FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – THE DEATH OF A RADIO

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – THE DEATH OF A RADIO

Today was a bittersweet day for me because I taped my final “Joan Knows” program at Vatican Radio after 20 years at the radio with this show and, in earlier years, especially when I worked at the Vatican Information Service, by participating in some form in an English language news program once a week.

The sweet part embraced those 20 years of covering both amazing news stories and everyday events in the life of the Pope and the Universal Church, of covering three pontificates, of making lifelong friends with my terrifically talented colleagues at Vatican Radio – colleagues of different languages and backgrounds but we were bound together by our vocation (almost a ministry), our friendship and our love of the Church and papacy.

I lived some heady moments and times and events and learned more than I could ever put in a book, much less one daily column.

And poof, in a flash, with one decision, that is all gone. That was the bitter part of my day.

As part of the reform of the Vatican communications, in particular at the radio, “Joan Knows” and other similar feature programs will be discontinued in English, as they have been or will be in other of the radio’s 40 plus languages, as of April 1.

The death of a radio as we all knew it for 87 years– as did millions around the globe! – on Easter Sunday but no resurrection in sight.

This is the historic radio set up by Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, for Pope Pius XI in 1931. In fact, on February 12, 1931, he spoke these historical words at the inauguration of the radio: “I have the highest honor of announcing that in only a matter of seconds the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Pius XI, will inaugurate the Radio Station of the Vatican City State. The electric radio waves will transport to all the world his words of peace and blessing.”
To be honest, we were not supposed to use the name “Vatican Radio” as of early 2017. We all did in any case. After all, it was a radio and it was the Vatican’s radio so what else could we call it!

The name, as of last year, was to be strictly confined to “Radio Vaticana Italia” as this was part of a communications reorganization that was to be Italian-centric, at least in the beginning and for the most part.

I will not today speak of the reform in the rest of the Roman Curia where I have a ton of friends whom I’ve known for years and am also aware of the changes in their offices, the low morale in the Vatican, etc. My intent is only to write about the reform in Vatican communications – an initial look at this today because I could probably write a small volume on the topic.

When Pope Francis expressed the desire to reform the world of Vatican communications (Vatican Radio, CTV, the television, Publishing House, press office, L’Osservatore Romano newspaper, Pontifical Council for Social Communications), several commissions looked into and studied the matter, made recommendations to the Holy Father and subsequently he established the Secretariat for Communications, appointing a prefect and several initial board members. Later consultors were appointed.

In addition to consolidating some operations, one of the main objectives of the reform was to find ways to save money without, however, firing people or letting anyone go. It was a well-known published fact that Vatican Radio, for one, was always in the red. How to remedy that was to be uppermost in the minds of the reformers.

Most everyone in these Vatican offices knew there had to be, should be, some kind of consolidation. For example, why should six different offices be responsible for translating a papal homily or Angelus remarks into English or any other language? That’s understandable. And so on.

It was expected – perhaps just hoped for – that the new SPC (Secretariat for Communications) would invite, for example, two persons each from the above communications offices – people with experience in TV, radio, the written word, publishing, etc. – to be part of the new structure. People who could honestly critique their own office and suggest ways to merge activities, streamline functions and perhaps even get a better use of personnel.

That did not happen.

Outsiders were brought in, including a PR firm Accenture. Its specific recommendations, combined with the recommendations of the commissions that studied reforms, can only be guessed at – but perhaps not. Maybe all that is needed is to look at the results.

The biggest move for the radio was to go all digital. This has left millions of people around the world out in the cold. Believe it or not, not everyone on the planet has a computer, tablet or cell phone. There are parts of the world that do not have cell phone towers, where wi-fi is not readily available, areas where people still use home radios for short wave, car radios, small transistors. They will no longer be able to listen to Vatican Radio.

The six principal languages of the Vatican are Italian, English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish. While you can still find the former Vatican radio website online – http://www.radiovaticana.va/ – these six language are available on the new news site – vaticannews.va – the most visible result of the communications reform.

As you read each news story, there is a link to the audio version by the author of that same story. The idea eventually is to have all of the 40 plus languages of (the former) Vatican Radio on a vaticannews.va webpage. Right now, if you want Slovenian, for example, you can access that language page and find photos and print stories and audio files in that language. Soon that will no longer exist – it will be part of a vaticannews.va webpage.

