ZENIT Leaders Look to Future

Q-and-A With Faces From Behind the Scenes

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By Antonio Gaspari

ROME, OCT. 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- We’re sitting in the early morning Roman sun, in the shade of the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, as we await the Sunday Angelus with Benedict XVI. The inviting aroma of our obligatory cappuccinos and croissants add a distinctly Italian touch to the encounter, but those at the table represent a truly Catholic collection of personalities from three continents: An American priest, a Spanish businessman, a Lebanese writer and myself, an Italian journalist. 

Legionary Father James Mulford, from Baltimore, Maryland, is the recently named publisher of the ZENIT News Agency. Alberto Ramírez, from Barcelona, Spain, is its executive director. Lebanese Robert Cheaib is a writer for the Arab edition and I’m Antonio Gaspari, the new editorial coordinator.   

Gaspari: What can you tell us about the future of ZENIT? 

Father Mulford: What I can assure you is that ZENIT will continue, as always, providing news and coverage of the Church from Rome and its activities around the world.

Ramírez: Recently we’ve had some personnel changes but I’m confident because we have a great team of journalists, translators and writers in ZENIT who have stepped up, not only to guarantee the quality of the service but also to make improvements and suggest innovative ideas. We have some new talented writers and journalists joining us who will add a fresh perspective.

Moreover, as executive director, I’m always looking for more young talent to add to our portfolio and to help form the Catholic journalists of tomorrow. 

Gaspari: Will ZENIT become a “Legionary newsletter,” used to promote its institutional interests?

Father Mulford: Absolutely not! We plan to continue with the same editorial independence that longtime readers have come to expect. Newcomers can judge for themselves from the content but I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. Look, the director of the Vatican Publishing House is a Salesian, the director of Vatican Radio is a Jesuit, and I don’t think anyone believes they are using their position to promote the interests of their institute. In fact, you might say they are “on loan” to the Church for a greater cause. In the same way, I’ve been asked by my congregation to make sure ZENIT has all it needs to fulfill its mission. I recently read in a blog that, after 15 years, “ZENIT belongs to the Church.” I couldn’t agree more. From the very beginning, ZENIT has always been about promoting community, helping readers feel part of something greater: the universal Church. 

Gaspari: Where does the staff of ZENIT come from? 

Ramírez: ZENIT is full of lay professionals from more than a dozen countries and from so many different groups and spiritualities. We have members from the Schoenstatt movement, charismatics, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, Regnum Christi … it’s a long list. We’d love to have even more but, right now, ZENIT is a pretty good cross-section of the whole Church. Not only that, our Web master and chief programmer isn’t even Catholic, but he’s been bringing ZENIT to the world and keeping its services up and running 24/7 for more than 10 years.

Father Mulford: When we consider new candidates, we’re more interested in their intellectual formation and written expression; if they have the capacity to understand the Pope, Church leaders and documents and explain them to the readers. It’s true that our subscribers represent a wide range of people but we also know we have a rather sophisticated audience, which can be very demanding.

Gaspari: Father James, you are no newcomer to ZENIT. You were with us at the very beginning. How is ZENIT different today than when you helped start it almost 15 years ago?

Father Mulford: That’s right, Antonio. Do you remember the first days when ZENIT was just two or three people sharing a computer? Our initial mailing was from a laptop to only 400 addresses. Today, we have more than a dozen servers sending over 14 million emails every month. Last year the web page had 6 million unique visitors from 213 countries. When ZENIT was born, technology was very different. The Vatican had no internet presence and you could count the major Catholic Web sites on one hand. Now, thank God, things are very different. Today, ZENIT is a complex international operation. It’s a non-profit currently established in seven countries, and if you include all the freelancers and volunteers, there are more than 100 contributors in over a dozen countries that keep ZENIT going on a day-to-day basis.

Ramírez: Since I’m one of the newest additions to the Z-Team, I can’t take credit for the success of the past but I can say that, from the very first day I arrived to ZENIT, almost a year ago, I have been impressed by the spirit of service to the Church and how, for so many of the people who work in ZENIT, it’s not just a job but a mission and a personal commitment to the readers.

Gaspari: Economically, how can ZENIT survive only by donations? 

