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By Katie Engelhart

Greg Burke, the Pope’s PR chief, speaking at the World Communications Day Lecture and Mass (photo via Catholic Church England and Wales)

On Wednesday, Pope Francis interrupted his general audience in St Peter’s Square to kiss and bless a severely disfigured man. The subsequent photos of his eyes clenched tightly in prayer and his hands around the ailing man’s face have gone viral. “Many saw echoes of Jesus’s healing of the leper,” reported the Washington Post that day.

Just another fine move from the Pope who keeps on giving. Over the last few months, Pope Francis has nabbed headlines for cold-calling worshippers; launching Vatican sports teams;joking around in a red clown’s nose (and also a firefighter’s helmet); allowing a small child to hug him for the duration of a pilgrims address; and promising to personally baptize the baby of a woman who refused pressure from her partner to have an abortion. Breaking rank with his stiffer-lipped co-workers, Francis has recently suggested that “even the atheists” can be saved and affirmed that he is totally not about to judge gay and lesbian Catholics. Last month, Pope Francis hit 10 million Twitter followers, which placed him just behind Kanye West.

Far and wide, observers speak of a “Francis Effect.”

But every modern-day media darling needs a PR machine, and Pope Francis is no exception. Enter Greg Burke: the 53-year-old Fox News correspondent turned Holy See handler (officially, Senior Communications Adviser to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State) who is quietly changing the way things are done in Vatican City.

To some, Burke may have seemed an unlikely candidate for papal spin-doctor. He’s a layman without PR experience: a cheery newscaster with a penchant for sports analogies. He’s also a member of the controversial Catholic order Opus Dei: a traditionalist and a celibate whose spiritual practice reportedly involves self-flagellation. But after a year and a half on the job, Burke is credited with helping to open up and rejuvenate the Holy See. Of course, Burke would say it’s all Francis’s doing. “I’m going to kick the ball to the Pope,” Burke explained at a recent lecture in London. “I mean, the Pope scores goals, you know? The Pope scores goals for us… The people are just eating this stuff up.”

Flash back a few years to the reign of Pope Benedict XVI: The Catholic Church was awash in scandal. In 2006, Benedict gave his now infamous “Regensburg lecture,” in which he quoted a brutal critique of Islam and irked Muslims the world over. Three years later, he left many aghast with his decision to reverse the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop. In 2010, the Church was slammed with a new wave of paedophilia allegations, then the Vatican Bank controversy, and then “Vatilieaks.” Added to all that, the people didn’t seem to take much to Pope Benedict. “Benedict doesn’t smile,” a young Italian woman working at a tourist shop by St Peter’s Square told me earlier this year. “He is too much German!”

In June 2012, the Vatican poached Greg Burke when he was still a Rome-based reporter for Fox News. Burke’s job would be to manage “communications issues” and to integrate the Vatican’s many media organs, explained a Vatican official. Burke himself said he was hired “to formulate the message and try to make sure everyone remains on message.”

“I know what journalists are looking for and what they need,” Burke told reporters, “and I know how things will play out in the media.”

Old Vatican hands were optimistic. “Everyone thinks the Vatican is like the NSA or the CIA or something,” David Gibson, a reporter at Religion News Service, and an acquaintance of Burke’s, told me recently. “They think it’s an efficient, well-run place. But basically it’s an Italian village [with] all these little fiefdoms… It’s a very sclerotic, tradition-bound system that barely qualifies as a system. I think someone like Greg can help.”

Burke declined my request for interview, which I faxed (yes, really) to the Holy See last month: “I can’t do the interview, as my job is primarily behind the scenes, and I am trying to keep it that way.”

Greg Burke grew up in St Louis, Missouri as a “meat and potatoes Catholic”: the son of a paediatrician and the middle child of six. Church was within walking distance of Burke’s house and a big part of his upbringing. Entering St. Louis University High School where “the Jesuit influence was very strong,” Burke thought he might be destined for the priesthood; “but I didn’t feel the pull.”

