Jonathan Kemp has a few well chosen words for the men with their fingers on the Vatican's media buttons
IN THE early days of John Paul 11's Pontificate, I was in Rome for a UCIP (Union of Catholic International Press) Congress. We were invited to a meeting at which we were to be told about the work of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications — a high sounding title, illustrative of the ponderous approach of the Vatican to the matter. Why not simply the "Vatican Media Office"?
At this gathering a speaker from the Commission boasted that they had translated all of Pope Paul VI's important addresses into most of the languages of the world. At question time I asked to be directed to the Media Office with a sinking feeling of having strayed into the archives of the Vatican. I announced my interest in what Pope John Paul had said yesterday, or better still today, and ideally what he would say tomorrow.
I was so bitterly disappointed at the Vatican attitude towards the media that I wrote a letter to Mgr Panciroli, Secretary of the
Pontifical Commission for Social Communications enclosing a memo on what the Vatican should do in practical terms. I don't remember even getting an acknowledgement.
At a later date I expressed my views to a cardinal of international stature. He told me that such memos were invariably filed and would no doubt be held against me, but assured me the only way that any change in a curial office of the Vatican "might" be made, was to express criticism in public. He added "try to be constructive".
The decree of the second Vatican Council on Social Communications was in many ways an excellent document. It dealt fully with the question of "what to communicate", but neglected the changes in and the influence of communications themselves.
After all, it is less than 150 years since Stephenson invented the steam locomotive. Until then for thousands of years the swiftest means of communication available to man was the horse. Today man has been to the moon and back, and can report what the Pope says in Rome by radio and television almost instantaneously in Australia. The Church ought to ask someone like Professor O'Halloran of Leicester, an authority on communications, to prepare a paper on adapting its antique machinery to the technical age.
The Vatican Council decree hardly touched on the subject of "how to communicate", and as far as I am aware, the Pontifical Commission has made very few practical changes since then, or explained the reasons for them if it has.
For example, the decree said that individual bishops' conferences were to set up National Offices for informing the media in every country. Yet it gave no guidance as to what was to be the function of these bureaus, nor on their raison d'etre.
Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin a distinguished churchman and a loyal subject of the Holy See, accordingly set up a press office in Dublin with Ossy Dowling at its head, but had little or nothing to do. The archbishop had loyally followed the directives of Rome, but the result reflected the Vatican's own confused mind.
The Vatican Media Office itself had little idea what it was about. On the first occasion it was asked for an opinion the reply was "no comment".
Things have not changed substantially since then. A layman was recently appointed, Joaquim Navarro-Vallas, a member of Opus Dei. Opinions on this organisation are divided, but whatever your views, it is hardly distinguished by its open communications.
The Vatican boasts about the
techniCal facilities of Radio Vatican but it is popularly known as the "Secret Service". Who in Britain and Ireland ever hears the English service of Radio Vatican? The English weekly newspaper Osservatore Romano, which is published in Rome, does circulate in a limited way in Britain and Ireland, but since the news is out of date even when it is printed, on arrival in the shops by post it is completely stale, a flat souffle.
In the Vatican there are ranks of telex machines. When I asked Archbishop Foley, who was appointed as head of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications in 1984, whether the telexes were in use, he told me that they sent information to the nunciatures in the various countries. What use to the public is this when the information once received, seldom sees the light of day elsewhere?
Archbishop Foley's office apparently prepares daily press reports, but these repeatedly have a limited circulation which certainly does not include the Catholic Herald in London.
The financial outlay to set up an effective Vatican Media Office would be minimal. The archbishop may talk about the use of satellites and videos, bin the major obstacle to change is the curial and general Church's secretive attitude to the media.
The management of any such office would require experienced media men, but far more important Archbishop Foley would require immediate access to all sections of the curia, and when necessary the Holy Father himself.
The equipment itself probaly already exists and would really be standard office fare such as photocopiers, duplicators, telex, facsimile, and so on. In due course the office would need a reference library and similar libraries for photographs, press cuttings, obituaries and alike and make them available. Experienced translators for at least English, French, German and Spanish would be essential.
A news service on the lines of any press office or news agency could then be distributed by telex to local Catholic press offices in various countries for passing on to the media.
One has to remember that it is only just over 20 years ago that the first session of Vatican II was intended to be totally secret. It did not succeed in that aim, and subsequent sessions were fully reported. Xavier Rynne, a Redemptorist priest trading under a pseudonym, wrote a book on each session; when our sister paper, the Scottish Catholic Observer serialised the first book, it was threatened with a ban by the then Auxiliary of Glasgow Bishop Ward.
The decree on communications spoke of the media as a gift from God — why then is the Church so suspicious of using it effectively?
Our Lord told us to go and teach all nations, that is what communications is about — not come and uncover!