Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Making (Radio) Waves

I was checking my LinkedIn account a couple of months ago, and saw that I had a request to connect from Seàn-Patrick Lovett, the director of English language programming at Vatican Radio ( I knew him only by name, but immediately answered that I hoped our paths might cross someday while I was still in Rome. He graciously wrote back and suggested that we meet. After we were finally able to find a convenient date in early December, I made my way to his simple, unadorned office around the corner from via della Conciliazione, the broad street that runs into St. Peter’s.

He leaves his door open to visitors and co-workers alike and, as I discovered, to unexpected emergencies. With its staff from fifty-nine nations, Vatican Radio, always at the service of the Holy See, reaches radio stations worldwide in over forty languages. So, there are bound to be surprises in the course of a day.

Of course, there’s its indirect reach, too. For instance, Columbian-born Sr. Maria Ruth Reyes, one of our U.S. Daughters, incorporates into her weekly program, Jesús en mi vida diaria, a recording of the voice of Pope Benedict speaking in Spanish that she receives from Vatican Radio. Besides their Web presence, our U.S. radio programs, now in their 21st year, are sent gratis to over 100 stations around the world. Actually, as one of the beneficiaries of this service, Vatican Radio itself edits our program for its own purposes before broadcasting it in turn.

This is a far cry from Pope Pius XI’s first broadcast—in Latin—82 years ago. At the pope’s request, inventor Guglielmo Marconi had recently built the station to make the thought of the pope better known. It was during the Second World War and later during the Communist era, though, that the station distinguished itself as a source of free information and outreach, in its service to POWs, other military personnel, and displaced civilians, connecting them with their families. Broadcasts of the Second Vatican Council in 30 languages and, since then, technological advances in its service to press agencies and news media, plus coverage of the popes’ travels, launched Vatican Radio into the information, then the digital, age.

It’s those papal travels and his own teaching trips that color Seàn’s career/mission with the radio, a journey of more miles than he can count. He hales from Cape Town, South Africa, describing himself as “African by birth, Irish in origin, and Italian by adoption.” Seàn arrived in Rome 35 years ago, married, and settled here. He and his Italian wife have two grown sons, one who is as passionate about communication as his father, and a younger one who is going into law on behalf of the disadvantaged.

Irio Fantini. The prophecy of Balaam. Vatican Radio.
This belongs to a series of paintings envisioned by the
artist, to depict communication in the Bible. For the
 story of Balaam going where the Lord sent him and
saying what the Lord wanted, cf. Numbers 22.
When he arrived in Rome, Seàn didn’t know that a future with Vatican Radio was in the stars. In fact, he had been working as a war correspondent in the Middle East and in Ireland for Catholic News Service. He was praying one day before the Eucharist in St. Peter’s, not at all certain in which direction he should go, or even if he should stay with the media. In a moment of desperate prayer, he felt he heard the assurance: You are where I want you to be. You’re doing what I want you to do.

It was his call, and he believes it continues to shape every other call he has, including his total following of Christ, as he says, to love the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength (cf. Mk 12:30).

His studies in communication (he attended the Gregorian University, “The Greg,” here in Rome) as well as his 35 years of experience at Vatican Radio equip him to offer training and formation courses in communication to religious orders wherever there’s a need. This commitment has taken him to places like South Africa, Zambia, the Ukraine, and India. At the invitation of the former vicar general of the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master, he will head out to the Philippines later this year. There, both the new professed sisters and the community’s leadership will participate in his course, so that both levels will receive the same message. This contributes to a certain continuity in their project of formation in communication. He used to direct both Italian and English programming at Vatican Radio, but the demands of that role kept him from doing the teaching he loved. So he dropped the Italian part and is now better able to fit the Greg in on the side.

I don’t know if you knew this, but I didn’t; I must have missed class that day: The Vatican Telephone Exchange is staffed by the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master, as part of their mission to the clergy. (This Pauline congregation was founded by Fr. Alberione with a liturgical/Eucharistic focus. If you go to St. Peter’s, you’ll see them taking turns for adoration in the Blessed Sacrament chapel.) A few Pauline brothers assist them. In the passage from analog to digital technology, Seàn trained the sisters, who range in age from twenty-something to seventy and who speak a variety of languages. Call the Vatican, and you’ll get a PDDM on the other end of the line. They receive thousands of calls daily. As Seàn puts it, topics range from “How much does it cost to get into the Vatican Museums?” to “My child just died, and I want to kill myself.” His sessions continue to update them even on technique and public relations. Their love for the Gospel and the People of God meshes well with his ministry to them. 

I. Fantini. Fresco in the Sala Marconi of all the popes
who have addressed the world through Vatican Radio.
In Seàn’s second year at Vatican Radio, Paul VI died, John Paul I was elected, and died 34 days later. Then John Paul II was elected. Seàn talked about what he learned about communication from each one. “John Paul I was eclipsed by John Paul II,” but “he taught me that [Revelation] is not just dogma. It’s communication, and communication is feminine. John Paul took a risk and spoke about God also as our Mother, * who loves us unconditionally. A person may be a murderer, a rapist, or any other criminal, but his mother will never stop loving him. The Church is our mother, and that doesn’t mean she just cleans up our messes.” 

