Jesus on the Air, Online, and on Film
What the Vatican Point Man on the Media Wants
BY Edward Pentin
March 18-24, 2007 Issue | Posted 3/13/07 at 9:00 AM
Archbishop John Foley wasn’t born a communicator.
But, next best thing, he got an early start. The Darby, Penn., native is president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and has been at the forefront in bringing the Gospel message to the mass media.
Register correspondent Edward Pentin spoke to him in January.
How did you first get involved in Church communications?
I guess it began in elementary school when my parents gave me a book called You Can Change the World, about changing particular types of work. The book recommended politics or education or communications, so I thought communications sounded good and I began to write radio plays on the lives of the saints. Then those plays were produced on a local radio station and then I became an announcer on that station and then when I was at university I became active in television. When I entered seminary, I thought that’s the end of that, but at seminary I was asked by the editor of a Catholic newspaper to work there during the summer.
What happened after your ordination?
After my ordination and after having been in the parish for a year, where I started a parish newspaper and also a program in a school where they had a public address system, I was sent to Rome for graduate study in philosophy during the Second Vatican Council. I served here as a correspondent for a diocesan newspaper and Catholic News Service, and then I was sent to the Columbia University Graduate school of journalism. So, all my life basically has been spent in the field of communications. I became editor of the diocesan newspaper andpress secretary for the bishops’ semi-annual meetings in the United States. I had a weekly radio program and a periodic television program, and then I was the press secretary for the English language for the synod of bishops for 1980 and then for the pastoral journey of John Paul II to the U.S. and Ireland in 1979. So the Holy Father got to know me rather well then. I had first met him in 1967 when he became cardinal.
What was your reaction when you were appointed president of the council?
It came as a complete surprise to me; I had no idea that was coming. I got a call from the papal nuncio that the Holy Father had it in mind to name me to this position. I said, “There are many more people in Rome more experienced than I,” and he said “Si.” Certainly there are many people in Rome who speak Italian better than I, and he said “Si, si.” And I said, “Do I have a choice,” and he said, “Not really.” So I took a promise of obedience to my cardinal, and whatever he tells me or the Pope tells me, I will do.
In the 22 years you’ve been in the Roman Curia, what changes have you seen?
I guess, directly in our office, you
could say changes would be [when] we were the first office to become
computerized, except for the Vatican bank. And we applied for the Internet
top-level Vatican domain name which is “.va.” They didn’t want to give it to us
but we got it because we wanted to guarantee the authenticity of everything
that came from the Vatican, because a lot of people claim to be Catholic in
their websites — some are, some aren’t — but if it comes from “.va”
you can be sure it’s authentic.
How did you persuade them to give it to you?
ICANN, which is the top level for assigning names for websites, said we should be part of “.it,” which is Italy, and I said, “No, we’re ‘it,’ but we’re not in ‘it.’” I said, “We’re surrounded by ‘it,’ but we’re independent.” Then they said, “Well, you’re a religion, so you should be ‘.org.’” So I said, “Well, we are an ‘org,’ but we’re the only ‘org’ that’s a country too — Vatican City. So we should have ‘.va,’” and finally they agreed, and we got it
How has the Internet changed your work?
Certainly, speedy communication, and it helps us greatly when we have these international television transmissions. It helped us greatly at the time of the translation of John Paul II and Benedict XVI because people all over the world wanted to have texts of homilies and information about what would be happening, and so we were able to send material through e-mail all over the world.
They could have access to a special site that we set up which was an “.it” domain because “.va” was so overwhelmed with inquiries that it was being held up, so we had the collateral Internet address. Also, it’s an address that we can handle ourselves and we don’t have to hand it over to the Vatican Internet service. There was an irony that when we first got it [“.va”], I was the owner of the domain and the Pope would have to get permission from me to use the Internet, or have an e-mail address, which I did not think was a good situation. So others wanted to have it assigned to the Secretariat of State, which was the Holy Father’s principle cooperative arm.
