The Vatican has named a former Fox News journalist and member of the controversial Opus Dei group as its chief spokesman, while a Spanish female reporter will serve as his deputy.

The appointment of Greg Burke, 56, was announced following the resignation of Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit priest who has served as spokesman for Pope Francis and his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

Burke spent more than a decade as Fox News’s Rome correspondent before being hired by the Vatican in 2012 as a communications adviser. In December, the American was installed as the press office’s deputy director.

Although Burke does not wear a priest’s collar, the Vatican on Monday stressed the St Louis native is from a traditional Catholic family. As a student at Columbia University in New York he became a member of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organisation that has faced criticism for secrecy and its approach to recruitment.

In another dramatic shift for the Holy See, Spaniard Paloma García Ovejero has been hired as the deputy director of the press office. In her role as spokeswoman to the world’s media, García Ovejero, 40, from Madrid, will soon become one of the most prominent women in the Vatican hierarchy.

García Ovejero has since 2012 been Vatican correspondent for Spanish media and also boasts US experience, having studied at New York University.

The appointment of two foreigners marks a significant shift in the Vatican administration, know as the Roman Curia, which has for centuries been dominated by Italians. Both are polyglots and speak the Argentinian pontiff’s native Spanish, while García Ovejero is said to also have knowledge of Chinese, a noteworthy skill as Francis has expressed a wish to visit China.

Tributes poured in for Lombardi. The outgoing spokesman, 73, has been winding down his workload and in February stepped down as director general of Vatican Radio.

Thomas Rosica, the press office’s English language assistant, said he had shared “deeply moving Church experiences” with Lombardi in recent years. “I have learned so much from your gentle, quiet ways, your sensus ecclesiae, your humour and your ability to multi-task with such serenity,” Rosica wrote on Facebook.

Jesuit priest James Martin, the editor-at-large of America magazine, thanked Lombardi for his “tireless” ministry. He tweeted: “Kind, hardworking, prayerful: a model Jesuit,” Martin wrote on Twitter.

Source: The Guardian

Image: The Rev Federico Lombardi, left, with Greg Burke who will replace him as Vatican spokesman. Photograph: Gregorio Borgia/AP