France honours Vatican Jesuit with its highest award

Fr Lombardi with former colleagues from Vatican Radio
Fr Lombardi with former colleagues from Vatican Radio

The Jesuit who was spokesman for both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis has been awarded France's highest order. Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, former Director of both Vatican Radio and of the Holy See's Press office, received the Légion d'honneur this week in recognition of a career devoted to communicating the message of the Holy See.

The Légion d'honneur was presented to Fr Lombardi on Wednesday evening at the French embassy to the Holy See in Rome. In making the award, his attention to the French language, especially through the airwaves of Vatican Radio, was also acknowledged.

Fr Lombardi was at the heart of Vatican media for almost a quarter of a century from the early 1990s: first as Vatican Radio's programme director, then as its director general, and eventually as the head of the Vatican Television Centre. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him director of the Vatican Press Office, a position that was merged with his responsibilities at Vatican Radio and the Vatican TV Centre, and which he continued into the papacy of Pope Francis. His resignation – at the age of 74 – was accepted by the Pope last July; he was succeeded as the Director of the Holy See's Press Office by the then-Deputy Director, Greg Burke.Fr Lombardi after receiving the Légion d'honneur in Rome

Witnesses to God's love

In 2009, Fr Lombardi was the guest of the Catholic Church in England and Wales when he spoke at Heythrop College for World Communications Day. His talk, “Blessed be the Net?” - A Roman perspective on the problems of new communications, is available on the Bishops' Conference website.  "In our service to the Church," he said in London in 2009, "we need to be constantly asking ourselves whether the limits and defects of our own communications skills in any given moment are making it more difficult for others to understand the Church’s message, so that they reject it, or whether the message itself is being rejected, even though it has been understood – or precisely because it has been understood... We are called to be witnesses to God’s love for humanity and for this world, but we cannot hide from the fact that the Gospel of Christ often becomes a sign of contradiction during the course of the vicissitudes of the world."

A fluent speaker of German, French and English – as well as his native Italian – Fr Lombardi is now President of the Joseph Ratzinger/Benedetto XVI Foundation, a charitable organisation whose aim is the promotion of theology in the spirit of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Its work is dedicated to the support of theological research in three main ways: offering scholarships for doctoral students doing cutting-edge work in theology, awarding annual prizes for the whole oeuvre of certain contemporary theologians, and organising an annual symposium. The financial resources of the Foundation come from royalties from the sale of Ratzinger's works written both before and after his election to the papacy.

Demographic changes

Speaking at the ceremony in Rome on Wednesday, Fr Lombardi underlined the importance of circulating the Pope's message in the media, saying that the coverage of international news by the media outlets of the Holy See was an indispensable condition for understanding the major concerns of the Church.

Last autumn, Fr Lombardi – who was previously the Provincial of the Jesuits in Italy – took an active role in the 36th General Congregation in Rome. As one of the Assistants ad providentiam, it was he who thanked Fr Adolfo Nicolás SJ, on behalf of the Congregation and in the name of the whole Society of Jesus, for having directed the Society in the course of the previous eight years. GC36 had been called to elect Fr Nicolás' successor.

Before the election of Venezuelan Fr Arturo Sosa SJ as Superior General, Fr Lombardi spoke about the "extremely significant" demographic changes in the Society of Jesus in past decades. Although he acknowledged that there has been a diminishment of the order's presence in some places in Europe and North America, he also cited figures that more than 60 percent of new Jesuits in the initial steps of formation are now from Asia and Africa. "We must consider ... that it is a Society that is moving from the West towards Africa and Asia," he said. "This is rather significant."