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VATICAN LETTER Mar-3-2006 (1,000 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Pope Pius XI saw (radio) wave of the future

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The idea of capturing and carrying someone's voice across oceans and continents was a radical idea at the turn of the 20th century, and one pope saw the groundbreaking possibilities in such a project.

Pope Pius XI was fascinated by this "awesome invention," and in the late 1920s he invited the inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi, to build a radio broadcasting station on the grounds of the newly established Vatican City State.

Before radio, the pope's public addresses could only cover the venue at which he was speaking, maybe going a little farther if there was a good echo bouncing off Bernini's colonnade in St. Peter's Square.

But on Feb. 12, 1931, with a flick of a switch, the pope's words spoken from a tiny, bare-bones studio in Vatican City were heard simultaneously in New York, Quebec, London, Paris, and Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.

With Christ, the word was made flesh; with radio, the pope's words were made trans-Atlantic and truly universal.

As one American newscaster told his audience as his co-workers filmed Pope Pius giving his first radio message, "The pope, for the first time in 1900 years of Catholicism, has sent his voice throughout the world."

While King George V used the British Broadcasting Corp.'s radio to convey his royal affection to his British subjects scattered across the continents on Christmas Eve 1931, Pope Pius used the Vatican's new radio to share his paternal affection "to all peoples and every creature."

In his first radio message in 1931, everyone was the object of his pastoral care and concern.

In Latin, he addressed himself not just to Catholics, but to their separated brethren, "the dissidents," even to nonbelievers, governments, the oppressed, the rich, the poor, workers, the persecuted and the suffering, sharing the church's message of peace and love and saying his prayers were with all the world's people.

The radio became a powerful tool for evangelizing, and it offered pastoral support and comfort, especially to Catholics and missionaries in remote areas.

But those invisible radio waves beamed through the ether also turned out to be a powerful counterattack against totalitarian regimes and their chokehold on information and religious freedom.

Vatican Radio immediately expanded its programming from Latin, Italian, French and Spanish to German and English in 1937 as the threat of World War II loomed.

Nazi Germany even tried to jam Vatican Radio airwaves, but Catholics in France transcribed, printed and distributed "the voice of the Vatican" clandestinely.

From 1940 to 1946, Vatican Radio read out more than 1 million messages it received from family members, soldiers and prisoners of war in an effort to reunite or assure families of someone's whereabouts.

A similar initiative was repeated in 1999 at the end of the Kosovo War. The radio's Albanian journalists mobilized to offer news, information and support to refugees, religious and humanitarian workers.

During his first visit to Vatican Radio March 3, Pope Benedict XVI said that during World War II the radio let Pope Pius XII offer his "words of comfort, warnings" about the futility of war "and passionate exhortations for hope and peace" in a climate of conflict and fear.

When communism took hold of numerous European nations, "Vatican Radio multiplied (the number of) programs and languages it broadcast so that proof of the closeness and solidarity of the pope and the universal church could reach the Christian communities oppressed by totalitarian regimes," Pope Benedict said.

As the Berlin Wall went up and the Iron Curtain came down, Vatican Radio delivered news and the Gospel message in 17 Central and East European languages.

Though the Soviet empire eventually collapsed, today there is still no lack of political regimes hostile to full religious freedom.

Vatican Radio started broadcasting in Chinese in 1950, exactly one year before diplomatic ties were broken between China and the Vatican.

Today the radio's Chinese program is a lifeline for the underground Catholic Church in China. The program's five journalists from Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China get the news and the pope's latest document out to listeners immediately, either through radio or on the Internet.

The church's written translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church into Chinese, for example, wasn't published until the fall of 1996, but Vatican Radio's Chinese program began translating and reading it and offering commentary to listeners the day after the Vatican released its first edition, years earlier.

Vatican Radio began broadcasting in Arabic in 1949, the year the Arab-Israeli war ended, leaving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians without homes after they came under Israel's control.

The radio's director of programs, Polish Jesuit Father Andrzej Koprowski, said Asian and Arabic communities still remain important priorities for the radio's programming.

But a new challenge facing their five Lebanese radio journalists, he said, is how to make the Arabic program relevant to the increasing number of Arabic speakers who now live in Europe and America. The Arab and Muslim world is not just a geopolitical category anymore; it has become "a first-class cultural, social and ecclesial issue" he said Feb. 21.

Broadcasting now in 45 languages, Vatican Radio is no longer the loudspeaker for the lone voice of the pope, as it was when it began in 1931.

"Rather, it's a chorus of voices," Pope Benedict said, "that can dialogue with different cultures and religions."

The aim of any broadcasting network that can reach out to people through the airwaves and on the Internet is "to help build a great family that doesn't know any borders," Pope Benedict said in his first radio message from Vatican Radio studios March 3.

He said the enormous amount of media attention on the Vatican after the death of Pope John Paul II shows "how much humanity wants to discover the church."

He said the radio's mission to proclaim the Gospel message and be a bridge linking local churches with the pope and the Vatican is still valid and needed today.


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