SAYING GOODBYE TO A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

There will be no updates on this page for a few days as I’m going to the hospital tomorrow morning in the hopes of resolving the problem of the infection in my right ankle, and the difficulty and pain I’ve had walking for weeks now as a result. The main issue is that I have severe allergic relations to every antibiotic I’ve ever taken, save one, Ciproxin. I had been put on Ciproxin for the infection but learned, when I finally saw an orthopedic doctor, that it was very bad for tendons so we stopped the daily doses. At the moment, the doctors I have seen feel the only way for me to heal is to have antibiotics in a controlled medial environment in the event of a reaction. My big hope is that I will finally find an effective antibiotic that I’m not allergic to!

I enter the Pio XI clinic tomorrow, July 11. It will be 15 years to the day that one of their best doctors performed a lengthy, life-saving surgery on me. I felt things would turn out well at the time as July 11 was my Dad’s birthday and he was where he could do some good!

By the way, hospitals/ospedali are state-run in Italy and clinica are private institutions, usually run by religious orders. Pio XI is run by a Spanish Order of nursing nuns – beautiful people.

So if you have an extra Ave in coming days, send it my way!

SAYING GOODBYE TO A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, doctor, diplomat, journalist and confidante to Popes was laid to rest on Friday, July 7, remaining in his adopted city of Rome.

With his many talents, his phenomenal ability to listen, to see both the big and the small picture, to “read the signs of the times,” to work out the knots in a tough situation or conversation, he truly was a man for all seasons. This charming Spaniard was a diplomat through and through, a skilled professional – both as physician with a specialty in psychiatry and journalist – and a man whose Catholic faith was his true identity card. Above all, he was, at all times, a consummate gentleman.

And he had a great sense of humor, laughing easily and often. He loved a joke and could tell as good story as well as anyone. And did I mention his love for sports, tennis in particular. I  was told you want to play a game with Navarro-Valls, not against him!

Joaquin was unique in so many ways, large and small, not the least of which was being a superb, loyal friend to so many people, people from all walks and stations of life, people of diverse cultures, languages and backgrounds. His warm smile and ability with languages always opened doors. I am blessed to have been among his friends. He was a dear friend and, in countless ways a mentor.

As so many of you know, Joaquin led the Holy See Press Office for 22 years, from 1984 to 2006.

In November 1984, Joaquin was president of the Foreign Press Club in Rome and was presiding at a press conference with the late Gianni Agnelli of FIAT when he was summoned to be at the Vatican by 1:30 pm. That summons turned out to be lunch with Pope John Paul who asked him how the press office was functioning. Was it serving the media well? Was it serving the Church well? What could and should be improved?

Joaquin told me that story over dinner one night when we were in China with a Holy See delegation, adding that the Holy Father insisted that Joaquin answer his questions truthfully, not tell him what he thought the Pope might want to hear.

Not long after that meal, Joaquin was named to head the press office. And did he make changes!  Both John Paul and Navarro-Valls were very aware of the power of the media, of communications. Years later, Joaquin told journalists that before he came to the Vatican only about 15 percent of the news about the Pope and the Church originated in the Vatican, that is, briefings or press conference or publication of Vatican documents. Several years after Navarro-Valls began redoing things, it turned out that 85 percent of the news about the Church came from the press office.

Some of the big changes? Bulletins and other documents started to come out in different languages. The press office was totally remodeled in 1994 and ready for all the electronic innovations of the future. When needed, translators were present for press conferences, settling into the new booths provided in the press office renovation. After I showed him around the press office one day, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See told me that the White House correspondents would have every reason to be jealous of such a terrific structure and setting!

In 1984 I was covering the Vatican for the National Catholic Register and Joaquin and I first became friends soon after his nomination. That was the beginning of so many wonderful adventures. I could write a mini volume, not just a Joan’s Rome column!

I was honored and privileged to have been a member of four Holy See delegations to very important United Nations conferences in the 90s: Cairo in September 1994 on Population; Copenhagen March 1995, an economic summit; Beijing September 1995, the conference on Women, and June 1996 Istanbul, a conference on human settlements.

Cairo and Beijing in particular were extraordinary experiences in so many ways, both personal and professional.

Joaquin was added to the Cairo delegation a bit over a month before it was due to depart. He told me that he told the secretary of State that he would go if he was allowed to have Joan Lewis as his assistant as liaison with the press! And thus it was that I got my first diplomatic passport! The rest, as they say, is history.