So, it is not radio per se but rather a webpage with audio files (is that too fine a distinction?)

Vaticannews.va does say at the top of each language page that this is the BETA VERSION. I am waiting for the betah (better!) version – more on that later.

With the disappearance of what were known as Feature Stories, it seems there will be no more exciting behind the scenes reports, no profiles of people or organizations or institutions, no more “and today let’s explore the papal palace of Castelgandolfo”, the types of stories that good radio journalists bring to their medium and that listeners enjoy. Staff members still hope they will be allowed to be creative, to really be journalists.

Let’s wait and see.

The reform throughout the Curia, not only at Vatican radio, has meant that very often staff members, instead of being let go, are transferred to other offices for work in which they have no training whatsoever, or perhaps a minimal knowledge. Others have been let go. Yet others do not know from Monday to Friday if they have the same job they’ve had for years or will be asked to go to a new office or take a different direction in their work.

How would you like it if, after 20 plus years at the radio as a professional journalist, you now had to sit in a cubbyhole or small desk in a crowded room and be told to archive programs, photos, CDs?! Or be transferred to a pontifical council whose work was not familiar to you?

In the last two years, as I have talked to friends throughout the Curia and have gone to the radio to tape my weekly show, I have watched and seen things evolve. I have felt so much sadness and bewilderment and anxiety. Capable people who now feel challenged, who are questioned about what they do, who say they have never been asked for input or listened to in this transition period.

This is surely not the first column you have seen on this topic. Other very qualified people have also written about the reform of the Roman Curia, the reform of Vatican communications, citing many of the same issues I have mentioned. Perhaps you heard my two-part interview on EWTN’s Vatican Insider with Chris Altieri, a former colleague at Vatican Radio who left of his own will (as others have in recent months) after 12 years. Chris spoke of all these issues with me and in other interviews as well.

Staff are asking: Do we really have to burn down the whole house to build a new room? Wasn’t there a solid foundation to build on? Why can’t Vatican Radio be called Vatican Radio? Is CTV no longer Vatican Television? Will L’Osservatore Romano newspaper (born in 1861) disappear as well? Is everything now one entity known simply as “Vatican media”?

Why, they ask, would you throw the baby out with the bath water? Or, as one person commented: Vatican Radio has died and they don’t know what to do with the body.

Today is bittersweet because it is an ending, the finale to a terrific journey with marvelous people. Rest assured of one thing, however: I am not bitter. I’m puzzled and sad, but not bitter.

I have so much to thank the Lord for, especially my colleagues and wonderful friends from so many Vatican offices that I’ve known over the decades I have been here. I’m sure they are among the Lord’s favorite children. I pray for them daily, hoping they find fulfilment and continued happiness in serving the Church.

Thank you, my wonderful friends! No names – you all know who you are and what you mean to me!

As I often end this column: God sit on your shoulder!

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VATICAN INSIDER AND THE VATICAN’S COMMUNICATIONS REFORMATION – LATE VIETNAMESE ARCHBISHOP WAS A “PRIEST OF THE PERIPHERIES”

VATICAN INSIDER AND THE VATICAN’S COMMUNICATIONS REFORMATION

My guest this week on Vatican Insider is Chris Altieri, a former colleague at Vatican Radio. For years, you, my listeners, probably read Chris’ stories on the webpages of English Vatican Radio and heard his voice as he did wonderful commentaries for papal Masses and other events.

This weekend, in the first of two parts, we look at the reform of Vatican communications – what has happened so far, the low morale in the Vatican, what reform means for Vatican personnel in the communications area and what it means for people around the world who listen to a greatly changed Vatican radio – except we are not supposed to use that name anymore!

