Vatican News

The humble ambition to communicate to all

Vatican News continues its series on the history, mission, objectives and operating costs of the Vatican offices assisting the Pope in his pastoral ministry. We feature an interview with the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, Paolo Ruffini.

By Alessandro De Carolis – Vatican City

It has a recent history with older roots. The Dicastery for Communication was established six years ago in June. But in the structure that began to form itself into one organization in 2015 beats the heart of several entities that for decades – or for centuries as is the case of the Typography – have supported the Pope’s teaching in particular, and information about the Vatican in general, through traditional means and newer multimedia technologies. The reform initiated by Pope Francis is ongoing. Its eyes are fixed on the ever-changing “communicative context”. “Our humble ambition”, Paolo Ruffini, the Prefect of the Dicastery, explains, “is that of making the millions who follow us every day feel that they are protagonists on the front lines of a collective adventure who are creating history. And this needs a Christian interpretation to be understood.”

Paolo Ruffini, Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication
Paolo Ruffini, Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication

In 2015, with the Motu Proprio The current context of communications, Pope Francis launched a radical transformation regarding Vatican communications. A process of unification within one Dicastery began from that moment. What steps have been taken and what remains to be done?

Before getting in to the steps taken with the reform and what remains to be done, perhaps we need to take a step back. Maybe even more than one. We have to rewind the tape to understand why this Dicastery exists and what its task is. Let’s start at the beginning – from the reason why communication is a mission for the Church.

This is rooted in the function communication plays in keeping the See of Peter united with the faithful throughout the world. From its very beginning on Pentecost, the Church communicates in every language. From the birth of Christianity to today, this communication demonstrates how it is possible not to perpetuate the confusion of Babel, but a mysterious harmony of unity within diversity. Thanks to this, we Christians can say then and now: “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the ends of the earth” (Psalm 19:4).

As for what has been and what still needs to be accomplished, this metaphor tells us something first of all. Every reform is a process. No process begins from nothing. No less ours.

The new technologies challenge us. There is nothing new here. In this sense, we can say that the history of the Dicastery for Communications actually began centuries ago. And it is born from our being members of one another. The Church cannot but communicate. Rather, it exists specifically for this.

The Holy See has had a printing press for 434 years. Gutenberg had just invented the movable-type printing press. In 1445, the Bible was reproduced with new technology on this press for the first time. For 160 years the Holy See has published a newspaper; for 95 years it has had a publishing house, for 90 years it has had a radio, 25 years, a web portal. Eighty-two years ago, the Holy See Press Office was established. Seventy-five years ago the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications was established, which then became a Pontifical Council. Sixty-two years ago the Vatican Film Library was established, and thirty-eight years ago the Vatican Television Center (CTV). And five years ago the Dicastery was established, the objective was and is unity. But today, as back then, a pluralistic unity. A unity of a diversity of professions, of media, of roles, of functions.

The Vatican Publisher Libreria Editrice Vaticana's stand at a book fair in Turin (2019)
The Vatican Publisher Libreria Editrice Vaticana's stand at a book fair in Turin (2019)

Which in some way was already there, had always been there…

True. In fact, in this sense, I think it is better to put it in terms of a natural evolution rather than a radical transformation. Christianity has always confronted itself over time. We cannot bury the gifts that technology offers us in the field of communication. Gifts that can be used for good or for evil, to unite or to divide, to spread the truth or lies, love or hatred.

Can you tell us about the progress in these last years?

Certainly, as long as we remember we are always on the way. If we look back we can count the steps already taken. If we look ahead, we are aware of how far we still need to go. And it dawns on us that it will always be this way. Today we live in a world that did not exist five years ago. Our children are already accustomed to these changing times in which not only is there continual change, but it is extremely fast-paced. It is challenging. We cannot stop. The word “current”, that the Pope used in the Motu proprio, does not describe what was current five years ago, but rather indicates that we cannot escape the “current” of time. We have to try not to be left behind.

The reform will never be completely accomplished because we are keeping up with time: each one of us needs to feel challenged every day, not being afraid, without either inferiority or superiority complexes. Regarding the accomplishments, which is inevitably provisional, I think the awareness of being one organization has grown in these years.

