Letter from Rome

The End of Vatican Radio
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, papal spokesman and retired Director General of Vatican Radio

Pope Francis has been back from Mexico only a week and already his travel organizers are quietly planning his next foreign journey. And if there is any truth to rumors being whispered in coffee shops nestled throughout Borgo Pio and down the Via della Conciliazione the next destination is likely to be Istanbul.

That’s right. Word is the pope wants to attend the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, which the United Nations will be hosting May 23-24 in the Turkish capital.

The summit, which is the brainchild of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, will bring together governments, humanitarian organizations, and people affected by humanitarian crises in order to find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges and “set an agenda to keep humanitarian action fit for the future.”

The participation of Pope Francis, who has emerged as one of the most outspoken champions for the poor and those in need, would give the two-day meeting a huge boost. It would also offer the 79-year-old pope the opportunity to hold another meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, at his residence (the Phanar) in Istanbul. 

The two leaders have developed a warm and productive relationship. It began back in 2013 when Bartholomew, who is primus inter pares in the Orthodox Church, attended Francis’s installation as Bishop of Rome. He was the first ecumenical patriarch in history to attend such a ceremony.

The pope has already been to Turkey, having gone to Ankara and Istanbul over the course of three days in November 2014. Another visit, while primarily focused on the World Humanitarian Summit, would offer him the opportunity to further strengthen his already intense efforts at significantly advancing Catholic-Orthodox relations.

It would come just a few months after his landmark meeting in Cuba with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. And it would also take place just weeks before an historic pan-Orthodox “Holy and Great Council” is held from June 16-27 on the Greek island of Crete.

There had been speculation that Pope Francis would attend the Orthodox council, the first of its kind in twelve centuries. But it appears that he will send a message and a delegate.

****

The pope’s trip to Mexico was the last one for Alberto Gasbarri, an Italian layman who’s been organizing the papal foreign journeys the past ten years.

But this universally recognized “gentleman” has actually been part of the organizational team for far longer than that. In 1982 he became the assistant to Fr. Roberto Tucci, a Jesuit and future cardinal, who had been hired that same year to replace U.S. Archbishop Paul Marcinkus as the pope’s primary travel agent.

Tucci and Gasparri were not plucked from oblivion for the sensitive and demanding mission. They both came from Vatican Radio, not at all a minor detail (more on that in a moment.) The then-Fr. Tucci was Director General back then, a post he would hold until 1985 when he was named the radio’s president. And Gasbarri, who began as a sound technician, was the radio’s administrative director.  

The man who has inherited their work and will now organize the pope’s foreign trips is Msgr. Mauricio Rueda Beltz. He’s a 46-year-old papal diplomat from Colombia who is currently an official in the Secretariat of State. Meanwhile, Dr. Gasbarri, who has just turned seventy, is also retiring from his top job at Vatican Radio. And not only he.

Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J. is also stepping down as the radio’s Director General, a position he’s held since 2005. (He remains as director of the Holy See Press Office, at least for now.)

They will not be replaced. Instead, a “legal representative” will temporarily oversee their work. Thus, for the first time since its establishment eighty-five years ago Vatican Radio will no longer be under the direction of the Society of Jesus. In fact, Vatican Radio—as such—soon will no longer exist.

As part of efforts to reorganize the Vatican’s communications and media efforts, it is being merged with CTV (Centro Televisivo Vaticano), the Vatican’s tiny video production center. The newly-formed Secretariat for Communications made the formal announcement this past Monday.

“In the context of the reform, the pope has expressed his desire that the Jesuits continue serving in the field of communications,” said Fr. Lombardi this week. “But with Vatican Radio no longer existing, which was entrusted to the Jesuits by statute, we’ll need to see how we can clearly identify a new area of responsibility for [us],” he added.

The Society of Jesus has generously given men in service to the radio the past eight decades. They have been heads of its more than forty-five different language programs, as well as other administrative departments. And what is hardly ever acknowledged is that they have provided cheap but essential labor and spiritual guidance to the several hundred or more people who’ve worked there over the years.

Having once worked there for more than a decade, I can only express my deepest gratitude to the Jesuits for their generous service.

****

It was somewhat ironic, if not depressing, that the official announcement of “the end of Vatican Radio as we know it” came on the same day that employees of the tiny papal state had their own special Holy Year celebration with Pope Francis.

On Monday, Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the pope gathered for mid-morning prayer in the Paul VI Hall with Vatican personnel at every level—clerics, professed religious and laity. It was the first of a two-prong celebration of the Jubilee of the Roman Curia, the Governorate and Institutions Connected to the Holy See (as it was actually called).

Fr. Marko Ivan Rupnik, the Slovenian Jesuit theologian known for his stunningly beautiful mosaics, gave a moving meditation on mercy in daily life. He said it was urgent that Catholics, especially those in Rome, presented to our so terribly fragmented society the witness of “an inclusive Church” that resisted every temptation to act like a state or an empire. 

Afterwards, the several thousand people in the assembly made a small procession or symbolic pilgrimage across the St. Peter’s Square and through the Holy Door into the papal basilica. In a touching scene, Pope Francis walked among them—not leading, not following, but in the midst and the mix of the people. But then it was pretty much all down hill from there.

Once inside the large temple, which is the mausoleum for more than ninety of the 264 dead popes, Francis presided at a large concelebrated Mass that was typically baroque and bombastic. He delivered a surprisingly uninspiring homily in a tired-sounding voice. The whole exercise seemed perfunctory and hardly jubilant, as if this “celebration” was all someone else’s idea.

Perhaps it was. And most likely the idea to have a special Jubilee for the curia would have been hatched in the offices of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the body in charge of coordinating the Holy Year of Mercy.

Its president, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, seems to be modeling much of this extraordinary year’s activities on those from the Great Jubilee of 2000. One thing is for sure—he’s still trying to play the numbers game.

On February 11 his office issued a “balance sheet” or assessment of the “first big Jubilee event.” That would have been the exposition of the bodies of the two Capuchin Saints—Padre Pio of Petralcina and Leopoldo Mandic—and the Ash Wednesday commissioning of the Missionaries of Mercy.

“All together there were half a million people in one week in Rome,” the communiqué said, adding that this “exceeded all expectations.” It said the public veneration of the travelling saints made a big impact on the entire city of Rome.

No doubt.

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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