29 aprile 2011
By Jean-Marie Guénois
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Spokesman for a saint: Joaquín Navarro-Valls' years alongside pope John Paul II

Spokesman for a saint: Joaquín Navarro-Valls’ years alongside pope John Paul II


This debonair Spaniard and Opus Dei member spent more than two decades alongside the Polish pontiff. As John Paul II moves one step closer to sainthood with Sunday’s beatification, Navarro-Valls says the departed Pope is still not fully understood.

VATICAN CITY – “I don’t want to make nostalgia my profession.” Joaquín Navarro-Valls, who was Pope John Paul II’s spokesman for 22 years, has not forgotten how to express himself.

Still, Navarro-Valls has moved on. Unmarried and 73 with movie star good looks, this member of Opus Dei says that he has “rediscovered the love for his first profession,” the field of medicine. Before becoming a journalist and a foreign correspondent in Rome, and then director of the Vatican press operations, he had been a psychiatrist in his native Spain.

His primary activity nowadays is as a committee member for a biomedical campus recently constructed in Rome at a large university hospital. He is in charge of several social outreach foundations and chairman of the ethics committee for the footwear company Geox. Quite a busy “retirement” for someone who, when leaving the Vatican, “was dreaming of finally finding some time to read.” In 2007, he even had to persuade Benedict XVI to let him hand over the reigns of this strategic post to someone else.

Recognizable to Catholics and others around the world, Navarro-Valls is now in demand to recount his experience in the Vatican. He refuses more requests that he accepts, rejecting the idea that he deserves some of the credit for John Paul II’s masterful communication skills.

Still, in Rome, he is constantly recognized on the streets. He has so far held off on publishing his memoirs, but has much to recount to give a clearer picture of the hyper-exposed pontiff. “Little is actually known of him,” says Navarro-Valls. “John Paul II was very quick in taking decisions, but what is less known is that he prepared them and prayed and meditated over them for a long time.”

He took five years for the decision to mark the year 2000 Jubilee as the Year of Repentance in the Church.  Among other character traits was “his immense sense of humor,” recalls the former spokesperson. “With him, you laughed. He was a joyous man. He always had a positive approach to situations,” says the psychiatrist, clarifying that “it was not only a prevailing psychological trait, but a profound conviction. He possessed the certitude of having been ‘created’ by God, of being in His hands until the end. Something that gave him a deep joy that was incompatible with anxiety. He knew that all would end well. One could even call it a structural optimism linked not to a disposition, but to a clear vision of the origin and destiny of humanity.”

Joaquin Navarro-Valls was also struck by “the serenity” of John Paul II. He recalls the announcement “of a new problem” in the Church of which he cannot reveal the subject. “The Pope was at first shaken [by it], but he displayed a great serenity in order to confront [its] consequences.”

Navarro-Valls had access to his hospital room and his private apartment, which also made him a close witness of the Pope’s attitude as he approached his death. “He was aware of his impending death but he was in a state of complete serenity.”

His assistant was also struck by the ability for John Paul II to “manage his time” because he immediately knew how “to discern the urgent from the important.” This benefited him, despite his overloaded agenda, “to give time to each interlocutor, but he never lost a minute.”

Another character trait was his deep vision of Man and God: “John Paul II was in love with God and in love with humanity.” However according to Navarro-Valls, the “masterpiece” of the Pope’s life, who the Church is preparing to recognize as a Saint, will remain his “interior life.”

“Despite the weight he had to bear, the trials that never failed him, he always displayed a great interior flexibility to respond to all that God demanded of him. He was present as if in the hands of God.” On Sunday, the former spokesperson who still lives in Rome will be in St. Peter’s Square. But it will once again be “without nostalgia” because, it amuses him to say, “I don’t miss John Paul II, I can be with him seven days a week, always praying!”

With the enormous portrait of John Paul II unveiled on the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, Joaquin Navarro-Valls might remember that unexpected phone call he received three years after the election of John Paul II. The Vatican had “invited him to eat lunch with the Pope.” Give me a break! He appreciated the joke, but he would not fall for it. Except that the call was for real, and the Polish Pope was asking this prominent journalist, who’d served as the president of the Foreign Press Association in Italy, to become his spokesperson.

On Sunday this man, always dressed to a tee, might dig up other special memories, such as vacation in the mountains with John Paul II, where this assistant would sometimes have to remind himself: “Remember, Joaquin, you’re talking to the Pope.” He was “so extraordinary simple and natural to the point that one could forget that he was the Pope, because he spoke to you like a friend.”