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Pope's Chief Of Staff Gives Behind-the-scenes Talk On Media, Reform

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican's online access to official papal texts and speeches free people from relying on media coverage that may be manipulative or biased, said a top official in the Vatican Secretariat of State.

People can go directly to the @Pontifex Twitter feed and the news.va aggregator site to see exactly what the pope has said so "you can make your own conclusions, because his words are often very different than the way they are presented by certain media outlets," U.S. Msgr. Peter B. Wells, assessor for general affairs, said Oct. 18.

The monsignor's remarks came in a rare Q-and-A encounter when he spoke in a frescoed hall of the apostolic palace in front of an audience of more than 300 benefactors of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

The benefactors, most from North America and Great Britain, were in Rome for a weeklong celebration of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Patrons, whose network of local chapters raises money to preserve and restore the museums' priceless collections.

Msgr. Wells gave brief introductory remarks explaining his and his office's duties, then took questions from seven people in the audience. The questions covered topics such as the curial reform process and managing the pope's message.

Msgr. Wells is part of a new five-person pontifical commission that is reviewing the activities and mission of the Vatican bank and is president of a new Financial Security Committee, whose members share responsibility for preventing and countering money laundering and terrorism financing.

But in speaking about his work as assessor of general affairs, the Tulsa, Okla., native said his department is "like a chief of staff office for the pope," dealing with things like security issues and communications.

The department's job is to help Pope Francis and his representatives "have the ability to act freely in the world" and not be "impeded in their ministry," especially in reaching out to the most marginalized, he said.

In response to a question about how the department handles inaccuracies and biases in the media's reporting on the pope, the monsignor said this problem "is one of the reasons why our task with communications is so complex."

He said every time a new pope is elected, "certain media outlets decide what type of stamp they'll put on" the pope. "It's very difficult to change that narrative," he said.

However, even though the different Vatican communications outlets and their presence on social media "are small on resources, they're big on impact."

The Vatican's expanded online presence, he said, has given the public direct access to what the pope has said. "People no longer have to go through filters to receive what the pope says."

While the media have been important and helpful in spreading information about the church, it's also true people, including media outlets, may put "a spin" on it, he said.

In response to other questions, Msgr. Wells confirmed the need to immediately address and remedy problems in the curia and promote efforts of reform.

But he also said "there's a large amount of misunderstanding" about what the Vatican is and does.

In his 20 years in Rome, 12 of them working at the Vatican, he said "some of the holiest and most wonderful people I've ever met are working at this institution -- people who are extremely dedicated" to serving Jesus, the church and the Holy Father.

Just as Pope Benedict XVI's very humble nature made an impact on people working in the Vatican, Pope Francis is leaving his mark, too, with what the monsignor calls "a cultural change, a spiritual change."

"Since Francis has come, we are much more introspective" in that people are more readily looking at how they act and interact with others and asking: "how is this serving or is this serving" the church, he said.

He said he thinks of his work and the work of the other nearly 5,000 Vatican employees as "a ministry; we are ministers" and Pope Francis is doing a lot to help promote that outlook.

One audience member said she has been amazed how Pope Francis has really touched some people she knows who had distanced themselves from the church.

She wanted the monsignor to know that "it's working, that people are hearing the pope's message" and are re-engaging with the church, she said to applause.

Msgr. Wells said, "One of the best things to happen to Vatican communications in years is Pope Francis." Things changed "overnight" with his open manner and the way he interacts with people.

What people notice the most, he said, is the pope's authenticity; "he walks the talk, he does what he says."

He's also inspiring people at the Vatican and in the entire church to strive for authenticity, "to truly be Christians" and "to do what God wants us to do," he said.