Lombardi recalled meeting Navarro after coming to Rome in 1991 to take on the role as Director of Programming for Vatican Radio.
After meeting and working alongside the Spaniard, particularly when the Pope traveled abroad, it immediately became clear that he was "a stable and important component" of the papal entourage, "but also likeable, friendly and cordial," Lombardi said.
"Naturally I already knew him for his fame as a brilliant and competent 'spokesman' for the Pope," he said, noting that the official title for someone in Navarro's position is "Director of the Holy See Press Office."
However, in the case of Navarro-Valls, spokesman "was an entirely appropriate name."
According to Lombardi, it was Navarro himself who often stressed that it was "absolutely necessary to have – and to indeed have – a direct relationship with the Pope, in order to know his thinking and line of thought with surety and clarity, and to be able to present himself to the world, to the Press Office and to public opinion as an authoritative interpreter of that thought, and not just hearsay."
Throughout Navarro's lengthy tenure working in the Vatican, there was absolutely "no doubt" that "he was very close to the Pope, so close that he must be considered one of the most important figures of that extraordinary pontificate."
This, Lombardi said, is "not only because of his evident public visibility, but also for his role in intervention and advice. Certainly John Paul II had great confidence in him and held his service in high esteem."
Burke, who is Lombardi's successor as Director of the Holy See Press Office, referred to this relationship when he announced Navarro's passing, posting a photo of him standing next to John Paul II with a big smile.
"I tweeted out a photo of Navarro-Valls and John Paul II smiling together, saying 'Navarro, keep smiling.' But I actually took that quote from John Paul II," he said.
It was after a meeting between the Pope and the editors of Time Magazine, Burke explained. Navarro was standing off to the side a little, but smiling, happy with how things had gone and Pope St. John Paul II, noticing, said to him in English: "keep smiling."
"You could tell that they had a very, very good relationship," he said.
When it came to Navarro's professional abilities, Lombardi said that at U.N. conferences the Spaniard would end up playing a primary and even diplomatic role, thanks to his "experience and communicative ability."
"His intelligence, elegance and relational abilities were prominent. To that is added a great knowledge of languages and a true genius in presenting news and information content in a brilliant, attractive and concise way," Lombardi said.
These are all gifts that made Navarro "an ideal person as a point of reference in the Vatican for the international information providers, but also for relations" with people in the public, communications and political spheres.
As both a layman and a consecrated member of Opus Dei, Navarro could be counted on as a competent and respected professional, but also as someone "whose dedication and faithful love of the Church could really be counted on, for the effective availability of both time and heart."
For Lombardi, the lengthy duration of Navarro's service as Director of the Press Office, his authoritativeness, efficiency and the quality of his work make his tenure "an age that will likely remain unique in the history of the Press Office and of Vatican communications."
"Certainly, the dimension of communications and public relations in the immense pontificate of John Paul II cannot in any way be independent of Dr. Navarro's work and personality," he said. "It was an invaluable service to the Church."
Lombardi voiced his gratitude to Navarro, specifically for the "courtesy and attention" he showed during the time they worked together.
"I always considered him a teacher in the way of carrying out his service and I never would have imagined to be called to succeed him," Lombardi said, adding that his predecessor was "totally inimitable."
"In the context of a different pontificate I tried to interpret and carry out the task assigned to me as best as I knew how, but preserving, for what was possible, his precious legacy," he said.
Lombardi and Navarro remained friends even after the latter stepped down. For Lombardi, his predecessor was always "an example of a discreet, true and deep spiritual life, fully integrated with his work, a model of dedication to the service of the Pope and the Church, a teacher in communications."
"Even for me – as I already said, but I willingly repeat – he was inimitable."
Material from EWTN News Nightly was used in this article.