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Andrea Tornielli on what it’s like to be the Pope’s “voice”

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Andrea Tornielli.

Patricia Navas González - published on 04/10/23

The director of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication speaks with Aleteia about his work and about opportunities for evangelization

In this digital age in which everyone is looking for someone to listen to them, the mission of announcing the Gospel is to present mercy first and foremost by welcoming and listening, with closeness, embracing. These ideas are put forward by the editorial director of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, Andrea Tornielli, in the following interview with Aleteia.

The Italian journalist has extensive experience in religious journalism and has written more than 50 books. He is married and has three children. He has been directing Vatican media since 2018.

How can you maintain the essence of the Christian message – so personal, so “face to face” – in a universal Church, where you give voice to an entity as complex as the Vatican?

I believe that the Christian message is personal – of personal encounter with Jesus, that is. But today Jesus is found through the testimony of people who live the experience of Jesus, who live the Gospel in their lives today.

That is why it’s very interesting to collect stories from all over the world, of people who are “wounded” by the Christian message, who question their lives in the face of the message and give an interesting testimony.

“Wounded” by the Christian message? What do you mean?

I mean people who allow themselves to be touched, who don’t remain indifferent. To let yourself be wounded by reality, by a testimony, means to allow those words to enter into your flesh, into your life.

Not to be like a stone when the water runs over it, but to allow words, faces, looks, and testimonies to enter your life and to question you, to stop, to listen.

How do you think the Christian message can reach people, with the strengths and weaknesses of our society today?

I believe that today’s society, although it seems distant and secularized, is searching.

It is a society characterized by the digital era in which everyone speaks, everyone says what they think, everyone comments.

We are becoming a people of commentators, sometimes with hateful words, with which we judge the facts of reality perhaps without knowing them well.

A certain distorted use of social networks accustoms us to all this.

“The mission of proclaiming the Gospel today is to present the face of a Church of mercy.”

But it is a society in which this search and need for someone to listen is growing. We all speak, but no one listens to us.

I believe that the mission of proclaiming the Gospel today consists in presenting the face of a Church of mercy, the face of God’s mercy, first of all by welcoming and listening to people, to those who suffer, to those who ask us for help, without judging them but with closeness, tenderness, and an embrace.

I believe that this is the witness that Pope Francis gives us. This is the message of Evangelii Gaudium, which is the programmatic document of his pontificate.

And I believe that this is the task of Christians today, especially in our societies that seem distant from the Christian message.

This is not the time for wars and cultural battles, it is not the time for confrontation; everyone is already confronting each other on television, on social networks, in politics.

There’s a simplification of reality; everything seems black and white. Faced with this, the Christian attitude is not to take up arms and enter the battle, but to give a totally different testimony: of welcome, tenderness, closeness, forgiveness, and mercy, which is the face of Jesus Christ.

Is this need for listening the proper key to understanding the synod?

Yes, it is totally inserted in this vision. A Synod on synodality could seem to be something self-referential, which doesn’t speak about the mission.

But in reality it’s taking place so that we’ll understand in the Church that this attitude comes from the truest tradition of the life of the Church, from its origin.

It is the capacity for sharing and listening, to be together as a community, to exist as a people that understands itself as a community of believers who listen.

Living synodality means living this attitude, living the Church in a way that is perhaps different from the way we have lived it in the past.

And I believe that the Pope wants us to listen also to those who are farthest away, to those who have left the Church. This is the search. And it is a fundamentally evangelical task.

Remember the parable of the lost sheep and the good shepherd who leaves the 99 to go in search of the lost one. Today the numbers are reversed. It’s absolutely necessary then to search for the lost ones, or at least to listen to them, to understand why they have wandered away.

After 10 years as Pope, what public image would you say Francis has?

I think he’s a man who has great moral authority recognized throughout the world.

In these 10 years he has given us a personal testimony of faith and closeness to those who suffer, and also of courage.

In 2015 he made a trip to the Central African Republic just before the start of the Jubilee of Mercy and another to Iraq in March 2021.

It was a testimony of putting even himself at risk to manifest in concrete terms closeness to those who suffer, to those who are poor, to those who live in a situation of hatred and of violence, to those who are persecuted.

I believe that he is an authentic witness of the Gospel, and people feel close to him.

And also because of his formation, because he was the first Latin American Pope, he has contributed and continues contributing to deepen the path initiated by the Second Vatican Council to recover the seeds of the origins of the Gospel and to put an end to some consequences of the papacy that had been consolidated in the last centuries.

That is to say, today the Pope presents himself not as a king but as a servant, hence the image of the Vicar of Christ.

Could you explain more about the path initiated by the Second Vatican Council that Francis is following?

I’m referring to the fact that the Church always has to deepen her experience of the Gospel by recovering the seed of its origins.

For example, the synod’s path of listening is not an invention of the Pope but belongs to the history of the Church’s tradition.

