A new book by Angelo Scelzo offers a first attempt at a comprehensive look at the recent history of the Vatican’s engagement in the field of communications, reaching up to the present, that is, to the reform implemented during the pontificate of Pope Francis. We consider it an authoritative, useful and courageous contribution.
The fruit of long experience
The contribution of this book is authoritative. The amount of information is very broad; the author seeks to go into depth and his reflections are based on long experience. Angelo Scelzo, after years of active journalism and responsibility for the daily newspaper Avvenire, from 1990 collaborated for a long time with Mario Agnes in the running of L’Osservatore Romano. Then he was put in charge of the Communications Office of the Great Jubilee of 2000, then became undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and finally deputy director of the Holy See Press Office until 2015. He knew from the inside – in different and complementary areas – the strengths and weaknesses of a communications system that had grown historically for more than a century, placing at the disposal of the Holy See’s mission the different “instruments of social communication” – books, a newspaper, photography, radio, television, the internet – one after the other and, in a sense, one next to the other, but independent of each other.
Scelzo participated in the changes in the Church’s attitude in relation to the world of communication in the contemporary world, which experienced a crucial transition during the Second Vatican Council and continued to mature in the practice and style of successive pontificates up to the present. Indeed, in his book there is a great deal to be found on the practice of communication by the various popes – especially John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis – and on the ecclesial documents of recent decades, which have dealt with communication issues and problems in the process of building ecclesial communion, missionary proclamation, and service to the individual and human society in general. Scelzo knows what he is writing about.
This book is also courageous. A first act of courage was to try to synthesize a complex history of facts and ideas that – as we have already mentioned – has developed over time, along distinct and almost autonomous operational strands with respect to each other, including L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the Holy See Press Office, the Vatican Television Center, which have been very careful to affirm their special focus and identities. It is much easier to write specific and in-depth histories of these individual institutions than a “common” history, which will necessarily appear to be sketchy to different critics, but which provides the necessary background for understanding context and need for reform.
A second and even greater act of courage on Scelzo’s part was that he has looked beyond the time when he was an active player in Vatican communication and has tried to give us an initial comprehensive account of the progress of reform and a reading of its meaning. Now, as everyone knows, the early steps of this reform were not easy and were accompanied by debates and criticism. In order to go beyond the phase of discussions tinged with emotions and talk about it with balance and impartiality, it was necessary to be able to take a sufficiently free and comprehensive point of view. It seems that Scelzo has succeeded in this. And while he remains a man of the “old communication,” we are convinced that it was legitimate for him to write about the reform. As we can testify in light of our many conversations with him over the course of now more than three decades, he has continually reflected on, reasoned about and discussed the health and problems of Vatican communications. He was fully aware of the growing need for updating, coordinating rethinking and reorganization, not only for better operational efficiency by avoiding waste and duplication, but for a reshaping of the whole of Vatican communication in today’s cultural and ecclesial context, characterized by the transformations we have all experienced and are experiencing, not least the “digital convergence.” In short, Scelzo knew very well that a comprehensive and non-superficial reform was needed.
Getting real reform started
In fact, that a reform was needed was a common and shared view, but who could and should implement it? Until the end of Benedict XVI’s pontificate, no one had a mandate, and therefore no one had been vested with the authority to do so. Responses to the urgent need for communicative and technological upgrading therefore had to be sought and implemented within the various communicative institutions, while the relationships between these institutions were nurtured and improved on the basis of collaborative goodwill and various forms of cooperation. This sometimes yielded very satisfactory results, as in the case of the transitions between the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict, and between Benedict and Francis. But this was not enough to deal with the “digital revolution” and what might emerge in the future.
The advent of the current pontificate provided the necessary impetus to take action; in this sense it is fair to say that it is a “reform of Pope Francis.” He was the one who got it started; he was the one who gave it the support it needed to overcome difficult moments, and who shared its overall orientation within the framework of his pontificate.
Scelzo helps us go through the different successive steps of the reform process. And it is useful to follow their sequence and the thought behind them. Already in 2013, after the creation of the “Council of Cardinals,” which would remain the pope’s main support in the entire journey of the reforms, the “Pontifical Commission for the Organization of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See” (COSEA) was established, which entrusted the well-known consulting firm McKinsey & Company with a review of Vatican media and an initial proposal for its reorganization. The next phase was entrusted to a “Committee for Vatican Media,” of international composition, which drew up the first basic document of the overall reform, then seen as needing to be refounded. The pope called Msgr. Dario E. Viganò (then director of the Vatican Television Center), assisted by a small commission, to quickly prepare an executive plan. On June 27, 2015, with the pope’s motu proprio L’attuale contesto comunicativo, the Secretariat for Communication was established, with Msgr. Viganò as prefect and Msgr. Lucio A. Ruiz as secretary. This new institution took the place, but with quite different powers, of the former Pontifical Council for Social Communications: in fact, it had the mandate to implement the “unified integration and management” of all the previous institutions in the sector.