Those were heady times and experiences and some day I hope to find the time to write in depth about those adventures.

On the rare occasions that we had time to eat a meal during those conferences, I asked Joaquin a thousand questions – about his family, his work before Rome, his work at the press office, how he came to be named, etc. Obviously lots of questions about the Holy Father! They were very close and that relationship was mutually beneficial throughout St. John Paul’s pontificate.

At the end of our time in Beijing (the conferences were usually about 3 weeks long) Joaquin gave me a small gift. He said he went shopping for the staff of the press office and simply did not know what to get for me. He choose a small pair of silk embroidered slippers, and told me when he saw these elegant slippers, he immediately thought of me. They are on my desk as I write. Gracias, amigo!

In August 1993, a year before the Cairo conference, World Youth Day was celebrated in Denver and Joaquin made sure I was part of the papal party. For starters, I spent five days at Regis University for the Youth Forum that preceded WYD. My main job was to liaise with the press. I did my best to honor the oly See, Joaquin as spokesman and the Coun tilHoly See, Joaquin and the press office and the (now former) Council for the Laity who organizes youth days.

Again, very heady and historic days with lots of interesting stories.

Joaquin’s birthday was November 16 and, for the 15 years I was at the press office, I always spent the night before preparing a cake for the office party. For 15 years I came up with a new theme for the decoration. Once I decorated the cake as a Spanish passport, another time as a Holy See passport, another time as St. Peter’s dome or the Spanish flag or a radio studio. I can’t even remember them all right now. No one got to see the cake until it was unveiled at the office party.  I always got a thank you note from Joaquin who once wrote that he never slept the night before his birthday, wondering exactly what theme Joan would choose for the decoration!

On another occasion I invited the staff of the Vatican Information service for a pre-Christmas luncheon at my home. I had roast turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes – the whole Thanksgiving/Christmas menu – AND a cake that was shaped and decorated like a Christmas wreath! When Joaquin arrived he went directly into the kitchen, asked if he could help and then spotted my electric carving knife. He asked if I would allow him to carve the turkey, “given that I am a doctor and know how to cut things up!” and he proceeded with skill and dexterity to perfectly carve our main course!

In December 2001, upon returning to Rome from a nephew’s funeral in Oregon, I noticed something was seriously wrong with my left eye. I went to the Vatican eye doctor who seemed worried and he said I should go to the eye hospital in Rome immediately to verify what he suspected – a detached retina.

It was just that and I informed my colleagues where I was, that I was having multiple tests and would be admitted to the hospital. As I was waiting to go into what would be a two-hour exam, who walked into the waiting room but Joaquin! I was scared speechless that I would lose my sight and burst into years as I saw a friendly face. The eye surgeon who examined me was a very talented woman from Genoa, very motherly and caring. She spent much of the time explaining everything she was doing, including an extraordinarily detailed drawing of my eye. She answered my questions and Joaquin’s – he spent the entire two hours with us. I am not sure I ever conveyed to him what those two hours meant to me. That is what Joaquin did for friends, who he was for friends.

In December 2014, having just marked 20 years at the press office, Joaquin arranged for all of us at the press office to have an audience with the Holy Father, clearly ailing at this point. I had met John Paul quite a number of times but was very emotional about this meeting for, in my heart, I felt it would be the last time I’d see him.

I spent the first part of the morning in my office, learning how to say Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in Polish. I wrote the phrases down on a yellow Post-it note and almost glued it to my left hand, repeating the phrases many times to myself. I kept glancing at it when we were in the papal library, each of us awaiting our turn to greet our beloved Holy Father.

John Paul was barely able to keep his head up at this stage of his Parkinson’s disease and smiling had become close to impossible. I felt like we were intruding in a moment when he should have been resting. However an aide read a statement and we knew the Pope wanted to do this for Joaquin.

When it was my turn, I knelt to touch his outstretched hand, recited my Polish version of Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and immediately was looking into John Paul’s wonderful blue eyes. No one knew I was going to do this, and later Joaquin told me that was the nicest gesture I ever could have made for John Paul. “Did you notice,” Joaquin pointed out, “that the Pope raised his head only when you spoke Polish?”

Many years, many stories – these are just a few – and countless memories of time spent with a very great man, the Church’s Man for All Seasons.

 

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