Today, the Dicastery for Communication is a multimedia entity that broadcasts programs from Vatican Radio in 41 languages (12 thousand hours broadcast in 2020). There is a facility transmitting in short wave from Santa Maria di Galeria. There is a news portal publishing in 43 languages. This portal not only contains news, but also accompanies the faithful in prayer (250 million pages viewed in 2020). There are a number of social media accounts (in many languages) which have created a network of good (5 million Facebook followers in 26 languages, 23 per cent higher in 2020 than 2019; 101 million video views on YouTube in 2020; more than three billion views on the various Twitter accounts in 2020).

Two journalists during a radio broadcast in one of the studios in Palazzo Pio
Two journalists during a radio broadcast in one of the studios in Palazzo Pio

Regarding the Vatican.va web site which contains the magisterium of the Church and the words of the Popes on Instagram and on Twitter, in 2020 there were 36 billion views. Every individual tweet reached at least 19 million followers.

There is also a television center that, in addition to broadcasting images of the Pope, produces documentaries on the Church’s history (337 live broadcasts in 2020, plus the filming of each papal event and other events for documentation purposes).

There is a publishing house producing books and there are two book stores (165 books published in 2020).

There is a newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published in seven languages. There is a photographic service, a typography. There is a multi-lingual Press Office that issues a daily bulletin and interphases with media outlets from all over the world. And there is a multi-media archive.

The same technological infrastructure that is behind all of this, that developed the Dicastery’s internet sites, also makes sure that the Pope’s voice can be heard and the live images can be seen on the Jumbotrons in St Peter’s Square.

All of this exists thanks solely to the support of Catholics around the world.

We find the strength to proceed because of their trust and their support. This is the inspiration that moves us toward excellence.

With Pope Francis’s reform, we had to begin first of all with ourselves.

He asked us to help make every person who works in the Dicastery feel they are part of a larger team, to see their role as essential but not the only one, necessary but not exclusive, part of a larger plan including everyone.

Now it is up to us to offer the best service possible to our audience to provide information in various languages and in different countries.

It is up to us, and to those who read, listen to, watch on TV or on their computers what we recount through images, to make sure that this synergy is not only a functional one, but a communicative expression of our being one entity, of our communion, of our being members one of another, of our capacity to dialogue with the whole world as brothers and sisters.

IT control room in Palazzo Pio
IT control room in Palazzo Pio

What have been the most important and significant steps?

Vatican Radio has transformed its beautiful history within the digital universe of Vatican News. L’Osservatore Romano, which just relocated its offices to the same building which houses Vatican Radio, is valued in terms of its service as a newspaper due to the teamwork that those who work there naturally express.

And so, the Radio, due to the web, gave life to a multimedia, multilingual project that is unique in the world. The photographic service made its photographic archive available online for use by the newspaper but also by the web portal and social media channels. These include official photos of the Holy Father. CTV, which became Vatican Media, feeds the entire communication effort, creating footage that will remain throughout the history of the Church and the world. The publisher, Libreria editrice vaticana initiated a print on demand project in several languages. They have also published e-books. We have created a site that witnesses to the dedication with which we accompany our communication activities each day with profound reflection.

There have been many steps taken. The last ones have been a graphic redesign of L’Osservatore Romano, and the App with which it can be read on a smartphone. And then the web radio whose objective is that of offering Vatican Radio as a modern, multilingual radio. One thing we care a lot about is that of building ever stronger bonds with the local Churches. This has led us to make a widget available to every diocese, every parish, every religious institute wherever they are in the world, that, when embedded, allows access to everything we have to offer. Our service, in fact, has meaning precisely because it is an instrument of communion, sharing and formation founded on research, as the Pope always says, “for the true, for what is good and for what is right”.

What have been the most difficult steps?