From then on, the implementation process of the reform proceeded at a rapid pace, successively involving the nine different institutions, which were converged and integrated into the new Dicastery. Intensive staff training took place in view of the needs of multimedia communication, mobilizing multiple internal working groups to reorganize and coordinate the different activities. If one recalls that the staff as a whole included several hundred people, engaged in at least nine different locations, in activities that were also significantly different from each other, one realizes the complexity and difficulty of the reform on the administrative, logistical, technical and training levels, not to mention the setting up of the same communication and information activities, with different media and in dozens of different languages, following the pattern of Pope Francis’ pontificate and his style of communication.
It may well be said that this was a gigantic undertaking, and that it was obvious that many difficulties were encountered, not least because of the effort required of the large number of staff to respond to profound and rapid changes in their usual way of working, and often also in the actual workplace. Enthusiasm for positive changes – which was not lacking – was also accompanied by inevitable situations of unease and disorientation. It is safe to assume that this is a price to pay for any transformation that goes deep and marks a decisive break from the past, even at the cost of sacrificing a part of it. Pope Francis has often reiterated that one should not be discouraged, and he left no doubt that he wanted the journey to proceed. His words at the first Plenary of the Secretariat for Communication made an impression: “Reform is not just ‘repainting old things’: reform is giving another form to things, organizing them in another way. This must be done intelligently, kindly, but also, also – allow me to use the word – with a measure of ‘violence,’ but good, soft violence, in order to reform things.”
A critical transition occurred after the first two years and was reflected in the sudden resignation of the Prefect Viganò in March 2018. As unexpected as it may have appeared at the time, in an overall reading it can perhaps be said that he had indeed accomplished his difficult mission: to very decisively set in motion an innovative process, despite resistance and objections. The pope responded to the situation with a further change: the appointment of Paolo Ruffini, the first layperson to head a Vatican Dicastery. He can boast of long experience in the Italian National Broadcasting Company “RAI,” and then at the direction of TV2000, the television station of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. Ruffini took over the reins of reform at a delicate stage, entrusting the fundamental task of editorial direction – the content of information! – to an experienced and dynamic Vatican correspondent, Andrea Tornielli. He also coped with the emergency arising from the change of leadership of the Press Office following the resignation of the director and deputy director. He succeeded in ensuring the continuity of the reform process while establishing a climate of a more gradual approach. The additional ordeal of the pandemic, with its enormous impact on the organization of work, was also absorbed and overcome. The results of the reform on the economic level of reducing expenses were significant, although it was necessary to make those in charge understand that costs ought not to be overly compressed if decent and effective communication activities are to be ensured.
A reform that must continue
Scelzo’s volume presents a decidedly positive overall assessment of the path taken and the results achieved. The time when there was a widespread feeling of a “rupture” has now given way to one in which it is noted that the experience accumulated in the past continues to be fruitful. The personal and professional abilities of so many individuals, animated by a profound motivation of service to the Holy See, have constituted the firm foundation on which the Vatican communications machinery has been able to assume a new “form” more suited to the times.
May we still be allowed to add some of our own spontaneous considerations? With a healthy realism, of course, one should not think that the reform is fully “accomplished,” that is, that it has arrived at a stable and completely satisfactory state. Scelzo writes honestly about this. The complexity of the enterprise of organizational and administrative integration of so many different institutions, with activities that are also quite different from each other, remains such that it requires further adjustments, which those in charge of the Dicastery are often the first to realize. After all, one should not even imagine that today a communication system does not remain permanently evolving. Just as the Vatican media had already undergone continuous transformations before the reform, so too must the integrated system certainly do so, in a technological, cultural and ecclesial context undergoing extremely accelerated change. Reform, even if it has to make occasional leaps forward, is the usual state of affairs in the field of communication.
Then there are the popes. A Vatican communications system must necessarily be integrated with the orientation, spirit and style of successive pontificates, which are also reflected in operational choices. Scelzo discusses this extensively; it is enough for us to note that a very obvious example is the Press Office, its role and operation. It is quite evident that the different directors of the Press Office – under John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis – depended on various factors, but the specific way of communication of these popes was not the least of these factors.
At the outset, noting the merits of this book of Angelo Scelzo, I wrote that it is “useful.” That is to say – ten years after the beginning of Pope Francis’ reforms and eight years after the establishment of the new Dicastery – it is very important that an authoritative voice of the “old communication” group helps us to view with realism and acceptance the path that has been taken and to see it in a constructive and positive light, strengthening the motivation of all those who have dedicated and are dedicating their forces to this very important service for the Church and the Holy See. The transition from the “old” to the “new” communications approach has taken place, and we must continue to look forward with confidence and enthusiasm to better serve the mission entrusted to us by the Lord.
. Cf. A. Scelzo, Dal Concilio al web. La comunicazione vaticana e la svolta della riforma. [From the Council to the Web. Vatican communication and the turning point of the reform], Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2023.
. The Secretariat was constituted as a “Dicastery,” and under that title it currently finds its place in the overall framework of the Roman Curia as set out in the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium.
. These were: Pontifical Council for Social Communications (which also included the Vatican Film Library), Holy See Press Office, L’Osservatore Romano (with the Photo Service), Vatican Radio, Vatican Television Center, Vatican Publishing House (with the Vatican Printing House), Internet Service. The Secretariat also assumed responsibility for the management of the institutional website vatican.va and the Pope’s Twitter (now X) profile.
. Francis, Address to participants at the Plenary of the Secretariat for Communication, May 4, 2017.