In the United States, you can listen to Vatican Insider (VI) on a Catholic radio station near you (there is a list of U.S. stations at http://www.ewtn.com) or on channel 130 Sirius-XM satellite radio. Outside the U.S., you can listen to EWTN radio on our website home page by clicking on the right side where you see “LISTEN TO EWTN.” Vatican Insider airs Saturday mornings at 9:00am (ET). On the SKY satellite feed to the UK and parts of Europe, VI airs on audio channel 0147 at 11:30 am CET on Saturdays, and 5:30am and 10pm CET on Sundays. It’s also available on demand on the EWTN app and on the website. CHECK YOUR TIME ZONE. Here’s a link to download VI to your iTunes library: http://www.ewtn.com/se/pg/DatService.svc/feed/~LE.xml For VI archives: http://www.ewtn.com/vondemand/audio/file_index.asp?SeriesId=7096&pgnu=

LATE VIETNAMESE ARCHBISHOP WAS A “PRIEST OF THE PERIPHERIES”

When I learned Wednesday morning of the sudden and tragic death in Rome a day earlier of the archbishop of HoChiMinh Ville (Saigon), Vietnam. I immediately thought of my very good friend, Msgr. Cuong Pham, who works in the Roman Curia at the Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. I thought of Cuong because he is the first Vietnamese priest I ever knew and I was sure he knew all of Vietnam’s bishops.

Cuong was born in Vietnam but he is now a U.S. citizen. When he was studying in Rome and living at the Casa Santa Maria, part of the North American College, we met and became fast friends. His life story was so incredibly fascinating that I did a two- part interview with him for Vatican Insider – from the shores in Vietnam with the “boat people” to the shores of the United States to the doors of the Vatican! If his story, his family’s story, was made into a movie, it would be at the top of the charts for weeks!

I was blessed a few years ago to meet his parents and one of his brothers when they were in Rome and offered the hospitality of my home to meet these people who had become heroes to me.

When I was in Vietnam a few years ago, visiting both DaNang and Saigon, Cuong’s relatives and priest friends made my trip exceptional, unbelievably memorable. I’ll never forget our meals together, their help, their stories, their lives, especially the young men studying for the priesthood or those who had been recently ordained.

Something you should know, by the way: Vietnam is second only to the Philippines for the percentage of Catholics in the country. There is a very large Vietnamese presence in Rome including many priests, a number of seminarians and untold numbers of lay faithful.

In any case, after learning of Archbishop Paul Bùi Văn Đọc’s death, I sent Cuong an email to express my condolences to him and, through him, to all the bishops of Vietnam, including Cardinal Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon, archbishop of Hanoi, created a cardinal in 2015 by Pope Francis, the sixth cardinal ever from Vietnam. I briefly met the cardinal at the courtesy visits the afternoon of the consistory in which he became a cardinal and told him I had recently been to his country, but not to Hanoi.

The Vietnamese bishops have been in Rome this week on the mandatory “ad limina apostolorum” (to the threshold of the Apostles) visit all bishops must pay to Rome – usually every five years. During these visits, they meet with the Pope and visit various offices of the Roman Curia.

Here is a video of their meeting with Pope Francis on Monday. You will see the cardinal to the right of the papal chair and then you see the first person to greet Pope Francis and kiss his ring – he announces him name, saying he is the archbishop of Hochiminh Ville: https://www.romereports.com/en/2018/03/05/pope-francis-meets-with-bishops-from-vietnam/

This video was all the more poignant for me after a long phone conversation last night with Fr. Cuong.

I learned that, because he is one of two Vietnamese priests in the Curia, he was put in charge of arranging the entire ad limina visit for the Vietnamese bishops. Obviously he knows Vietnamese, English and Italian and is very familiar with the Vatican, its offices and Vatican City, as he is with the city of Rome. All of that served him well so he could serve the bishops well.

Cuong arranged for lodgings, transport to the Vatican and basilicas of Rome, and coordinated all the meetings with the Holy Father and various officials of the Roman Curia. Working at his own job in the legislative texts council in the meantime!

Because the late archbishop’s name was Paul, Fr. Cuong thought it would be a lovely experience for the Vietnamese prelates to celebrate Mass at the papal basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls and arranged for that to happen Tuesday morning.

It was during Mass, Cuong said, that everyone could see something was obviously very wrong with the archbishop, although he said he could finish Mass. A reception had been planned after Mass with the presence of hundreds of Vietnamese Catholics.

The vans that had brought the prelates to Mass were not parked close to the basilica so the archbishop was brought in a private car to San Camillo hospital, noted for its cardiac unit, where he died after three attempts to revive him when his heart stopped.

Fr. Cuong was at his side when he died. As we spoke last night, we both agreed how extraordinarily beautiful it has to be for a priest to die right after celebrating the Eucharist – after turning the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ!