From the technological standpoint, the pandemic certainly challenged us to take a leap forward in just a few months. Each day had its difficulties and its satisfactions. Little by little we are moving forward, one step forward each day. There have been many misunderstandings regarding the reform. It was not about erasing history, but of giving it life. It was not about amalgamating the output, but of differentiating it according to platform. Digital communication allows us to be connected with the whole world which was unheard of before. It allows us to move from the logic of unilateral communication to that of being in relationship, of considering ourselves producers of content to living as forgers of relationships. It allows us to maintain the plurality of languages and cultures. This has been and is essentially about employing our talents well.

Directors' meeting in the Dicastery's headquarters
Directors' meeting in the Dicastery's headquarters

What are the next projects?

We have just launched a training program on how to communicate the faith in the digital world which gathered young communicators from all the continents.

We are about to make what we communicate accessible to everyone, even to those who do not see or hear.

There is a project in course to make the Press Office more efficient and better connected with media outlets the world over. I am speaking of a system to manage remote accreditation in such a way that every form of media throughout the world can be directly connected with us.

Our main project is that of being always more members one of another.

The digital world is not ‘ready made’.

It is a world that changes, it is evolution, it reinvents itself.

So too must we change, and reinvent ourselves. It is up to us to try to build a network of networks.

One of the Dicastery’s essential tasks is that of disseminating the Pope’s magisterium and providing information to the world regarding the activity of the Holy See and the Church. This requires notable professional, cultural, linguistic and technological resources. Can you give us some specifics?

There are, we are, many persons of different languages, from different countries, different professional backgrounds. But we are united in the same mission, by the same Faith, the same Baptism. We are lay people, men and women religious, priests. We are manual laborers, journalists, printers, technicians, drivers, graphic artists, engineers, IT specialists, photographers, camera operators, audio and video editors, directors, archivists, clerical staff and stockpersons. Every day we are aware of the beauty of being one sole entity. This helps us try to improve all the time.

The Dicastery for Communication has absorbed within itself the personnel distributed throughout nine different organizations. What are the actual numbers and how was that reorganization managed?

Today we are 565 people. At the beginning of the reform there were 640. So, about half of the personnel (332 people) worked at Vatican Radio, 83 people worked in the printing plant, and 77 people worked at L’Osservatore Romano. These three had a considerable number of employees.

Through the years of the reform, the total number of personnel working in the Dicastery for Communication has been reduced by 75 people, while still guaranteeing professional retraining and the acquisition of professionals qualified to manage the challenges presented by the new communication context from both the technological and editorial perspectives.

From 2014 to 2020 the annual total cost of personnel related to the Dicastery has been reduced by 4.4 million Euro, going from 33.9 million Euro in 2014 to 29.5 million Euro in 2020.

The creation of the Dicastery brought with it a complex economic restructuring. What types of operation costs characterize the missionary budget of a “machine” whose daily activities include a multitude of structures, networks and platforms?

As I have already said, beginning with the communication reform, the Dicastery for Communication represents the merger of: the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the Holy See Press Office, part of the Vatican Internet Service, Vatican Radio, the Vatican Television Center, and the publishing house Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

In 2020, this process was completed with the integration of the Vatican Typography/L’Osservatore Romano (which included the newspaper, printing plant and Photographic Service).

The greater part of the organizations that merged under the Dicastery for Communication had previously been Institutions connected with the Holy See. As such, they enjoyed juridical and fiscal autonomy, and to a certain extent, managerial autonomy. These entities were financed by the income received by the products produced as well as by the Secretariat of State and/or the Governorate, in particular the expenses related to Vatican Radio.

The reform made possible a process of integrating the management of the entire system and of reinforcing the connection with the local ecclesial realities and their instruments of social communication.

The institutional communication of the Press Office was also strengthened. A multilingual team began working there in 2019 with the task of assisting management in its rapport with various linguistic and cultural areas in the world, thus improving the services it offers. This working group was formed with personnel within the Dicastery, thus maximizing resources while developing a synergetic approach to various current issues.

With the reform, thanks to the synergy between the Editorial and Pastoral Theology divisions, an improvement has been made regarding both the news and pastoral content posted on the new multimedia and multilingual vaticannews.va portal. And with the synergy created with the Secretariat of State, the speed has been increased with which the translations of major publications appear on the Vatican.va site.