That has proven very good except for the fact that it takes an eternity to get things changed in the various sites, and that’s why we had to have a more flexible site available to us, to serve the needs of broadcasters around the world.
Are you generally pleased with how Catholic media organizations work?
Well, one thing that distresses me, and I’m speaking now from an American background, is that the Federal Communications Commission has taken away what could be called the public service requirement for radio and television stations.
It used to be that radio and television stations had to offer free time for public service broadcasting, which included religious broadcasting. I think religion is an essential part of human life, and that should be part of the public service requirement. Now the public service requirement in radio and television has virtually disappeared, which I think is a real tragedy, because the communications media, the electronic media, use the public airwaves and therefore they have a public responsibility, and part of that responsibility is to satisfy the needs of those who aren’t big consumers (that 18 to 39, 49 age group who are big consumers).
They have a right and an obligation to serve children, the elderly, the poor, the disadvantaged, and one of the primary ways in which they can serve them and serve society is by contributing to a higher moral tone through religious programming. But that has gone, and I think that is a big mistake on the part of the government of the United States.
Is the Pontifical Council mounting some kind of campaign to redress this?
Well, the American bishops have been very good on this, and I have been in direct contact with members of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States. I don’t want to sound solely focused on the United States, but the U.S. communications policy influences the world, especially in the recently liberated countries of Eastern and Central Europe, and also in other emerging nations, developing nations. There are commercial interests and organizations, of course, who want to control the media in those areas and develop a worldwide monopoly, or oligopoly.
I think that’s bad for the future, that there should be a representation of local voices, especially those who don’t have a great deal of money. They should also be able to use these airwaves for the common good, and not really to sell products.
In other countries too, such as Britain, there is pressure from program controllers to reduce what they call “the God slot,” usually on Sundays.
But you still have an obligation on the part of the BBC to have religious programming and on the part of independent television to have a certain amount of programming. There is no such obligation in the United States. So it’s not that it might be put into a ghetto at four in the morning; the fact is, it doesn’t exist. And that is the reason for the development of these fundamentalist religious networks — they began to buy time on local stations, purchased time for religion, and then they began to buy local stations and satellite stations for a brand of fundamentalist Christianity, you might say.
That is because of the communications policy of the American government — one of the effects of that has been not only in the United States but throughout the world.
The film The Nativity Story made its premiere here last year. Do you foresee more “faith films” being produced and do you support them?
We do support them. Of course, we have the Vatican film library here which is more a repository, or a place for research rather than a place which will lend out film, because that would violate copyright and the rights of the producers. But we do try to maintain contact with the film industry by visits to Hollywood, or going to certain film festivals. I think that it’s important to encourage good films, not just good religious films, and I think The Nativity Story was a good religious film, not everybody agreed but I thought it was good — doctrinally sound. So to encourage that is, I think, a good thing.
But some wonder whether these faith films coming out of Hollywood are more geared towards making money rather than being films of quality. Is that a concern of yours, too?
Well, I don’t think there’s a contradiction between making money and having a film of quality, and isn’t it wonderful if a film of quality can make money.
What is your approach to ethics on the Internet?
We did a document on ethics in the Internet and we also did a document on the Church and the Internet. We weren’t preoccupied with its evils but were preoccupied with its opportunities. Who knows what the future will be in communications, with the development of communication through computers, the iPod, telephones? It’s getting increasingly complex and interesting with many more opportunities. We as the Church have to participate in all of this, not that everything has to originate from this council — it can’t.
But as I often say, bishops don’t baptize, they confirm. So if we can look around for good initiatives all over the world and encourage them and attempt to coordinate them, then good — as we did recently with a congress on Catholic television in Madrid to attempt to foster the sharing of programming among Catholic television stations all over the world. The same now is going on with radio. So it’s about cooperation, evangelization — the best type of communication of the most important message human beings will ever receive.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
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