Cuong told me he had eaten dinner with Archbishop Văn Đọc on Monday night and they were celebrating all the beautiful moments up to that point with the Holy Father and others in the Vatican. The archbishop was a contented person.

The archbishop is still at San Camillo hospital as I write, and Cuong is in the throes of dealing with officials at the Vietnamese embassy and in Italy to see to his transfer back to Vietnam. Hochiminh Ville diocese has two auxiliaries and, according to Canon Law, it would be the first appointed of the two to accompany the late archbishop back to Vietnam.

Fr. Cuong wanted me to know above all what an extremely wonderful priest and human being Archbishop Văn Đọc was.

“He was generous to a fault,” said Cuong. “He was a man of great empathy, of compassion, of mercy – a priest ‘of the peripheries’ as Pope Francis likes to say. The ‘least of these’ are the people he gravitated to, in particular orphans and those with disabilities. He was unique in so many ways and will be sorely missed. God rest his beautiful soul.”

Pope Francis invited Vietnam’s bishops to Mass in the chapel of the Santa Marta residence on Wednesday and shared some special time with them.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of State, will celebrate a memorial Mass in the Canon’s Chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica tomorrow, Saturday, March 10. A large number of Vietnamese faithful are expected to attend and there will probably be an overflow crowd as this lovely chapel (right across from the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the basilica) cannot accommodate hundreds.

One Vietnamese bishop whom I do know but have not yet seen in Rome is Bishop Joseph Chau Ngoc Tri, now of Lạng Sơn et Cao Bằng, but he was the bishop of DaNang when we met. He was a wonderful guide, friend and host for a number of meals in his residence, just yards from the DaNang cathedral.

I have followed the cause for canonization of Fr. Vincent Capodanno for a number of years and have participated in events in Italy and in Vietnam where he died on a battlefield near DaNang on September 4, 1967, trying to minister to “his men” when he was a chaplain in the Navy. A celebration in DaNang was the reason for my first ever Vietnam trip.

RADIO, AN ANTIDOTE TO FAKE NEWS

Many changes are coming to what we know today as Vatican Radio, and I mentioned one of these in yesterday’s column – the disappearance of the 15-minute Italian, French and English-language morning news programs, replaced by Italian commentary and news, and the fact that whoever wants to listen to English news and reports in the evening can only do so via digital radio.

I found this talk today by Msgr Dario Vigano interesting, although he does not refer to any specifics in the ongoing reform of Vatican communications, specifically the radio. I personally know of a number of changes in personnel – people transferred from Vatican Radio to another office someplace in the Vatican, perhaps a pontifical council, even if their skills are in broadcasting. I’ve seen radio people transferred from an office where they have worked for years to another room where there are already personnel and small spaces have to be shared.

Is the building that houses all the offices of the 40 or so languages at Vatican Radio about to be used to house other Vatican offices – perhaps a new entity about to be created by the Pope? Perhaps in the long run we will learn what these changes mean.

RADIO, AN ANTIDOTE TO FAKE NEWS

(Vatican Radio) The prefect of the  Secretariat for Communications, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò on Thursday addressed a workshop in Milan entitled “Journalism in the age of Fake News. The frontier of radio.”

Facts versus fiction

In remarks prepared for the occasion,  Msgr. Viganò began by stressing the importance of fact and source checking in this era of fake news, saying that it was “worth remembering that the verification of sources is the primary rule of journalism, adding that, in the age of contemporary information truth runs the risk of becoming a secondary aspect.”

The prefect went on to say that, “because of a continuous technological evolution, it is difficult to use the conceptual categories of the past,” and he noted the role of the internet and social media which have played their part in changing the media boundaries that people have become accustomed to.

Msgr. Viganò said that what was required in this era of fake news was “to reiterate the need to recover the foundations of ethics and the ethics of the journalistic profession that are based precisely on the verification of sources as well as on other principles.” He also commented that there was a need for critical thinking on the part of social media users who often share information on their own profiles without paying too much attention to the text.

Radio and Fake news

Turning his attention to radio, he said that in this age of fake news, “…radio is a strategic key to ‘anti fake news’,” which can not only counteract this phenomenon but can facilitate an opposing logic.

By exploiting the new media, he said, “radio has strengthened its identity at all times and has kept its appeal intact both in terms of audience, advertising and economic investments.”

