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Vatican Radio exemplifies church's nervous efforts to make peace with progress

Special Reports Writer

Change happens slowly in the Vatican. Ask anyone. Ask Galileo Galilei. Ask Charles Darwin. Ask Sean Lovett.

Lovett's standard explanation goes something like this: "Three cardinals were waiting outside the Pearly Gates, sure of getting in, but St. Peter was unconvinced of their merit. 'Look,' said Heaven's gate-keeper, 'I gave you the Internet. I gave you satellites. I gave you the World Wide Web. What did you do with it? Why didn't you use it?' "

The point is, the Vatican only recently discovered that "technology is not diabolical," said Lovett, who directs the English-language programs for Vatican Radio.

On the rooftop of Vatican Radio's office block, Lovett points with his left hand to the Castle of St. Angelo and with his right toward the Dome of St. Peter's. Near each of the ancient landmarks is a recently installed transmitting tower that disseminates the station's 24-hour programming in 46 languages to some 170 nations.

The towers, which some cardinals were loathe to let onto Vatican lawns, are painted "an ecological green," said Lovett, who picked his way carefully between the rooftop satellite dishes. Now that the cardinals "realize what the new technology can do for them," they're more favorably disposed, he said.

After all, Lovett is quick to point out, it was a very savvy Pius XI who in 1931 asked one of the leading scientists of his day -- radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi, how he could have his papal message heard around the world. The pope had been impressed by the power of radio to save lives aboard the sinking Titanic and knew that he, too, wanted to save lives.

Like many church leaders today, "Pius didn't understand technology but he had the guts and foresight to call in the top man," who set up a the first mike ever used by Marconi and introduced Pius to the world from the Vatican, Lovett said, adding, "It's like John Paul II calling up Bill Gates," head of the Microsoft computer software empire.

Still a few members of the Vatican finance committee shake their heads disapprovingly each year when they see the $26 million expenditure for the station in the Vatican's budget. "Can we really justify this?" is a legitimate question that Lovett and others among the radio's 600 employees annually answer positively.

In the Cold War era, Vatican Radio was often the only voice heard in the catacomb churches of Eastern Europe. "People knelt in darkened rooms in front of their receivers and listened to the Bible being read on the air. We were the oral tradition because the printed word of God couldn't exist," said Lovett, a South African who was educated in Britain and came to Vatican Radio in 1976 after working in broadcasting for the U.S. Bishops' Conference in Washington.

Lovett likes to define Vatican Radio by what it is not. "It is not the mouthpiece of the pope, not the Vatican press office, not a sound version of L'Osservatore Romano." Rather "it is the interface between the church and the world, which tells the listener how the church and the world interrelate," he said.

So what does Vatican Radio "do for an encore" after communism's collapse? It is doing what the church did in its early days -- going into the marketplace and into the pagan temples with its message, said Lovett.

Of course if you don't live in Rome, where you can pick it up on on FM, you may have to patiently search it out on short wave. In 13 American states, however, Catholic, cable and commercial stations subscribe to Vatican Radio programs, representing a potential audience of 25 million listeners.

Most of these states are in the Northeast, the South or on the Pacific rim. But the Morman church's KSL-FM in Salt Lake City is also a subscriber as are stations in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri.

Members of Vatican Radio's English service are pleased with inroads they've made to U.S. broadcasters, station managers and program producers in the most video-dependent nation on earth. Lovett believes that the station's programming is of a quality and content unlikely to be heard elsewhere.

Still some potential buyers have said no, noting that Vatican broadcasts contain too much justice and peace material. One Rhode Island station thought the content was "too left -wing," Lovett said.

Among the most popular programs are "The Rome Report," which looks at current aspects of world concern -- such as poverty, unemployment, the economy -- and gives the church's perspective on these issues. Frequently papal texts and speeches are incorporated into the commentary.

The three-minute "Ask the Abbot," is a kind of Catholic "Dear Abby," which 36 U.S. stations pick up. It's "everything you always wanted to learn about your faith, but didn't know whom to ask," Lovett said. Questions have ranged from "Is it a sin to drive too fast?" to a child's query of "Will I see mommy and daddy when I die?"

The abbot, Benedictine Fr. Gilbert Jones, a former actor in Britain, has also taken on heavier matters like annulments and transubstantiation.

Lives of the saints and witnesses of martyrs have also proved popular segments as has "Postcards From Rome," a kind of travelogue of Roman sights and history.

Much of Vatican Radio's newly won popularity stems from the fact that "it has something to say about everything." Whether people agree or disagree, they are curious about an institution that has lasted 2,000 years, survived schisms, warring councils and three popes at one time, Lovett said.

Although its main purpose is to inform and instruct, "our vocation is also to inspire. We're here to help people get to heaven," he said. Hence the station recently launched a campaign and poster titled, "Listen ... for heaven's sake."

Is there a censor inside the Vatican who also listens? Lovett said he has never been told what he should or should not say, but he has received calls from the secretary of state's office seeking further clarification about some programs.

"There's a great deal of trust here," he said, noting that it would be easier for the Vatican to "keep tabs" on English-language shows than on those in Arabic, Serbo-Croatian or Vietnamese.

When Lovett came to the station 20 years ago, some 80 percent of the staff were priests and nuns. Today that figure is between 30 and 40 percent, he reckoned, and indicates greater reliance on Catholic lay professionals.

Will Vatican Radio become the leading instrument in Pope John Paul's worldwide evangelizing efforts in the third millennium? Only time and the monthly program guide will tell.

But one thing Lovett stands convinced of as he moves gingerly among the rooftop satellite dishes: "Never in the history of humankind have we known so much and understood so little." Such a situation may be the perfect predicament for a radio beamer.

National Catholic Reporter, June 5, 1998