Navarro-Valls, the first lay journalist to hold the position, overhauled the Vatican press office

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who spent 22 years as director of the Vatican press office, has died at the age of 80.

No details were available immediately, but his death was announced in a tweet by the current director of the Vatican press office, Greg Burke.

In a statement to Catholic News Service, Burke said he did not always agree with Navarro-Valls, but his predecessor “always behaved like a Christian gentleman — and those can be hard to find these days.”

“Joaquin Navarro embodied what Ernest Hemingway defined as courage: grace under pressure. I got to know Navarro when I was working for Time, and the magazine named John Paul II Man of the Year. I expected to find a man of faith, but I found a man of faith who was also a first-class professional.”

Burke said he remembered watching Navarro-Valls closely during the 1994 U.N. Population Conference in Cairo, which Burke described as “one of the best examples of what Pope Francis calls ideological colonisation. It was fascinating to see someone who was defending the faith, but he wasn’t on the defensive. He was leading the fight.”

Navarro-Valls, a medical doctor by training, was the first lay journalist to hold the position when he was appointed by St John Paul II in 1984. The Spaniard was also a member of the influential organisation Opus Dei.

An author of books on the family and fluent in several languages, Navarro-Valls often provided colourful, picturesque details concerning Pope John Paul’s activities and daily life. He also acted many times as an adviser to the pope on the media impact of papal decisions.

He travelled with St John Paul on almost all his apostolic journeys and became a well-recognized figure, especially after the pope fell ill in 2004. He regularly held press conferences to relay news to the world of the pope’s deteriorating condition.

In 1992, Navarro-Valls overhauled the press office with a $2 million technological face-lift along with much-needed, modernised facilities. He also revolutionised the distribution of material by making archives, documents and statistics concerning the pope’s activity available online.

Navarro-Valls was born in Cartagena, Spain, on November 16, 1936.