Vatican Radio At 75

VATICAN CITY — For Rome listener John Lindsay Opie, professor of Byzantine art at the University of Rome, one Vatican Radio interview particularly stands out.

“Several years ago,” he recounted, “there was a program about prisoners on death row, and one prisoner somehow knew about the Blessed Sacrament — that it was venerated and reserved in a chapel — and he explained how he would wake up thinking about it. It was most extraordinary, wonderful, and I’ve never forgotten it.”

For 75 years, Vatican Radio has been offering such programs as part of its mission to proclaim the Gospel to all four corners of the globe and, in turn, help the world keep in contact with Rome.

On March 3, these efforts will be rewarded by a personal visit from Pope Benedict XVI, who is expected to tour the radio’s premises near the Tiber River, visit the station’s chapel from where daily Mass is broadcast worldwide, and speak to employees. Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican Radio’s new director general, said the station’s 75th anniversary would make the public better acquainted with the station’s work.

As an evangelization tool, the radio station’s outreach is impressive. The Indian department alone receives 8,000-10,000 letters a year, often from followers of other religions.

“We have a lot of programs that touch very much on interreligious dialogue,” said Jesuit Father Alfie Ben, director of the station’s Indian programming. “So many listeners write in — often Hindus and Muslims — curious about the person of Jesus, how he is so much a man for others, and saying they would like to be like him — asking that we’d give them more of him.”

The station is particularly popular in Africa.

“Although our Catholic population is quite small, it’s important to our region, informing the local people of Church news and what is happening in Christian communities around the world,” said Teclezghi Gebre-Eyesus, the director of the station’s Eritrean Program. His program is the oldest in the African department and, despite a history of recent conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, six broadcasters from both countries share an office and alternate programming.

Reaching Youth

Significant for Sean Patrick Lovett, director of the station’s English-language department, is the station’s appeal to younger generations.

“Young people send me e-mails and [resumés] from all over the world, wanting to be part of the Vatican Radio experience,” Lovett said. “This thrills me and excites me because they see the potential of radio. [It] means the radio is alive, that it has a future, that they recognize its potential and want to be part of it.”

Vatican Radio, known affectionately as the “Grandmother of All Radio Stations,” began shortly after the signing of the 1929 Lateran Accords when Pope Pius XI asked radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi to set up a station within the Vatican grounds.

By contrast, the first commercial radio station in the United States, KDKA in Pittsburgh, was established in 1920. The first radio corporation was RCA, founded in 1919, followed by  the BBC (1920), NBC (1926) and CBS (1928).

Since its first broadcast on Feb. 12, 1931, the Jesuit-run station has grown rapidly. Today, it comprises a staff of 400, and offers 78 hours of programming every day to five continents in 40 languages, making it even larger than the BBC World Service.

It has also evolved technologically: Today, the station makes full use of the Internet (www.vaticanradio.org), offers podcasts, webcasts and satellite broadcasting and, since the Jubilee Year, has broadcast live to the Rome area on a separate Italian-language program called “105 Live.”

Many of the English-language programs are also rebroadcast by other stations such as EWTN, a recent development that has given Vatican Radio a far greater outreach.

But while technology has in some ways made the station’s work easier, the “information age” poses new challenges.

“We’re so obsessed with technology but that’s not what it’s about,” said Lovett, who also teaches communications at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “It’s about the fact that we’re saturated with information and that’s the real challenge: how to be daring, to break through the noise and confusion and be heard in the pagan marketplace and the pagan temple.”

The challenge is further answered with the clarity of Pope Benedict’s preaching.

“He’s wonderful, and this is the great surprise that the Holy Spirit had in store for us,” said Lovett, adding that the Holy Father is so immersed in the message that the “messenger and the message become one.”

Spontaneous Pope

But the new Pope’s now well-known trait of improvising his homilies can bring a few headaches to live radio commentaries, Lovett said.

“Your Italian had better be up to it because you never know what Benedict is going to say until he says it,” he pointed out with a laugh.

There are no audience figures for Vatican Radio, as there is no need to market the station for advertising purposes. But judging from listener feedback, it is widely listened to and very popular.

“There’s always something interesting on it to pick up on,” said Opie. “It has my gratitude really — I’ve learned much from it and been moved by it.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.