The apostles took decisions together at the first council of Jerusalem. There are modalities that belong to the tradition of the Church.

“The Church always goes forward deepening the roots of her tradition.”

Giving attention to the poor, as well, is not something that belongs to Marxism or communism but is found in the Gospel, in the words of Jesus and in the whole magisterium of the Fathers of the Church, that is, of the great theologians and bishops of the first centuries of the Church.

There’s a homily of St. John Chrysostom, for example, that says: do not worry about covering the body of Christ on the altar at Mass with gold and precious things, but rather the flesh of Christ who is the poor who is outside the door of the Church and has nothing to cover himself with.

This is not liberation theology but the most authentic message of the Gospel and of the Fathers of the Church.

And Pope Francis has helped in the last 10 years to rediscover these pages and to make us realize, continuing on a path initiated by his predecessors, that the Church always goes forward by deepening the roots of her tradition.

Could you summarize in a few lines the legacy that, in your opinion, each of the last popes has left?

John Paul II taught us not to be afraid and to dialogue with everyone and to have the courage to give a witness of faith.

I am very struck by the fact that he was a pope who was very much heeded when he spoke in a way before the fall of communism, but then he was not heeded when he asked not to make war in Iraq.

As it happens to all popes, the powerful of the earth only listen to them when it is in their interest.

Benedict XVI helped us with his humble attitude to put Jesus Christ in the center of the scene, not the popes.

Pope-Benedict-XVI Walking Paul VI Hall

He helped us to look at Jesus and understand the beauty of the Catholic faith by explaining it in very simple words that were able to touch the hearts of young people.

And Francis continues in the line of the Second Vatican Council that his predecessors have also followed.

And he has helped us to understand today how the theme of the poor is central to the pages of the Gospel, and how proclaiming the Gospel today means presenting the face of the Church of mercy and of communities that live the joy of the Gospel.

And he helps us to understand how in secularized societies we need to proclaim the essential and not to start from the moral consequences. Not to judge people but to announce to everyone and in every situation they are living in that there is a God who loves them, who waits for them, and who is ready to embrace them and forgive them in any situation in which they find themselves.

And the importance of caring for the common home, integral ecology and the central task of fraternity, of building a world where we all perceive ourselves as brothers and sisters in order to live in peace.

Also, unfortunately, in this time of war in which the risk of self-destruction of humanity is increasing day by day.

How would you sum up these almost five years directing the Vatican’s communications dicastery? There must have been lessons and challenges, right?

For me it has been a very intense experience because the workload we have is a lot, it is a big job. But we try to work above all as a team.

Because under my editorial direction there are some 240 journalists who come to Rome from 69 different countries and write in 51 different languages.

And they write every day of the year – Vatican Radio, Vatican News is open every day of the year, although the daily L’Osservavore Romano is closed on Sundays and feast days.

So it’s truly an international, multicultural workplace, where we all seek as our sole objective to present the Pope’s message well, with its context.

And we do this so that it can reach the whole world in the best possible way, using the languages that speak to people’s hearts, their mother tongue, and presented according to their cultural categories.

It must not be easy, with this Pope being so spontaneous, to control all his words and channels of communication.

It’s not a job of control. The Pope communicates very well by himself and has no need of interpreters. We see it in many interviews he does. He communicates in a direct way and reaches the heart.

It is not about control but about helping and possibly translating into as many languages as possible the messages of the Pope and the Holy See to help the life of the Church to share this message.

At the same time our work is to collect and share the news that comes to us from the world, from the particular Churches, from the frontier communities in the peripheries of the world.

Sharing stories of people who, for example, live the message of the encyclical Laudato Si, or give a testimony of compassion and forgiveness in situations of hatred, war, and violence.

We have this double task, like the heart: to send out the word of the Pope and at the same time to receive and share by translating news that comes from all over the world but that can also be interesting for the whole world.

Our task is to share the good news of the Gospel, seeing it, documenting it and witnessing to it in the good news that appears in the life of Christians in the world.

How does the dicastery you lead differ from the previous Pontifical Council for Communication?

The pontifical council was a small council. The dicastery for communication united nine different entities, including the council for social communications.

The current entity has united typography, book publishing, the daily L’Osservatore, the internet service, the web, the radio, the profiles on social networks …

The legacy of the 2015 pontifical council is in one of the dicastery’s addresses, but the dicastery is much bigger because it has unified very different realities of all the media of the Holy See.

What did you want to convey in your latest book, The Life of Jesus?

It’s an attempt to present the whole life of Jesus by joining 3 story lines: my imagination (I imagine Gospel scenes and help the reader to enter into the scenes with the colors, fragrances, names), the authentic words of the Gospel, and little comments of the Pope that help us to enter into the Gospel scene.

It reads like a biography of the whole life of Jesus.

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