After college, Burke studied at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Later, he covered the police beat for a small newspaper in Port Chester, New York, and then worked as a weather reporter in Chicago. In 1988, he moved to Rome and started writing for National Catholic Register. That led to a stint at TIME magazine, and then a decade of on-air work for Fox. Burke covered the Vatican, but also travelled on assignment throughout Europe and the Middle East.

As a reporter, Burke revealed a shrewd understanding of papal politics, even though he sometimes missed the mark. Shortly before then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was selected as pope (he became Pope Benedict XVI), Burke reasoned that Ratzinger wasn’t even a candidate. “He’s considered too conservative,” Burke explained, noting that Ratzinger was called “the ‘Panzer Cardinal’ because he took so many hits for the pope.”

Today, even though he is one of the Vatican’s most public faces, Burke retains his all-American vibe. He is also active on Twitter:

He’s also good with one-liners. “I actually thought I’d leave Fox [to] go work for a football club,” he told an auditorium full of reporters this year. “Ended up in the Vatican. No free tickets to football matches, but really good seats at Christmas and Easter.” [Pause for laughter.]

This jockish humor covers Burke’s deeply-rooted faith. As an 18-year-old, Burke joined the controversial Opus Dei movement and later became an Opus Dei “numerary”: taking a vow of celibacy and singledom and eventually moving into an Opus Dei spiritual center. Opus Dei numeraries traditionally have normal jobs, as Burke did, but give a great chunk of income to the organisation. “Am I being hired because I’m in Opus Dei,” Burke mused, in 2012. “It might come into play.”

Indeed, Opus Dei is said to be gaining influence in the Vatican. Non-Catholics perhaps know it best from Dan Brown’s bestselling Da Vinci Code, in which the movement is depicted as shadowy and nefarious. But the real organization was controversially founded in the 1920s: to push the idea that everyone (not just the priesthood) is called to holiness and can “find God in daily life.” It took several decades for the group to gain approval from the Catholic Church, but Opus Dei now is now an official Catholic “prelature,” and boasts about 90,000 members.

“Opus Dei is great at communications,” Religion News Service’s David Gibson explains, pointing out that Pope John Paul II’s longtime spokesman was also of Opus Dei. “They did a great job during the Da Vinci Code thing.”

Things have been slowly changing since Burke was put at the PR helm. The Holy See Press Office is said to be more open. It now puts out English-language newsletters for journalists and makes spokespeople more available for media comment. Burke dreams of a Vatican with a United Nations-like structure, whose website lists “a spokesperson on every continent with cellphone numbers in case you need an interview and free video footage,” although, as it stands, the Holy See Press Office often closes at 3 PM.

The Vatican has also inched its way towards a digital media strategy. Pope Benedict first began tweeting (@Pontifex) a few months after Burke’s hiring. “He will tweet what he wants to tweet,” Burke said, when the account was launched. But “the Pope is not going to be walking around with a Blackberry or an iPad.”

For the Vatican, this modern turn has been a long time coming. As early as 2002, the Pontifical Council for Social Communication began producing reports on how to use the Internet according to Catholic tradition. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics to enter the “digital continent” and launched a Vatican YouTube channel. A year later, at the US bishops’ Fall General Assembly, Bishop Ronald Herzog of Louisiana instructed his colleagues in the use of new media. “He started by proving that New Media is a powerful force, not a fad,” wrote one Cardinal of the presentation. Not long ago, Pope Francis gave his first English-language address in which he proclaimed that “Jesus be known in the world of politics, business, arts, science technology, and social media.”

Under Burke’s tutelage, the Vatican has also gone on the PR offensive: hawking positive news bites instead of waiting to do disaster control. In recent months, Burke has mastered the ability to combine doctrine with Buzzfeed-like spin. Last month, his “ten things to know” about Pope Francis made the popular media rounds. Pope Francis’ picture “should have one of those warning labels,” Burke enthused. “Danger: This man could change your life.”

