Archbishop Romeo Panciroli

Ponderous Vatican press officer

Romeo Panciroli, priest and press officer: born Reggio Emilia, Italy 21 November 1923; ordained priest 1949; Director, Vatican Press Office 1976-84; Titular Archbishop of Noba 1984-2006; papal nuncio 1984-99; died Rome 16 March 2006.

However ungrateful the hacks to whom they have to impart information, few official spokespeople are subjected to complaints in Latin over their alleged failures. "Dolore et stupore [in pain and stupefaction]," irate journalists began their complaint in the lead-up to the papal conclave of August 1978, berating the Vatican's chief spokesperson, Father Romeo Panciroli, over the lack of telephones in the Vatican Press Office, the fact that the office would close at two each afternoon and that only five English-speaking journalists would be allowed to tour the conclave area before the cardinals were enclosed in order to choose a new pope.

The complaint brought some improvement, but the Vatican Press Office - over which Father Panciroli presided in the days of Popes Paul VI and John Paul I, and in the early years of John Paul II's pontificate - continued in its antiquated way.

Clapping his hands three times to draw the attention of the assembled journalists when he arrived in the Press Office (a habit mercilessly mimicked by one of their number), Panciroli would pronounce the latest news as the Vatican saw it. Whether it was the death of a pontiff, the withdrawal of the Catholic licence to teach from the troublesome theologian Hans Küng or the suspension of the rebel Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, he always imparted the news with the ponderousness he felt it deserved.

Panciroli was far from forthcoming and became known to the media pack as "Padre Non Mi Risulta" ("Father I Don't Have Anything on That"). Journalists learned to take his famous denials - such as when he said that John Paul II would not be visiting Turkey in 1979 just before it was officially confirmed that he would - with a pinch of salt.

But the biggest blunder came over the death of Pope John Paul I in September 1978 when, to cover up the fact that the pontiff was woken each morning by a nun, the Press Office proclaimed he had been found dead by his priest-secretary holding a copy of The Imitation of Christ. Had these two myths not been concocted, the lack of medical attention to an ailing pope would not have developed into elaborate murder conspiracies.

Journalists craving accreditation would arrive at Panciroli's office, sit while he peered humourlessly through his small glasses and listen while he berated what he regarded as sensation-seeking in most of the correspondents he had already had to accredit. Recalcitrant journalists were on occasion threatened with having their accreditation removed, though (unlike his successor) Panciroli never carried this out.

If prompted that deadlines were fast approaching, Panciroli would respond that the Holy Spirit had no deadlines and that the Vatican thought in terms of centuries, not minutes and hours.

Born to a devout Catholic family in northern Italy, Panciroli decided early he wanted to be a priest, joining the Comboni Missionaries and being ordained in 1949. He edited the missionary magazine Nigrizia before being summoned to join the Vatican's Council for Social Communications in 1973, becoming chief spokesperson in 1976.

In 1984, after 11 years at the press office, Panciroli was kicked upstairs as John Paul II brought in Joaquin Navarro Valls to sharpen up the press operation. Named an archbishop, Panciroli was assigned as papal nuncio in several African countries: Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Gambia. He ended his career in Vatican diplomacy in the tricky job of nuncio in Iran, retiring in 1999.

Felix Corley

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