Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, turned 80 years old on Monday, 29 August. As one of the key figures in communications following the Second Vatican Council, the Jesuit priest from the Piedmont region in Italy served as the Director of the Holy See Press Office under Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. He also worked for 25 years at Vatican Radio, first as the Director of Programs and as the Director General: he directed the Vatican Television Center for 10 years.
His life has been one of witness and service to the Church, marked by commitment and talent. This passion for communications continues today as president of the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation and as superior of the Jesuit community responsible for the “La Civiltà Cattolica” periodical.
It was at this magazine that in 1973 he took his first steps as a journalist, later becoming its deputy editor in 1977. In the following interview with Vatican News, Father Lombardi dwells on some fundamental moments in his personal and professional life lived alongside the last three Popes.
Father Lombardi, how are you feeling as we approach your eightieth birthday and — also significantly — your fiftieth anniversary of priestly ordination on 2 September?
There is a feeling of surprise at having arrived to this moment! When we are young, we all think of 80 years old, or 50 years of priesthood, as very distant goals, of very old people ... and then, day by day you get closer and, in the end, you get there, and maybe you go even further ... so a surprise accompanied by, of course, much gratitude, because I can only give thanks, both for life and for having been called to live this life as a religious and as a priest.
It is a time of thanksgiving with also a bit of a reflection and a ‘balance sheet’ on one’s own life, on one’s own service. But more importantly, it is a time of thanksgiving, because what one has received is so much that there is really only to thank the Lord and to say: “Thank you; you have given me so much time and so many occasions and so many confirmations of your grace: thank you for having accompanied me up to here. I hope I have responded in an acceptable way to the gift you have given me”.
Of your 80 years, almost 50 have been dedicated to the service of the Church and the Holy See in the field of communications. What have you learned — even if, of course, a summary is difficult — especially in the service of various Pontiffs in years marked by a rapid technological change in the field of journalism?
The first thing I learned from experience — and it took me a while, however, to learn it — is that communication for a person who lives in faith and in the Church is a participation in the mission of evangelizing, of communicating the perspectives in which someone can see the whole reality of the world, of history, of the relationship with God and among men.
This is communication: our God is a God who communicates, a God who has communicated Himself to us with words, with Revelation, with sending us Jesus Christ! The whole Church then has a mission; to communicate, to make known, to spread this Word of the Lord. If someone is called to work in the field of communication, they are called to participate — even if in specific ways and tasks — in the very nature of the Church and in the relationship between God and humanity.
You are a Jesuit and were once appointed Provincial Superior of Italy. How has Ignatian spirituality influenced the way you work in communications?
Ignatian spirituality teaches us, helps us, and educates us to see God in all things, to see the work of the Lord around us, in life and the people around us. So, it helps us to see reality and people and events from a perspective of faith, as the presence of the Lord at work.
St. Ignatius speaks of the Lord as one who works: this has always struck me very much. He is working around us in events, in history, in people: it is a matter of knowing Him, of seeing Him, of re-knowing Him in this work and of helping others also to see Him, to understand Him and to welcome Him.
Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. You have had the opportunity to be a close collaborator with the last three Pontiffs. What do you take away first from this on a personal and professional level from such an extraordinary, and unique, experience?
I have always thought of my work as a service, and it has always seemed clear to me that the Pope is a servant: the Pope is a great servant of the Church and of humanity, of being a witness to the presence of God in the world. And so I was called to participate and collaborate in this service.
With time, this call to collaborate truly seemed like a great gift, because the mission that the Popes carry out is truly a wonderful mission for the good of people, of humanity, of believers. I have been able to put all of my strength toward helping this mission; first in trying to help with the understanding of it, of making it known through our channels of communication.
It was a support for the Popes’ service to humanity and to the Church. This has always fascinated me, and I have been very grateful to have been called to this kind of work.
Those who have had the privilege of working with you know how much attention you have always dedicated to young people, to their personal and professional growth. What advice would you give to a young man or woman today who wants to become a journalist?
I would tell them that journalism can be a wonderful profession, but that it should be lived as a vocation: not only as a career to develop technical skills, but as a way to help people meet others and establish a form of communication that inspires understanding and mutual dialogue: a form of communication that helps someone know the truth and not to deceive others, also learning where to emphasize the positive and not only suffering or the problems posed by evil and injustice. Certainly these must be reported, but it is also necessary to have the ability to show a spirit, often more hidden but equally important, of goodness, of love.
I must say that in the best moments of service, even in service of the Popes, I had the experience, the impression, that even fellow journalists were happy to discover the beauty of their work as communicators, because they were working on spreading messages that were positive for humanity.
This seems to me the attitude with which to work in the field of communication, with all the patience and sensibility it takes to learn, day by day, to communicate well from a professional point of view: not to let yourself be dominated by technical-professional abilities, but to know that these must be put at the service of something great and beautiful in order to build together a dignified society and civil ecclesial community.
You are 80 years old, but you are still active in the field of information, at “La Civiltà Cattolica”, and also in the Vatican as president of the Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation. Even as an elderly person, one can give so much, as Pope Francis pointed out in his recent catechesis on the so-called “third age” ...
As long as we are able, as long as we have the strength, of course it is good that we should carry out the service that is asked of us.
Sometimes, it is a service that changes a little in style, in nature and also in its consequences: an older person perhaps feels less inclined to be ahead on the latest news but rather prefers reflection; for the meaning of things, on values, and on the future, because we must not retreat into ourselves: a future in which the essential things continue to be the guide.
Indeed, a bit traditionally perhaps, I consider that the true, the good, and the beautiful continue to be the reference points of our life and of our perspective of hope.
By Alessandro Gisotti