As with the best of spin-doctors, it’s hard to tell just how much of this is the man himself (the “Francis Effect”) and how much is public relations. “I would not call Pope Francis a great communicator,” Burke has mused. “I consider that slightly pejorative… I’d call him a great Christian.”

The Way of the Cross by St. Josemaria Escriva

The Way of the Cross by St. Josemaria Escriva

First Station

It is after ten in the morning. The trial is moving to its close. There has been no conclusive evidence. The judge knows that his enemies have handed Jesus over to him out of envy, and he tries an absurd move: a choice between Barabbas, a criminal accused of robbery and murder, and Jesus, who says he is Christ. The people choose Barabbas, and Pilate exclaims:

What am I to do then, with Jesus? (Matt 27:22).

They all reply: Crucify him!

The judge insists: Why, what evil has he done?

Once again they respond, shouting: Crucify him! Crucify him!

Pilate is frightened by the growing uproar. So he sends for water, and washes his hands in the sight of the people, saying as he does so:

I am innocent of the blood of this just man; it is your affair (Matt 27:24).

And having had Jesus scourged, he hands him over to them to be crucified. Their frenzied and possessed throats fall silent. As if God had already been vanquished.

Jesus is all alone. Far off now are the days when the words of the Man-God brought light and hope to men ‘s hearts, those long processions of sick people whom he healed, the triumphant acclaim of Jerusalem when the Lord arrived, riding on a gentle donkey. If only men had wanted to give a different outlet to God ‘s love! If only you and I had recognised the day of the Lord!

Points for meditation

1. Jesus prays in the garden. Pater mi (Matt 26:39), Abba Pater! (Mark 14:36). God is my Father, even though he may send me suffering. He loves me tenderly, even while wounding me. Jesus suffers, to fulfil the Will of the Father… And I, who also wish to fulfil the most holy Will of God, following in the footsteps of the Master, can I complain if I too meet suffering as my travelling companion?It will be a sure sign of my sonship, because God is treating me as he treated his own Divine Son. Then I, just as He did, will be able to groan and weep alone in my Gethsemani; but, as I lie prostrate on the ground, acknowledging my nothingness, there will rise up to the Lord a cry from the depths of my soul: Pater mi, Abba, Pater,… fiat!

2. The Arrest:… venit hora: ecce Filius hominis tradetur in manus peccatorum; the hour has come: behold the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners (Mark 14:41). So, the sinful man has his hour? Yes, and God his eternity!…Chains binding Jesus! Chains, which He voluntarily allowed to be put on him, I ask you to bind me, to make me suffer with my Lord, so that this body of death may be humbled. For —there can be no half measures here — either I reduce it to nothing, or it will degrade me. Better to be a slave of my God than a slave of my flesh. Continue reading

A Convert from Islam: Edward Penton: 5/30/12

A Convert from Islam

In this National Catholic Register interview, Ilyas Khan expresses gratitude to Netherhall House in London for giving him the strong prayer life and intellectual grounding that helped him to convert.

May 30, 2012
Edward Pentin // National Catholic Register

Ilyas KhanSwiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar was instrumental in helping Ilyas Khan, a British philanthropist and former Muslim, to become Catholic. But so too were many other distinctly Catholic influences, all amounting to a “pull” towards the faith rather than a “push” away from Islam.

Khan, a merchant banker by training and the owner of the Accrington Stanley soccer team, is also chairman of the prominent British charity Leonard Cheshire Disability — the largest organization in the world helping people with disabilities. In a revealing interview with Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin, Khan explains in more detail what drew him to the Catholic Church in 2009.

What brought you to the faith? Was there anything in Islam, perhaps Muslims’ devotion to Our Lady, which helped you to convert?

