July 11, 2006

Navarro-Valls steps down as Vatican spokesman

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Joaquin Navarro-Valls, arguably
the most famous figure in the Vatican after the Pope himself,
stepped down on Tuesday after 22 years as chief spokesman.

The Vatican said Pope Benedict had accepted Navarro-Valls'
request to resign and had named Father Federico Lombardi,
Jesuit director of Vatican Radio and Vatican Television, to
succeed him. Lombardi, 63, will keep those posts, the Vatican

Navarro-Valls, a suave, handsome Spaniard who has been
spokesman since 1984 and whose career was closely associated
with the papacy of John Paul II, had expressed an interest in
moving on and dedicating his time to writing a book.

"I don't think I can aim to imitate him," Lombardi said,
referring to the flair that made Navarro-Valls a celebrity in
his own right in Italy and many other Catholic countries.

Navarro-Valls, 69, a member of the controversial Church
group Opus Dei, was only the second non-cleric to be Vatican
spokesman. He was at John Paul's side during his many
international travels.

He was on news bulletins nearly non-stop during the final
weeks of John Paul's pontificate in April 2005 and the during
the conclave that elected Pope Benedict.

His study of medicine in his native Spain enabled him to
explain the late Pope's health problems to the media.

His ability to keep cool under pressure cracked only once
in public, when he choked and struggled to hold back his tears
at one of the last briefings before John Paul's death.

"I had been trying to keep my emotions in check but then a
reporter asked how I was experiencing the passing of the Pope
personally and I couldn't control myself," he told an

In 1984, John Paul asked Navarro-Valls, then working as a
journalist for Spanish newspapers, to take over the Vatican
press office and gave him the task of opening it up more to the
international media.

A member of the late Pope's "kitchen cabinet," he was on
the frontline in explaining sometimes controversial teachings
on morality and sexuality to the world's media in five

Pope John Paul often used Navarro-Valls as a
trouble-shooter and gave him tasks normally entrusted to

In 1998 he went to Cuba to negotiate directly with Fidel
Castro to iron out last-minute snags over John Paul's historic
visit. He was also part of official Vatican delegations to U.N.
conferences on the family and women normally made up of