When Vatican Radio was established in 1931, its founders thought of the station as an extension of the Pope’s voice. World War II, however, added new and often unavoidably political dimensions to the station’s tasks.
For example, the Information Service, started by Pius XI in 1938, sent over 1 million messages across the battle lines to trace POW’s and missing persons.
At the close of World War II, Eastern Europe remained isolated behind the Iron Curtain. The persecution of the Catholic Church varied from country to country, but in all, more than 10 million Catholics were forced to practice their faith secretly.
No Catholic community was more heavily repressed than the 3 million Oriental-rite Catholics in the western Ukraine. In 1946, their church was officially absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church.
“While Stalin was still alive, most of our faithful would listen to Mass over Vatican Radio in their cellars,” recalls a Ukrainian priest.
Vatican Radio also helped isolated Catholics like the Lithuanians to keep the faith during the Cold War.
“Vatican Radio often came under attack by Moscow,” says Father Pasquale Borgomeo, the radio network’s director general. “Our aim was not only to help people retain their faith but also their cultural identity, as in the Baltic republics.”
Today, if anything, the Vatican’s policy is to urge gradual independence so as to avoid a violent backlash by Soviet hardliners.
Despite the thaw in the Soviet Union, Vatican Radio still plays a vital role in areas where church teachings remain banned. Strict Islamic laws in Saudi Arabia, for example, forbid Christian worship.
In Vietnam, bishops unable to travel to Rome for the opening sessions of the Episcopal Synod followed the proceedings via Vatican Radio. And in China, Vatican Radio transmits Mass in Chinese every Sunday to clandestine Catholics.
“The radio continues to be very important in any part of the world where people cannot reach the physical church,” says Archbishop John Patrick Foley, an American from Philadelphia.