In the continuing absence of any date for the start of the conclave to elect the new pope the spotlight has turned to a quiet and unassuming Jesuit. Father Federico Lombardi is the head of the Vatican’s press office and Vatican Radio. It is through him that all official news of what is happening behind the closed doors in the Vatican is now being filtered.
Unlike his predecessor, the dynamic and charismatic Joaquín Navarro Valls who was one of the men closest to Pope John Paul II in or out of the Vatican, Lombardi has never had a direct relationship with either Pope Benedict XVI or with the powers in the Vatican curia. Paradoxically this may now be his very strength.
For years he has managed to mediate, often with considerable difficulty, between the angry and ever investigating media and the Vatican. Questions over sex abuse scandals, upsets over inter-faith relations, Vatileaks, the incarceration without trial of the pope’s butler, the Vatican banking investigations, all these have passed over his desk.
His position as neither spokesman of pope nor curia cannot have been easy and he has often been sidelined as being out of touch and ineffectual. Often he was called in to fight a fire when it was almost too late. But he has always managed his position with dignity. Another person might have thrown in the towel long ago but he has stuck to his job with understated skill.
This week he has managed to find new reasons almost every day to explain why the cardinals are reluctant to name the date for the opening of conclave. He has had to explain away why the United States cardinals suddenly about-turned and decided not to talk to the media after they had planned press conferences every day. Under his guidance the sex-abuse scandal surrounding Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien melted away like snow in spring, even though the cardinal had denied his responsibility for weeks before then admitting his guilt.
This week there seems to have been no awkward question that Lombardi has not been able to deflect or defuse.
And next week? Will he still be explaining to the world why the reluctant cardinals are so reluctant to set a date for voting? Or will he be handing out briefings on the day-to-day workings of the conclave of cardinals? Could he even be managing the biography of the new pope? Who knows.
But right now, in the present vacuum of leadership in the Vatican, the spotlight is on Lombardi. His day-to-day management of the media is bearing much of the weight of the sede vacante.