Rotary Press - L'Osservatore Romano
Rotary Press - L'Osservatore Romano

The reform has also improved our presence on social media platforms and being able to provide better services to other Holy See Dicasteries.

Greater integration has also served to reduce the deficit and operational costs of the Vatican Typography/L’Osservatore Romano, considered as one entity, while at the same time increasing productivity and the services offered – a reduction both in terms of financial and human resources. This was achieved by improving the efficiency of editorial and technological production thanks to the attentive management of activities and a management control system.

The Dicastery for Communication, even though we don’t always find ourselves in a context that favors fundraising, is always seeking funds from private donors so it can constantly upgrade its editorial and technological systems, thus reducing the financial burden on the Holy See. Benefactors who have made donations to the Dicastery for Communication have helped cover the costs of specific projects and are able to verify the results of these projects in a timely manner.

Donations received, thanks to the fundraising initiative undertaken by the Dicastery through the Saint John XXIII Foundation made it possible to invest in the updating of technology and editorial content between 2015 and 2020, at no cost to the Holy See. Among these investments was that associated with the IT and technical infrastructure the Dicastery needed for the project called Newsport as well as the project for the new Master Control Room to manage and broadcast both radio and television together. It should also be mentioned that, above all during the lockdown of 2020, as well as throughout the subsequent period characterized by the pandemic, these upgrades allowed us to continue and enhance our output remotely, ensuring the utmost safety.

How has this resulted in a reduction of deficit?

The results gathered by the Dicastery for Communication and the Vatican Typography/L’Osservatore Romano highlight a reduction in the economic deficit of about 6.9 million Euro as of 31 December 2019 compared to the initial figures recorded in 2014. A provisional estimate regarding 2020 shows a reduction of approximately 7.2 million Euro.

The results attained assume greater importance when we recall the objective difficulties linked to an unfavorable economic situation that has especially affected the publishing sector, for example.

The achievement of certain planned goals was possible due to the implementation of careful cost controls pertaining to costs associated with personnel and operations necessary for the very function of the Dicastery.

At the end of the financial year 2019, comprehensive savings across the board by the Dicastery for Communication during 2015-2019 amounted to approximately 16.6 million Euro. This sum represents costs the Holy See has saved because of the implementation of the reform.

 Music Program, Palazzo Pio
Music Program, Palazzo Pio

In his Message for World Communications Day, 2021, Pope Francis is encouraging “Communicating cy Encountering People Where and as They Are”. How does the Dicastery work toward achieving this type of narrative?

The Pope often says that faith is transmitted in ‘dialect’. Speaking the language of the receiver may seem secondary. This is certainly not flashy. It is humble work. But fundamental. I think that because we speak so many languages (persistently trying to be “all things to everyone”), we might find the answer to this question. It is here that with our limitations, our imperfections, with God’s help and that of our brothers and sisters, we try to respond to the call to see, to witness, to unite what is divided, to go where no one else goes. We must do this humbly, without conceit. In simplicity. With the patience of the one who sows. We will be recognized because of this. The information published by the Vatican does not come from a Palace. It represents our efforts to build a sharing network, a network that unifies, a network free from prejudices; one that cultivates the beauty of who we are.

The development of communication technologies continues and will continue to guide and condition the “means” of communication and information. How does the Dicastery see itself moving forward in this dynamic?

With the certainty and patience that comes from faith.

With the trust that we can count on the support, the help, the advice, the nearness, the creativity of millions of Catholics around the world.

What characterizes us is the awareness, written in our DNA, of being part of a huge international, multi-cultural community, united in its mission at the service of the Pope with the task of bringing his word to the world in the world’s languages.

Our frontier is to speak the language of our time, rescuing it from the monotony of a communication without depth.

Our humble ambition is that of making the millions who follow us every day feel that they are protagonists on the front lines of a collective adventure who are creating history. And this needs a Christian interpretation to be understood. In short, to involve them, rather than limiting them to the role of spectators. To create true bonds between them and us, and through us, between them and the Pope. This is our mission.

01 March 2021, 15:00