press office by Pope, now Saint, John Paul II over lunch in 1984, having previously been a correspondent covering the Vatican and Italy for Spanish newspapers ABC and Nuestro Tiempo. 

Navarro was a strong candidate because he had twice been elected by his peers as President of the Foreign Press Association in Rome, while his membership of Opus Dei guaranteed the new spokesman’s Catholic credentials. 

Throughout John Paul II’s pontificate, Navarro had direct and virtually unfettered access to the Pope, a privilege not always afforded to every papal spokesman. This put him in a position of not simply relaying what his boss had said but what he meant and how it should be interpreted.

This made him one of the Church’s most prominent - and important - lay figures of the 20th and early 21st century. 

The multi-lingual Spanish communicator was also trusted as a key adviser who was likened by Vatican expert John Allen Jr as akin to a Chief of Staff for the key role he played during that papacy. 

Later on, he took on the job of Holy See envoy at major international  gatherings, most famously at a United Nations’ meeting on population and development in Cairo in 1994. Navarro played a key role in building an alliance between Catholic and Muslim nations to prevent access to abortion as a right under international law. 

Born in 1936 in Cartagena, Spain he studied medicine at the universities of Granada and Barcelona as well as journalism at the University of Navarra, run by Opus Dei and famous for its internationally respected business school. After being awarded a doctorate in Psychiatry, he worked as a psychiatrist and taught medicine before moving into journalism.

Described by colleagues as a skilled motivator and excellent listener, one of the other major achievements seen under Navarro was the revamping of how the Holy See related to the media. While traditionally the Vatican has had an arms-length relationship with journalists, Navarro overhauled facilities for reporters covering the Vatican including the building of the current room used for press conferences

The spokesman was not, however, without his critics. Some reporters complained he would not return their calls and that he only talked to a favoured few journalists whose reporting Navarro felt reached the biggest audiences. 

There were also times where some of his statements were judged to be more about spin than presenting the facts. This was seen most prominently during John Paul II’s final days when, after the Pope had undergone a tracheotomy to help his breathing problems, Navarro said he had eaten biscuits for breakfast. 

Nevertheless, the spokesman’s medical background proved to be an asset for Navarro during the years when media attention was heavily focussed on the late Pope’s health. 

Following John Paul II’s death, he stayed on as Benedict XVI’s spokesman before being succeeded by Fr Federico Lombardi in 2006. In retirement he become something of a Catholic elder statesman, who would occasionally appear in the media commenting on major events. 

Announcing the news of his death in Rome last night Greg Burke, the  current Director of the Holy See Press Office, tweeted: “Joaquin Navarro. RIP. Grace under pressure.” 

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