Yes and no. Devotion to Our Lady on a personal basis is a big part of my faith, but at the same time, I know it wasn’t anything to do with my upbringing as a Muslim. My first tentative steps towards Catholicism were taken in my very early infancy. My mother was very ill at that time, and I was raised till about the age of 3 or 4 by a grandmother who was determinedly Catholic and Irish. I went to a Church school, and I think that when I started classes I didn’t think of myself as anything other than being Christian.

I also benefited from being brought up in Lancashire, up on the Pennines and close to the Ribble Valley. If there was ever a Catholic heartland in England, that was it — the great stronghold that never really acknowledged the Reformation.

Later on, when I was entering university, divine Providence intervened for a second time, and I stayed at Netherhall House, which is an Opus Dei student hall of residence in London. But, in between, say from the ages of about 4 to 17, I had been raised as a Muslim in a Muslim household. I had gone to mosque, learned the Quran. So, yes, I was raised a Muslim, but I don’t think there was any aspect of Islam that might have nudged me towards becoming a Catholic.

Was that time in Netherhall very influential, in terms of bringing you into the faith?

Very much so, yes. However, at that point in time, I don’t think I had the guts to convert or be received into the Church, or even take formal instruction. Apostasy is something Islam takes very seriously. In the eyes of a great many, Muslims’ apostasy is actually (as opposed to merely theoretically) punishable by death. So Netherhall was absolutely instrumental. I remember very clearly my devotion to prayer was really formed there, surrounded as I was by living examples of a wonderfully spiritual faith.

Would you say you came to the faith almost subconsciously?

Not really. I think I came to my faith wholly consciously. By the age of 18 and 19, I was a reasoning and questioning young adult. And by then I had discovered there was a brilliant person called Hans Urs von Balthasar. There was a library in Netherhall where I started reading theology. That’s where I came across Origen, and, to a very large extent, that’s also where I was able to study and appreciate the work of St. Augustine. So I was very conscious but somewhat apprehensive. Both my parents were still alive at the time, and part of my reticence was my unwillingness to cause them hurt. I don’t know quite how I would have described myself by the time I graduated from university, but probably “a closet Catholic” comes close.

What gave you the courage in the end?

Apart from the Holy Spirit? A culmination of two things: a greater degree of certainty in my own moral compass; and if there was a push away from Islam or a pull, it was much more the pull of Christ. It wasn’t ever in my mind a negative thing [to convert]. The other important factor was my very regular attendance, over a decade prior to my formally being received, at a church — St. Joseph’s in Hong Kong. I went to live in Asia and Hong Kong in my mid-20s, and that’s where I discovered my affinity for traditional Catholicism. The simple acts of faith — ritual, the liturgy and congregational prayer — were the stepping stones.

Did you have a sense, in those years leading up to being received, of a growing sense that the Catholic faith is the truth?

Yes, though that’s perhaps slightly melodramatic. At this stage of my life, when my religion is at the core of what I do, it’s very difficult to differentiate between any actions that might or might not be motivated by faith. I would hope that everything I do in my life is motivated and guided by faith. To answer your question in a slightly different way: I never doubted, from about my mid-20s onwards, that I was a Christian, and my path towards Catholicism, as opposed to Christianity per se, was really quite a quick one. In retrospect, the heart of that journey actually took four or five years and was more academically or intellectually based. I have to say it was Von Balthasar who guided me.

Were Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI also influential? Both have been described as so-called Balthasarians.

That’s a really good question. I’ve never been asked that question before. Yes, well, Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope, definitely qualifies as being “Balthasarian,” and Blessed John Paul II raised Balthasar to becoming a cardinal. Obviously, John Paul II was an influence beyond his regard for Von Balthasar — how could one not be influenced by such a great man? Like a great many people, Balthasar himself was not just a gigantic intellect, but also articulated how the mystery of faith is central to our lives as Christians. And, in that regard, the single most moving moment for me happened when I was in my mid-30s. I was walking past the Pieta in St. Peter’s, and I remember being literally arrested in my tracks by a combination of four or five things all at once. You asked me about my relationship with the Blessed Mother of God — well, that moment in time was really important. That can be described as being the turning point.

