By Linda Bordoni
Pope Pius XI’s wish to invest in a radio station that would bring the voice of the Pope and the Gospel message to every corner of the earth goes back to the 1920s.
So he asked the Italian inventor and electrical engineer, Guglielmo Marconi, to help him set up the enterprise. Thus, Vatican Radio was inaugurated on 12 February 1931 and entrusted to the Jesuit Order.
Eight pontiffs later, the Pope is Francis, and it is with his voice we celebrate the Radio’s 90th anniversary in 2021.
Today we bring you the voice and the insights of the man who embodied Vatican Radio’s English Programme for 43 years. Seàn Patrick Lovett arrived at the Radio in the 1970s as a young reporter during the papacy of Pope St Paul VI. During his long career, he headed the English Section, “invented” and directed the multi-lingual “One-O-Five Live” Programme, liaised with students and journalists from all walks of life, reporting and travelling with the Popes, bringing their voices and messages to English-speaking listeners across the continents.
Five were the papacies that moulded his career while the Radio grew and morphed with the times.
Starting with his first Pope, St Pope Paul VI, I asked Seàn to shine his personal spotlight on each of them:
“I was the English voice for, in order: Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis,” he told me, but he added, “it's not just about the Popes (…) it's about the context.”
It's about, Seàn explained, what was happening in the world at the time and about how he, as a journalist, was living his life and viewing the world.
It was 1977 when Seàn first walked through Vatican Radio’s front door just down the road from St Peter’s Basilica. It was the year Elvis Presley died, that Maria Callas died; it was when the first “Star Wars” movie was released and when the computer company, “Apple”, had just been founded.
“Pope Paul VI spoke using the ‘Royal plural’, so when we translated Paul VI it was: we ourselves, are pleased to be with you today!” he said.
Paul VI, he told me, was the last Pope to wear gloves “because he couldn't touch or be touched;” he was the last Pope to be carried around on the Sedia Gestatoria (the ceremonial throne on which Popes were carried on shoulders) and the last Pope to wear a crown.
John Paul I
When he died on 6 August and Albino Luciani was elected as John Paul I, there was a scandal, Seàn said, when he refused the Sedia Gestatoria and he refused to wear a crown.
“I like mentioning him because those 33 days were so important: if Paul VI taught me the dignity of the papacy, Luciani - John Paul I - taught me the humility of the papacy... this coming down to the level where people are at.”
John Paul II
Seàn said that if St. John Paul II took that name, “it's because John Paul I opened the door and Wojtyla walked through it, choosing the name John Paul II.”
Karol Wojtyla, Seàn said, taught him geography, because of all the trips around the world: an intense life of incredible experiences “for 26 years, 5 months and 17 days, because that's how long his pontificate lasted.”
Benedict XVI, he continued, taught him how to listen, because he was a scholar, an academic, and translating him and being his voice for public events “meant paying very close attention to what he was saying in order to be able to interpret his words for the world.”
Despite the lockdown caused by the covid-19 pandemic, Pope Francis, Seàn said, continues to teach him the importance of touch: “We miss physical contact, we miss being able to hold people's hands and embrace, and how fundamental that is to what it means to be human.
The intimacy and the power of radio
I reminded Seàn of his advice to me when I first started working at Vatican Radio: When you talk into a radio microphone,” he told me, “you’re not talking to millions of people who are out there somewhere: you're talking to one person who is in a room, listening to you.” I asked him if that was how he too, spoke to Vatican Radio listeners?
“It’s never listeners,” he confirmed, it’s always “a listener.” Radio, he said, “is the warmth and wonder and emotion of the human voice.”
Sound, Seàn continued is emotion. One of our first ‘memories’ from the womb. Speaking through the radio we are communicating with someone who is often “at home, in hospital, alone..." and so it is a great privilege to know your voice is accompanying them, “very often it’s the only voice in the room.”
Or it’s a voice that reaches a remote refugee camp, like the one in South Sudan that he visited some time ago and discovered that the young people there know, for example, that the Pope lives in Rome, because they hear his voice on Vatican Radio: “There was nothing in this refugee camp, but there, was one wind-up radio and they would listen to the Pope's voice in Rome,” Seàn said.
“Whenever he speaks about us, we feel less invisible,” they told him.
Technology changes, people stay the same
Reflecting on the momentous technological developments of the past decade, and on how we are forever trying to keep up with the latest innovations, I asked Seàn what he thinks has to stay the same.
“The technology changes but people remain the same, and our need for companionship and compassion never changes,” he said.
One of the innate needs of humans is to be listened to, and radio, he said, has a wonderful reciprocity: “We don't just talk, we also listen.”
And as we listen to what people are saying, Seàn said, we try to respond to their needs. In radio “there is this awareness that you're not talking into a piece of metal, a microphone that's resonating through all kinds of technological algorithms and nonsense, you're speaking to a real person who truly needs to hear those words of comfort and encouragement.”
Understanding ‘the why’
The biggest challenge Vatican Radio and all communication outfits are facing at this moment in time, is the speed of change, Seàn said, noting that “everything is changing far too quickly.”
If you look at it on a timeline, he said, you will see that for a very long time things stayed the same in terms of communication, and then, technology forced us to change at great speed.
“Speed is attached to depth, it’s a mathematical formula: the faster you go, the less you see; the faster you go, the less you experience: I think the biggest challenge is we're constantly broadcasting the who, what, when and where” because that’s what everybody wants to know."
This means, he concluded, we don't have time to explain the why, and yet that's what human experience is all about: “Why am I here on this earth? It’s not just to know the who, what, when and where, but to understand the why, and that's what I feel is the biggest challenge.”