Vatican Radio turns 90: Carrying the Pope’s voice to the whole world
By Massimiliano Menichetti
Almost 12,000 hours of broadcasts in a single year, including radio commentaries, as well as news, liturgical and musical programmes. This is the identity of Vatican Radio, the radio station of the Holy See, established by Pope Pius XI, who entrusted it to the Society of Jesus, and which was built by Guglielmo Marconi ninety years ago. Today we broadcast in 41 languages and every day we bring the words of the Gospel and the voice of the Pope to the whole world.
This anniversary is particularly challenging for us. We are celebrating 90 years at a time when one of the greatest trials for all humanity is underway due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our mission has always been to leave no one unaccompanied, and to bring the hope of the Christian proclamation, the voice of the Pope to the world, and to relate the facts of the news in the light of the Gospel. This moment involves and challenges us further.
When, for example, on 9 March 2020, Pope Francis decided to start celebrating Mass live at Casa Santa Marta, allowing the whole world to pray with him — since in many countries celebrations with the presence of faithful were suspended — our technical and editorial commitment was multiplied. In addition to the television and radio broadcast service in several languages, we created new programmes and podcasts, and distributed audio books, in order to be close to everyone, to reach every corner of the planet. In these months, as well as providing information, we have continued to gather and tell stories of closeness, relief and solidarity. We seek to show the face of the Church and of that part of society which, often silently, builds bridges, offers help, and includes everyone.
Statistics and research tell us that radio is in excellent shape. In many parts of the world, in addition to transmitting radio waves, it is also broadcasting images, messages, interactions. Radio also lives on social media; it has become part of them. It certainly offers immediacy and speed. Our vocation is to bring the Good News to everyone, and to do this we use radio waves and digital “bits.” The reform desired by Pope Francis has also propelled us into new directions, characterised by integration with other media, starting with L’Osservatore Romano. The staff of Vatican Radio, hailing from 69 different countries, has enabled the creation of the Vatican News web portal, which includes video, photographic, audio and textual material. For example, the podcasts of Vatican Radio are also distributed through the social media of the Dicastery for Communication, often accompanied by images and graphics. And again, radio news reports or programmes often become web pages and articles of L’Osservatore Romano. We are the expression of a great team effort and we are still moving forward.
Vatican Radio has always spoken many languages, but we did not have dedicated language programmes. The Web Radio, which is now being created, will debut in Italian, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Armenian. This year, almost 30 live channels, corresponding to as many languages, will be launched this year. Developed in synergy with Vatican News, it will be available on both the pages of the Radio, and through the current Vatican Radio App. Ample space will be given to music and liturgy in Latin.
Vatican Radio broadcasts via satellite, DAB+, digital terrestrial, internet and, of course, short wave. We must not forget that the short wave in particular embodies what Pope Francis is forcefully urging: namely to go out to the peripheries of the world. We were very struck by the testimony of Father Pierluigi Maccalli, the priest kidnapped in Niger in 2018 and released in October 2020. After his release, he expressed the desire to visit us. He told us that during his imprisonment in the Sahara desert, he had been given a small short-wave radio, his “window of air.” Thanks to that little box, “even though it had to be repaired several times and was broken in two,” he listened to us in French and Italian, and was even able to participate in the Pentecost Mass with the Pope. It was a closeness, he told us, that he will never forget. Since we heard his story, every time we think about how to optimise the transmissions to Africa, we carry in our hearts what we call the “Maccalli Transmissions.”
Today, as we celebrate this 90th anniversary, we look forward with the strength and awareness of our roots and the desire to bring the light of the Gospel to the world. For every journey, it is necessary to be aware of where one comes from, and to know in which direction one is going. Vatican Radio has a great history of service, in support of faith, freedom, truth, and the Church, a history marked by decades of direction by the Jesuits, who still lead many editorial offices. Pope Pius XI, in his first radio message, addressed himself “to all peoples and to every creature”; through the Statio Radiophonica Vaticana Pope Pius XII appealed through the microphones that tensions would not plunge into the abyss of the Second Great War: in those dark years, the Radio performed an admirable service by acting as a bridge, helping to share news of the fate of thousands of people who were missing or imprisoned. During the years of totalitarianism, many people listened clandestinely, at the risk of their lives, because that was the only way for them to attend Mass. We remember, too, the challenge of the Second Vatican Council, recounted in close to 3,000 hours of broadcasting; and the many international trips journeys; as well as the founding membership of the EBU (European Broadcasting Union), the largest global association of public service media. We lived through the incredible 72 days, beginning with the death of Pope Paul VI, in 1978, which went down in history as the “Year of the Three Popes” and which put the whole system to the test.
We have experienced the digital revolution, followed by satellite broadcasting, and continuous challenges up to the pandemic we are living through today, always in order to be close to all those who seek and desire to listen.