Was it the beauty of the Pietà that struck you?

Yes — and the context. This is God, I thought. This really is God. You must remember that one of the big things when we look at traditional Islam is the heresy — in their opinion — of equating the mortal Jesus with God. And if there is ever an obstacle that a Muslim convert has to contend with, intellectually and emotionally, more than anything else, that is it. At that moment, in front of the Pietà, I realized, through sheer emotion, that the truth of our religion is so simple and so direct.

You mean the fact that Jesus is not just a prophet, but God Himself?

Yes, absolutely, and I think at that moment — I remember it distinctly; it still moves me to tears — there was no doubt in my mind. It was so clear. I’m afraid it would be impossible for me to articulate that feeling in mere words. If there was a “before” and an “after,” then that was my point of arrival, so to speak.

In terms of being concerned about the “apostasy” charge from Muslims — is it something that keeps you up at night?

No, not at all. It doesn’t keep me up at night. However, I can tell you where it becomes relevant: In various different forums — in articles, magazines and on radio and once or twice on TV — I have tended to get a fair degree of coverage in Britain, where I’m also well known as the owner of one of our best-known football teams. I get described with a standard tagline saying something like: “The most prominent recent Catholic convert.” Whilst there have been many times when I have been on the receiving end of threats from individual Muslims or Islamic organizations who might read and react to these articles and interviews, I have to say that those occasions have absolutely never kept me up at night. I have received my fair share of hate mail and threats of violence, but I conduct myself with what I hope is a simple dignity and refuse to be drawn into a life governed by fear or undue caution.

Conversely, what I am interested in is where Islam and Catholicism meet; here, there is a degree of commonality. And my attitude is to exhibit for those who are not Catholics the beauty, purity, wonder and the privilege of being a Catholic. I’m just very straightforward and calm about this issue, and that’s a reflection of my faith.

Some prominent converts from Islam can be very negative towards their former religion, but you don’t seem to have that view.

My views have the benefit of being blessedly simple. I don’t think there’s any complexity in my faith, and, as I said earlier, I was pulled towards my Christian faith, not pushed away from Islam.

However, I must admit that I do have a great deal of sadness in my heart when I contemplate people who use Islam to justify their actions. These actions aren’t just un-Islamic — they are inhuman and have nothing to do with my view of Islam as a religion. Sadly, there appear to be a very large number of Muslims for whom anger and violence seem intuitive first responses to anything they don’t agree with. Beyond that, I feel that the two religions, Islam and Christianity, might be described as “distant cousins.” Remember, I was raised a Muslim, and I have been to Medina and Mecca, and I can see some of the inherent qualities. But we must also admit that the point of departure, the difference between the two religions, is vast. So while there are similarities, and I can see them, they don’t count really for very much. … I celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ is love. It’s a simple statement. It is the defining difference.

And it is very simple in its totality.

Yes, it is; but then the thing we call “love,” that we as Christians concern ourselves (with) at the heart of our faith, is a living, real and tangible quality. Jesus is actually with us; we don’t need metaphors or vague conceptual examples of what love “might” be in order to inspire or inform us. We are blessed by the Holy Sacrament and nourished by the direct intercession of Our Lord through his sacrifice. In that regard, Von Balthasar has helped to change the basis of conversation about the relationship between the Church, Christ and the Holy Spirit. He created a new understanding around the semantics of “love” in a religious context. I, therefore, can’t really say much about the contrasts between Catholicism and other religions, be they Islam or Hinduism, for example, but simply affirm the unerring simplicity of my own faith.

Cardinal Dolan Speaks on St. Josemaria Escriva at his Feast Day Mass.


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