Irio Fantini. The Tower of Babel and Pentecost.
Vatican Radio
As he spoke I was reminded of the great Church document on communication, Communio et progressio. The whole first part describes the great moments of Revelation in terms of communication. In fact, it basically states that this is what Revelation is: God communicating with humanity. If the Church has been entrusted with that Revelation, this means that she is not only its communicator, but is herself part of that communication with the world. American Fr. Bob Bonnot goes so far as to say that only when theology (which is based on Revelation) is understood as communication, will the Church fully and universally embrace media and acknowledge its role in evangelization.

Seàn connected divine and human communication this way: “Communication has to have meaning; otherwise, it’s chaos. The challenge of the human experience is to search for that meaning and to never stop questioning. We need to use our sensory experience to search for that meaning whenever we can.”

He then reminisced about Pope Wojtyla:
“Working with John Paul II for 26 years, I learned transparency. He spoke about the Church as a glass house. It’s a most exquisite image under two aspects. One, it speaks about two-way transparency. There has to be good will on both sides, and two, it can break easily. There’s vulnerability. In the moment I communicate, I open myself to being hurt.”
Here Seàn stopped to reflect aloud on confrontations he’s witnessed time and again between representatives of the Church and of the media culture:
“We need to be aware of oversimplification. I hear exponents of the Catholic Church blasting the media, and those outside saying that the Catholic Church has it all wrong…plus variations on the theme. I want to say: Both of you, stop throwing stones! With your stereotypes and your inability to hear each other, you’re creating havoc and destroying it all.”
He’s right. Those who speak for the Church need to speak in language the culture can understand. We can do it! After all, we have a great track record here. If the Church’s missionary activity has succeeded at all, it’s because we’ve made ourselves understood within cultures in ways that are often new to our evangelizers. On the other hand, the media culture has to recognize that the Church has something valid to say even if it doesn’t fit into a sound bite or within the limited categories the culture has constructed. Of course, only when this culture breaks free of the consumerism that dictates what’s important will this even be possible.

Irio Fantini. St. Paul the Apostle evangelizes the
Athenians. Vatican Radio
Seàn continued:
“It takes intelligence, humility, and courage. Listening to others requires both left and right brain. Recognize what you don’t know. Not everyone will agree with you or like what you’re doing. Persecution is the litmus test that what you’re doing has value. We’re called to go against the flow; that’s what make our faith so exciting. The early saints did this; that’s why we’re still talking about them. Define the culture and work from within to transform the context. The prophet sees the context, steps out of it, and brings others to realize what’s not working and to ask what can.”

Just as Fr. Alberione did. Then he took it one step further: He acted on what could work. In fact, this aspect of his labor and his legacy is what made him a pioneer in media evangelization. At a time when many in the Church limited their views on media to  denouncing what was evil—I’m thinking especially of the 1920’s and 30’s—he, with men and women Paulines, made a positive contribution, even in the face of misunderstanding and criticism. Production and distribution of print and recorded materials, of films and radio transmissions became key elements in this contribution.

Chapel of the Annunciation,
Vatican Radio
The Pauline project differed in an important way from those who worked exclusively in the business sector, even when they offered religious materials: the intention. The Christmas season points to this essential aspect of Pauline dedication, whether it’s done by lay or religious members. “Jesus, Divine Master,” Alberione taught us to pray, “we adore you with the angels who sang the reasons for your incarnation: ‘Glory to God and peace to all people.’ We thank you for having called us to share in your own mission. Set us on fire with zeal for God and for souls….”

It’s no accident that the single laymen and single laywomen in Pauline institutes are called Gabrielites and Annunciationists. Nor is it an accident that the room at Vatican Radio where Liturgy and devotions are celebrated with the world is called the Chapel of the Annunciation. Living for the glory of God and the peace of his people makes all the difference.

“Laudetur Iesus Christus,” “Praised be Jesus Christ,” is not only Vatican Radio’s motto. It’s a way of life.

* For further reflection on this, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church
, n. 239, and the works of other spiritual writers, most notably, Julian of Norwich.


  1. Thanks for this post Sr. Margaret. I envy our PDDM Sisters but perhaps we can find a way to "sit in" during Sean's future talk with them here in the Philippines :)
    Via con Dios!

  2. Great article, Sr. Margaret. Thank you and congratulations!

  3. Great post, Sr. Margaret. Blessings for the New Year! It's below freezing here in Boston, so enjoy the "warmer" climate while you can! Sr. Margaret Timothy

  4. Very well done and so informative. You have a great gift for communicating! Thank you for using it so well.

  5. Dear Sr. Margaret Joseph -- Many thanks for finding time to share your wonderful experiences in Rome. Please let us know if there are plans for lectures/workshops in USA (perhaps New York, Boston or California) with Seàn-Patrick Lovett, the director of English language programming at Vatican Radio. This could make the ground fertile for inspiring, replicating, and/or mirroring in a modest way the excellent work he is doing for the glory of God and for peace to all men through radio & social communication. May God continue to bless abundantly all who spread the Gospel and all who open their hearts and keep the Word of God. Amen.
    Respectfully -- Margie


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