A Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. Dionne Warwick and Elvis Presley. Brahms and Palestrina. Multi-language news programs. Church services in the Byzantine Slavic rite.
All of this is typical fare on Vatican Radio, one of the world’s most popular audio broadcasting services, which celebrated its 60th birthday Feb. 12.
“Every week we reach about 10 million people – not all of them Catholics,” says Father Pasquale Borgomeo, the radio network’s 57-year-old director general.
Despite this far-flung, eclectic audience, the radio is definitely an arm of the Vatican. Its first duty is to broadcast to the faithful throughout the world the Pope’s spiritual and temporal teachings.
When John Paul II made his final appeals to President Bush and Saddam Hussein to resolve the Persian Gulf crisis peacefully, at his weekly audience Jan. 16, the words were sped underground by cable to a transmitter behind St. Peter’s Basilica.
A fraction of a second later, the Pope’s voice was relayed via microwaves to a 500-kilowatt transmitter at Vatican Radio’s worldwide broadcast center, located in rolling farmland 18 kilometers to the north.
There, twin rotatable antennas 348 feet high, among the largest in the world, sent the Pope’s voice to countries as geographically and culturally distant as China and Zaire.
Not all of Vatican Radio’s programs are beamed outside Continental Europe. In one sense, however, Vatican Radio vies with the BBC as the most universal broadcasting service on Earth.
“We transmit in 34 languages,” explains Maurizio Venuti, senior electronics engineer. “Our aim is to reach every corner of the world.”
Like most of the 425 employees of Vatican Radio, Venuti is a lay Catholic. Top executive positions at the station are filled by the 30 Jesuits on the staff. They tend to have M.A.s or Ph.D.s and years of experience in communicating ideas.
A case in point is the technical director, Father Eugenio Matis. Youthful and lean at 65, Matis earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from California’s Santa Clara U. in 1959. He spent the next 24 years teaching at Tsing Hua U. in Taiwan.
Though Vatican Radio lacks the relay stations that make the Voice of America and the BBC audible worldwide, its transmitters send a strong signal over AM, FM and 31 shortwave frequencies.
Technical excellence has been a hallmark of the station since 1930, when Italy’s electronics genius Guglielmo Marconi supervised the building of the Vatican broadcasting station at the request of Pope Pius XI.
The idea that the Vatican should have its own radio station was shaped by the violent events of 1870, when troops from the newly united Italian army invaded the Papal State, which covered most of central Italy.
The Pope’s troops were routed, and in the climactic act of unification, the capital of Italy was transferred from its temporary seat in Florence to its natural site, Rome.
Though Italians remained overwhelmingly Catholic, the Pope, Pio Nono (Pius IX), became “a prisoner of the Vatican.” He chose not to leave the small complex of buildings surrounding St. Peter’s Basilica, so he would not have to set foot on Italian soil.
This tension continued until Feb. 11,1929, when a triumphant Benito Mussolini and the Vatican’s Secretary of State signed the Lateran Pact, establishing Vatican City as a separate state covering 108.7 acres with its own army (the Swiss Guards), its own postal system, fire department and railroad station.
On July 25,1929, Pius XI became the first pontiff in 59 years to set foot on Italian soil when he led a eucharistic procession in St. Peter’s Square.
But Pius XI felt the need to step far beyond Rome itself, to the entire world. The answer was radio.
On Feb. 22,1931, with Marconi looking on proudly, Pius XI sat down before the microphones of the Vatican’s new radio station. Though he spoke somewhat stiffly in Latin, his tone was jubilant. “Hear and listen… oh distant peoples,” he proclaimed in Old Testament style.
That evening, aides broadcast translations of the Pope’s Latin text in the world’s major languages.
Americans heard the English version from the lips of a monsignor from the Secretariat of State who would become one of the most famous postwar cardinals: Francis Spellman.
