Veteran of the Vatican Information Service (Part 2)

Joan Lewis on Her Adventures in Radio

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 15, 2004 ( Journalist Joan Lewis, a mainstay of the Vatican Information Service, has long toiled in the field of writing. And she’s no stranger to radio, either.

Lewis spoke at length about her work, in this interview with ZENIT. Part 1 of the interview appeared Tuesday.

Q: It must have been fascinating to hear how all the traditional values for the family that the Church has consistently held so dear, presented as being the best option for all after all this time!

Lewis: When the Doha declaration was read to the assembly on the second and final day there was great, great applause for this document because, again, it reaffirmed the traditional family and family values, that all human life is sacred and must be protected. There were parts of the document that seemed like they could have been written right here in Rome.

I asked one of the speakers and organizers of the conference, Bill Saunders of the Family Research Council, about his hopes and expectations before Doha and then how he felt at the end of the conference. He said: We wanted a strong, pro-family statement on behalf of two-thirds of mankind that supports the natural family and that’s just what we got.

It was an exciting trip with a huge mixture of people and what we saw both coming into the conference and coming out was tremendous support for the family, for strengthening family ties, that governments should be involved in supporting families where they need it economically and so very much more. It was moving.

It was a great opportunity for dialogue as we witnessed through the presentations of the driving force behind the conference — Sheikha Moza, the charming, dynamic Muslim wife of the emir of Qatar. As well as proposing a universal center for family research, she expressed her hope that the Doha Declaration would be not only adopted by the U.N., but turned into practical action that would benefit the whole world.

Q: These were also some of the comments you were making in your highly popular program on Vatican Radio the other day, called «Joan Knows.» Could you tell us what this is and who hears it?

Lewis: The program, about 15 minutes long, can be heard in Rome on Vatican Radio [105 FM] and is rebroadcast worldwide through various radio networks. It is also available every Saturday on the Vatican Radio Web site []. «Joan Knows» is updated each Saturday, though the previous three shows remain on the Web page.

The major part of the show is comprised of highlights of the week just past in the Vatican. The last two minutes, which are a lot of fun and can be challenging, are devoted to question-and-answer time.

These questions are normally e-mailed in, though I’ve received a few that have been phoned in. I’ve even been stopped on the street by people who listen regularly and who have a question!

Questions deal with a myriad of topics and range from «Why does the Pope wear white?» to «Does the Vatican have a farm?» to «Where do I find out more about the meaning and history of the Advent wreath?»

I don’t deal with philosophy or theology but rather with Vatican trivia, if you will. It is fun knowing what interests people beyond the big doctrines, etc., that come from the Holy See. If I don’t know the answer to a question, I will be sure to find out. That’s the challenge and I love it.

Q: Now there’s quite a following to this program, from cardinals to prison inmates, if I’m not mistaken.

Lewis: I have to tell you that this — your reference to prisons — was one of the most wonderful periods of my life.

When I responded to a letter from an inmate in a facility in New York state who was the assistant to the prison chaplain and who asked for materials on Vatican City, Rome’s basilicas, etc., for the chaplain, I could never have imagined the outcome.

I sent rosaries and books and holy cards and a tapestry of Blessed Mother Teresa and, after corresponding via snail mail with the chaplain, Deacon Tom, we began writing via e-mail. He could not have a computer with e-mail in the prison so he printed the letters I sent to his home computer and posted them on the wall of his office.

He also taped «Joan Knows» and brought it in for the men to hear — and he got quite a following — including prison officials and guards. Word spread and soon most of the prisoners wanted to know what was happening with the Catholics!

I understand the Monday-night rosary group grew in numbers, people who hadn’t been interested in the Church for years, began to talk to the deacon — and so on. Several of the men told the deacon that for the first time in their lives, they felt connected to the universal Church.

The deacon told me stories about some of the men and some of them began to write me letters — totally amazing, heartwarming stories. I enjoyed their stories as much as they apparently enjoyed my «letters from Rome» — stories about life in the Vatican, life in Rome, special Church events, the Christmas tree and Nativity scene, Easter week celebrations, special concerts in the presence of the Holy Father, etc.

I began to call them «The Men of Orleans» [the name of the facility] and when I write a book about this some day, that will be the title.

It was a very rich exchange of wonderful experiences, but this is a bad news-good news story. The bad news is that unfortunately, with staff changes at the facility, many things have changed in recent months regarding the chaplaincy and things are not as they were six months ago — the men have less access to spiritual assistance, rosary night, etc. But I am praying that they return as they were. So much good was being accomplished.

There were a lot of happy people, people growing in their faith, people reaching out for help and still others who helped. Deacon Tom was at the top of that list. If the men’s lives were being enriched, so was mine.

The good news is that several of the inmates I got to know through their letters and through Deacon Tom are out of prison. Some write me and are doing well. The first man who wrote to VIS asking for materials, is having a harder time adjusting and needs our prayers.

Q: It has been noted that you often go above and beyond the call of duty. How much of what you do, do you see as a mission or as evangelical?

Lewis: I think that is wonderful that you ask that question, because since that very first day, when I typed my very first word of a news story at the Vatican Information Service, I realized that I was a missionary.

I was evangelizing I was bringing the word here, out there. Which became immensely important when that word began to penetrate countries that had for so long been deprived — Russia, Cuba, former Communist countries.

Every day I realize the importance of what I write. I am not the inspiration. The Holy Father — or whoever is speaking — is the inspiration. But, you still have to use the right words, pick the right quotes in order to create a spectacular tapestry of the thoughts, of the words, the message being conveyed.

It’s an enormous responsibility and knowing that we are the official voice of the Holy See with the press office, forces you to be not only objective, but totally accurate.

Q: Do you have any particular anecdotes that could best reflect your experience at the Vatican?

Lewis: There are so many stories, so many unique moments, so many highlights that I’d have to write a book. However, I must say I’ve been blessed to have been in the presence of the Holy Father many times, each one special and unique.

I will never, ever forget my first meeting with Pope John Paul II on December 7, 1985. After Mass in his private chapel, I was privileged to meet him with a small group of other people.

I wanted to honor his linguistic abilities by speaking to him in English so when his secretary introduced me and I responded to the Pope’s greeting, I told him — and I have no idea of what possessed me — that I was ending my life in Rome because I was about to head back to the States in a few days.

Well, as soon as I said those words, he leaned towards me, took my arm and said «Cosa?» [What?]. And I saw how he must have interpreted the words «ending my life.» So I immediately switched to Italian to explain what I really meant!

He seemed relieved but when I look at that photo with his hand on my arm, I always remember his concern for me.

Another highlight was during the Jubilee Year when I got an audience with John Paul II for my brother Bill, his wife Anne and their five children, ranging in age from 16 to 31. The Holy Father’s secretary asked me if I would like to personally present each of my nieces and nephews to the Pope. That moment is as clear to me as if it had happened five minutes ago.

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