Vatican Radio Turns 80

Church Communications Continue Developing

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By Mariaelena Finessi 

ROME, FEB. 14, 2011 ( With a Latin-language speech broadcast worldwide on Feb. 12, 1931, an emotional Pope Pius XI inaugurated Vatican Radio. 

Eighty years after that introduction and its legendary exhortation, «Listen and hear, O Peoples of distant lands,» the Church is celebrating the anniversary with an exhibition in Vatican Museums. The exhibit opened Thursday with a preview for the press. 

The display reviews the history of the broadcasting station built by Guglielmo Marconi, which put a microphone with global reach in the hands of the Pontiff. 

When Pius XI gave his first address, the director general of communications for Vatican City was Jesuit Father Giuseppe Gianfranceschi, a physicist and mathematician. Among the first experimental broadcasts was the»Scientiarum Nuncius Radiophonicus,» a sort of review of the activity of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 

From then on for the next several decades, the radio messages were «one of the most important means of communication for the papal magisterium,» particularly, the papal «admonitions in regard to the situation of the world,» reflected the president of the Governorate of Vatican City State, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo. 

As Vatican Radio was taking its first steps, so too were totalitarian regimes that would deny religious liberty. In this situation, «the radio appeared as the most appropriate instrument, often the only one, to spread a message of faith and liberty capable of surmounting borders,» Cardinal Lajolo said. As Eastern Europe suffered under communism, the Pope asked his radio to «become the voice of the Church to support oppressed peoples and the faithful,» the cardinal added, while «there was an increase in regular programming in the languages of the countries that had lost their liberty.» 

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, now the director of Vatican Radio (as well as the Vatican press office), summed up the reach of the radio station: Benedict XVI’s voice is «on air» everywhere in the world, as pastoral support «for Catholics of the Arabian Peninsula, for China and for Vietnam, as well as for Africa, otherwise reached by short wave.» 

Today there are some 300 people from 60 countries working to create Vatican Radio broadcasts, which air in 40 languages. The broadcasts are prepared in 15 different alphabets. 

«[L]inguistic and cultural variety,» Father Lombardi said, «is the characteristic of our communication.» 

Another birthday 

In fact, 2011 is an important year for Vatican communications, Cardinal Lajolo reflected. L’Osservatore Romano is also marking its 150th anniversary. 

The Vatican’s semi-official daily was created in 1861, «at the same time as the unification of Italy and therefore of the decline of the temporal power of popes, to give voice to the Holy See’s perspective in face of Italian and European public opinion during the whole long period of the unresolved ‘Roman question,'» the cardinal explained. 

This contrasts with Vatican Radio’s establishment at the time of the beginning of Vatican City State, he said, «precisely as one of the structures that characterized [Vatican City State] in its sovereignty and liberty of international action.» 

Today, the Church faces new challenges to communicate its message within a «totally transformed information system,» Cardinal Lajolo said. 

Monsignor Peter Bryan Wells, an advisor in the Secretariat of State, spoke about responding to this challenge. 

On time 

One of the advantages is that «the new means of communication, intelligently used and wisely integrated with the existing structures, can be important vehicles for the transmission of the radio’s message, ensuring very wide diffusion with extremely contained costs,» Monsignor Wells noted. 

But economic benefits are not a primary motivation, he said. Instead, Vatican Radio’s technological development is a response «to the expectations of the listeners, ever more sensitive to information.» 

The conviction is that a «new concept of radio is being born,» the monsignor continued. And radio brings its own strengths to the new media world: It is more flexible than other means, and persuasive without being invasive. «[V]oice, as opposed to image, surrounds the listener and immerses him in a sonorous environment giving him his space,» he reflected. 

The last element that makes radio a privileged medium is in the intimacy that it creates, «a place for spirituality and responsibility,» against «the outwardness and appearance that, instead, images facilitate,» Monsignor Wells asserted. 

Vatican information is striving to become «the engine of new forms of conscience, of awareness, in other words of a new culture,» the monsignor said. In the end, he added, «failing to have at one’s disposal new technical means or being unfamiliar with instruments at the vanguard implies that the message communicated arrives late, badly and even uselessly.»

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On the Net:

A history of the foundation of Vatican Radio:

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