And the world did listen, as the Pope had willed it to. The New York Herald reported, “Few events in history can match the impression of hearing the message that the head of the Roman Catholic Church broadcast to the entire world.”
The Apostolic Delegate to Bulgaria, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, sent a telegram auguring “abundant spiritual fruits from the science of radio.”
And the most touching and bizarre praise of all arrived from a totally deaf man in Prague, who said he had heard the Pope’s voice with absolute clarity by means of a wire running from the radio set to his teeth.
Pius XI had appointed a distinguished Jesuit physicist, Father Giuseppe Gianfranceschi, as Vatican Radio’s first director. At its founding, the radio service was staffed almost exclusively by Jesuits.
Traditionally the church’s intellectuals and linguists, the Jesuits were also independent-minded, a trait that led to conflicts with the Secretariat of State. Unlike the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, the radio station was not under the direct supervision of t he Secretariat. Its Jesuit broadcasters could put a political spin on the news – up to a point.
Cautiously, Vatican Radio began to take an independent line from that of the Fascist government, which the Vatican depended on for certain services – electrical current first of all.
Though the Vatican was officially neutral and avoided controversy with secular governments, in 1938 Pius XI established a “Catholic Information Service,” staffed by Jesuits, to combat the atheistic propaganda being churned out by dictatorships, not only in Germany, Italy, and Japan, but – most fiercely – in the Soviet Union.
This information service was put to the test during the war, when Jesuit broadcasters sent 1,240,728 separate shortwave messages all over the planet concerning POWs and missing persons.
On Jan. 23,1940, an American Jesuit, Father Coffey, broadcast what was probably the first report of the embryonic Holocaust: “Jews and Polish prisoners are being enclosed in new ghettos, tightly sealed…”
Among the station’s powerful enemies was the evil genius of Nazi propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. “Vatican Radio must be silenced!” he decreed in 1940. It never was, though at least a dozen priests in Europe died in concentration camps for collaborating with the information service.
A younger Pope, meanwhile, mounted the throne of Peter. As Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli had been obliged occasionally to summon the Vatican Radio’s new director, Father Soccorsi, to complain about some overtly political broadcasting.
As Pope, Pius XII sent his first message to the world through microphones set up on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. He would use the radio often, and effectively, to plead for peace and to speak to what would become known – with the onset of the Cold War – as the “church of silence.”
By 1949, Vatican Radio was broadcasting in 19 languages, including Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Lithuanian and Latvian.
Its familiar musical signature was introduced the following year, 1950, which was also a Holy Year in the eyes of the Catholic Church. The theme was adapted from a hymn, “Christus Vincit,” by the Czech composer Jan Kunc.
The Holy Year also seemed an appropriate time to renew the station’s equipment. The original l0kw transmitters and antennas, installed in a disused tower at the edge of the Vatican wall so as not to compete architecturally with Michelangelo’s cupola at St. Peter’s, still functioned but were outdated.
The campaign for more powerful transmitters was led by Monsignor Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Paul VI. Dutch Catholics raised nearly 1 million florins for a l00kw Philips transmitter.
Seven years later, Pius XII was driven north of Rome to a 4.5-square-mile plot of farmland that had originally been set aside for the Jesuit order by St. Ignatius, and which belonged to the German and Hungarian Pontifical College.
There, the Pope inaugurated the new transmission center, with its shortwave antennas rising from the fields like ship masts.
The following year, 1958, saw the introduction of the first regular news program on Vatican Radio, the “Radiogiornale.”
Almost the first task of its Jesuit and lay staffers was to cover the death of Pius XII on Oct. 9,1958, and the election of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli – the former Apostolic Delegate to Bulgaria – as Pope John XXIII.
By the time the homely and aged John XXIII stood before the cheering crowds in St. Peter’s Square, television had replaced radio as the world’s most influential source of information.
Nevertheless, after Pope John convened the Vatican Council on Oct. 11,1962, Vatican Radio recorded every speech over the next three years of deliberations.