Msgr. Viganò underlined that radio enjoys consistent credibility among young people who put it in pole position among the traditional media, such as TV and newspapers.

In short, he said radio involves an extraordinary narrative immediacy that has a fundamental value.

Msgr.Viganò was participating at the workshop ahead of the 69th edition of Gran Prix Italia, the Rai International Competition dedicated to innovative radio and TV programs and high-quality cultural and artistic programs.

 

ARE THESE THE CHANGES IN VATICAN COMMUNICATIONS?

The Italian news agency ANSA reported this morning that, according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, Pope Francis’s audiences for Thursday have been cancelled because the 79-year-old pontiff has a high temperature. Fr. Lombardi said the pope had a “slight indisposition, nothing serious” adding that, as usual, Francis celebrated Mass at the Santa Marta residence where he lives inside the Vatican on Thursday morning. “For the moment he is resting,” Lombardi said. “He usually recovers quite quickly. Anyway, we’ll see.”

Most of my day has been outside of the office, including getting ready to be with Jim and Joy AT HOME this evening. Be sure to tune in!

The book with Pope Francis’ answers to 31 questions from children around the world was presented this morning in its Italian version, one of the 16 languages in which the book has been published. The Italian-language book is called Before the World, Love. The English version is set to debut March 1 and is titled Dear Pope Francis. Prepared by Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, the book presents 31 letters and drawings selected from those presented by 296 students from Jesuit-run schools and institutions in 26 countries. A percentage of the sales will be given to the JRS, Jesuit Refugee Service. (More about this, along with a few photos, tomorrow).

AMORE

ARE THESE THE CHANGES IN VATICAN COMMUNICATIONS?

This morning I read, and then posted, Vatican’ Radio’s report by Philippa Hitchens entitled, “Father Lombardi’s lasting legacy at Vatican Radio.”

The piece starts: Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi steps down as Director General of Vatican Radio at the end of February, in the context of a major overhaul of the Holy See’s media and communications organisations.

When I got to the final paragraph, it sounded like what was not going to last was Vatican Radio itself, at least not the name! After 85 years! A name it has had since day one – February 12, 1931.

Here is what that paragraph says: Fr Lombardi’s departure from the Palazzo Pio headquarters marks the end of an era for the Jesuits too, whom Pope Pius XI entrusted with the running of the Radio back in 1931. Pope Francis has made clear he wants the order to continue working in communications, though it’s not yet clear how that service may take shape. The name – Vatican Radio – will also cease to exist in the coming months, as it becomes more closely incorporated into a combined output of TV, newspaper, web and social media production. What Fr Lombardi says he hopes will remain at the heart of the new media operation is the dedication of those committed to their mission of sharing the Good News with those on the margins of today’s ‘throwaway culture’. 

In addition to this bombshell piece of news, I read this at the end of today’s edition of VIS (Vatican Information Service): NOTICE TO VIS SUBSCRIBERS Vatican City, 25 February 2016 (VIS) – From Tuesday 1 March 2016, the Vatican Information Service newsletter will not be transmitted …

We’ve all know there would be some changes in the communications structure since last June when the Pope instituted the Secretariat for Communications. A certain amount of streamlining was expected, although indications were given that taking care of personnel working for the Vatican’s communication offices (Vatican Radio, CTV, Press Office, VIS, L’Osservatore Romano, Pontifical Council for Social Communications) was a high priority.

To a person, the people I have spoken to today, when I told them of the news that the name “Vatican Radio” would soon disappear told me I was mistaken, that could not happen, I had heard or read the story incorrectly, no one would change history, what I was saying had no sense, and so on.

I am still stunned by this announcement. To be honest, I first heard Philippa’s account on Vatican Radio this morning as I was preparing for an appointment, Absolutely sure I had misunderstood her final words, I went online to find the story – there it was, I had no misheard at all.

My heartbeat quickens as I wonder what is down the road for Vatican communications after learning of such a shocking change for the historic Vatican Radio. What will disappear next? What is the rationale behind such changes, behind a “major overhaul”? Perhaps this is what interests me (and others) most.

Here is the link to the entire Philippa Hitchen story: http://www.news.va/en/news/fr-lombardi-reflects-on-lasting-legacy-of-vatican