Ramírez: I guess that’s also part of the miracle. I wish we had a 5 million dollar endowment but, on the other hand, ZENIT has always belonged to its readers. They are the reason we keep doing what we do and, thanks to their support, we have been able to grow and expand into new languages and services. We’re currently trying to modernize our methods of fundraising and diversify our income. We have a lot of ideas. But, whether it’s through donations, sponsorships, purchases, pilgrimages, events or whatever we organize, in the end, ZENIT will always be sustained by those who share its mission and support our cause of bringing news of the Church’s work to every corner of the world. We hope to strengthen ZENIT as an enterprise but not by renouncing our roots or subordinating its mission to mere commercialization. It’s much more than that. 

Gaspari: How do you explain the expansion into so many languages?

Ramírez: Well, don’t forget that the Church has over a billion members and speaks literally every language there is. In fact, besides the official seven languages, we know ZENIT is currently being translated into at least a dozen others by priests, seminarians, religious or just ordinary parishioners who want to share it with others. We often get emails asking when ZENIT will be available in new languages. Recently, we’ve gotten numerous requests for Polish, Russian and Chinese. We’re even considering developing “language packs” or manuals for anyone who wants to translate ZENIT into their native language. We’ll see. If anyone wants to help, just let us know.

Father Mulford: ZENIT was originally only published in Spanish and was launched to coincide with the synod of bishops for Latin America in 1997. For about six months, we didn’t even have a Web page. It was just an email newsletter. A year later, we started a weekly service in English. Not long after that, an Italian Salesian priest working in Brazil offered to organize a Portuguese edition and other languages followed.

Gaspari: Robert, speaking of languages, tell us about the newest edition in ZENIT, Arabic.

Cheaib: Yes, you might say we’re the new kid on the block but, in only five short years, ZENIT has become a daily point of reference for many in the Arab world, Christian or not. 

Gaspari: Who actually reads it?

Cheaib: Our readers include patriarchs of the Oriental Churches, bishops in Arab countries and the diaspora, foreign ambassadors of Arab countries, priests, men and women religious, catechists, faithful who want to be informed about the Church and deepen the knowledge of their faith. And, what we consider our greatest achievement: readers — many of them! — who profess the Islamic faith, who have discovered that ZENIT is not a mere effort to proselytize, but it is an instrument of dialogue and a meeting place for all people of good will.

Gaspari: Have you heard from the Arab Christian Communities in the Middle East and other parts of the world?

Cheaib: Of course! I still remember the moving words of Bishop Issam John Darwich, former Melkite bishop of Sydney, during the synod of bishops for the Middle East, when he said that “For me, ZENIT is a true experience of communion with my mother Church.” Also, during the synod, the bishop of Luxor, Egypt, Joannes Zakaria, called ZENIT “my daily gospel.”

Gaspari: Have there been any ecumenical or interreligious fruits?

Cheaib: We’ve noticed that, among the subscribers, there are many typically Muslim names. It proves that there is a great desire to know the Church and its news from the original sources and not through channels that might distort their meaning.

Regarding interreligious dialogue, we have many readers from the Orthodox Church of Aleppo who also often add to our service by publishing their news and contributing articles enriched with the renowned patristic tradition of the Oriental Churches.

Gaspari: How do you finance the edition?

Cheaib: Well, I have to begin by thanking the subscribers of all the other languages in ZENIT because, if it weren’t for them, we couldn’t have started the Arabic edition in the first place. We’re still not economically self-supporting even though donations are picking up, but hopefully, a wealthy Arab will read this and offer to help. Many are talking about the “Arab spring” but we shouldn’t forget that springtime is a time for sowing and ZENIT can sow a seed that will bear great fruits in the future. I’m convinced we have a special mission in the world today.

Gaspari: Alberto, are there any surprises in store for the future of ZENIT?

Ramírez: We hope to have a new Web site design up in a few more weeks. Nothing fancy. We’ve just tried to simplify some things, make it easier to use and, hopefully, a little more attractive. We’re calling it a “transitional” design because we want to add new features in the future but that will take more time.

Father Mulford: The Internet has evolved and so should ZENIT. There are a lot of new technologies that didn’t exist when we started 15 years ago and we hope to incorporate some of them into the service. It’s an exciting time to be on the Web and, with the greatest message on earth — and beyond — why not attract younger generations in new ways that catch their attention?

ZENIT: Any hints?

Ramírez: No, we can’t reveal our secret sauce. Just stay tuned and keep an open mind. Don’t expect MTV but we’re considering some interesting innovations that people might not expect from us.

— — —

Father James Mulford, LC, Publisher. jm@zenit.org

Alberto Ramírez, Executive Director. direction@zenit.org

Antonio Gaspari, Editorial Coordinator. agaspari@zenit.org

Robert Cheaib, Arabic Edition. robert@zenit.org

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