It’s 5:55 a.m. Rome is wrapped in winter darkness, the capital’s mad traffic still a drowsy trickle. At the Tiber end of the Via della Conciliazione – the wide road leading from the river to the Vatican – people are going to work.

They hurry into an official looking stone building known as Palazzo Pio. This is the headquarters of Vatican Radio.

Until Jan. 17, the news editors taking the elevators up to the fourth floor enjoyed a leisurely 6:15 a.m. start to the working day. Since then, the demands of reporting the Persian Gulf war convinced their boss, Roberto Piermarini, 38, to advance this by 20 minutes.

Quatro lingos

Piermarini is editor-in-chief of Vatican Radio’s most popular program, “Four Voices.” The voices are four languages: Italian, French, English and Spanish. The program is beamed throughout Europe, but some listeners in North America – and even in Australia – say they have picked it up.

In his office, Piermarini and his editors sort through copy from seven wire services: AP, Agence France Presse, Reuters, EFE (Spain), English-language Tass and two Italian agencies, ANSA and AGI-AP. Piermarini then turns his attention to the interviews and reports phoned in by Vatican Radio’s 120 stringers worldwide.

“We normally use about 20 stringers’ reports a day,” he says, “or five for each language.”

While the dozen news editors assemble the morning’s program from these sources, Vatican Radio’s antennas 18 kilometers to the north are transmitting morning Mass worldwide over shortwave. Mass is in Latin, still the universal language of the Catholic Church.

Covering the war

As the time comes up to 7:55, the two Italian editors take their places in the recording booth. This morning – Friday, Jan. 18 – the lead story is Iraq’s first Scud missile attack on Israel. Three more reports follow, all centered on the gulf war.

The fifth item is an interview with Bishop Raphael I. Bidawid, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans (the ecclesiastical province of central Iraq).

“People talk of a quick war, but I think it will be a long war,” Bishop Bidawid warns listeners.

After 15 minutes a pair of French broadcasters take over from the Italians, following a snappy five-second musical bridge. Vatican Radio is a nonprofit station, so there are no sponsor breaks.

After the French come the English-language broadcasters. One is a middle-aged Scot, Henry McConnachie, the other a young American, Andrea Montalbano, the daughter of the Los Angeles Times correspondent in Rome.

McConnachie’s soft Scottish burr alternates with Montalbano’s rather shy American voice. Though the program is called “Four Voices,” the listener actually hears eight voices reading the world news – two for each language.

A pair of Spanish-speaking editors close the program, which comes back on the air at 12:30 p.m. in an updated 30-minute edition, and again at 5 p.m.

“Four Voices” was first aired by Vatican Radio in 1975 as a show for pilgrims coming to Rome for the Holy Year. “It proved so popular,” Piermarini says, “that it evolved into a news program.”

He reports that letters from the program’s fans have been received from countries as distant as Iceland and New Zealand.

News in a single language goes on the air at 2:30 p.m. Italian comes first, followed by Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, German and Polish.

There is no discernible slant on the news in any of the programs, except for a greater emphasis on church events.

At “Four Voices,” Piermarini ably balances his items. The interview with Bishop Bidawid, for example, which had a subtle pro-Iraq slant, was offset with reports from Jerusalem, Washington and London.

Spanning the globe…

After the final edition of “Four Voices” goes off the air at 5:30, Vatican Radio’s shortwave newscasts to other continents occupy the 27 antennas in the rolling farmland north of Rome.

News programs beamed at Africa follow one another in English, French and Portuguese. “We try to tailor all of these programs to the audience,” says Father Pasquale Borgomeo, the station’s director general.

A program broadcast to West Africa takes up the painful problem of pregnancy among very young girls. A woman doctor tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who remained crippled after giving birth to a baby who died immediately. The doctor has no qualms about uttering the words “vagina” and “vaginal” over the “Pope’s radio.”

News programs beamed to Japan often involve discussions about the ethics of suicide and the immortality of the soul.

While the African broadcasts are going out over the 17710,17730 and 21650 shortwave frequencies, other antennas are transmitting similar news programs in Armenian, Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Latvian and Lithuanian on the 1161 6185, 7365 and 9755 frequencies.

These regional news programs enable the Vatican to stay in touch on a daily basis with the local churches: priest, nuns and lay persons.

Musical programs are interspersed with news and religious functions throughout the day. The musical range is enormous, from “Pop On The Road” (Beatles, Rolling Stones, Procol Harum, Chicago, Genesis, etc.) to great screen scores, sacred and classical music.

From midnight to 2 a.m., Rome time, Vatican Radio broadcasts “With You In The Night.” This excellent music program is broadcast only on AM and FM.

If listeners hear the Latin words “Laudetur Iesus Christus,” they’ve found Vatican Radio. Those words are the station’s call sign.

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