The image conjured in many minds when speaking of Vatican communications is a hooded monk with a quilled pen transcribing an ancient document.
I remember an anti-Catholic publication in the early 1980s accusing the Vatican of having this worldwide computer with all the souls listed in its database. Of course, in the ’80s the Vatican was happy to have few IBM Selectric typewriters in its offices.
The Catholic Church’s mission is to spread the Gospel, but we must admit
the use of modern media was foreign to many in the church.
It’s not that the church was unfamiliar with social media. In fact, the church in Vatican II (“Inter Mirifica”) actually uses the relatively new term “social media.” Very few in the theory of social communications perceived the interconnectedness of various forms of communication. Theorists were still trying to assess the effects of communication on the individual.
A social communication guru by the name of Marshall McLuhan posited that some forms of media were hot and therefore interactive; others were cold which meant the recipient was more passive. With the advent of the computer, hot became cold and cold became hot.
I have been interested in communication since kneeling in front of a radio in third grade (1957) to receive a blessing from our Holy Father, Pope Pius XII. The radio brought his message live to all students of Catholic schools. With television, we actually started to see Rome and some of the workings of the Vatican.
Pius XII knew the importance of media. He wrote about the impact of film, radio, television and print. But it was not until Vatican II that the church began to appreciate the inter-workings of media.
In the United States there was no denying the influence of Monsignor, later Bishop, Fulton Sheen. The fact that Bishop Sheen could command an audience that rivaled his popular competitors amazed church officials.
He would deal with topics that were quite philosophical, yet his style of presentation, humor and sincerity would have viewers returning every week.
In the larger dioceses a priest would be assigned as the communication priest, but he often had little training and no vision.
In the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Mass was broadcast every Sunday as an outreach to the shut-ins and because of FCC standards at the time, every public channel had to provide a segment of community broadcasting free of charge. Those early morning Sunday programs, which few watched, presented “talking heads” (interview of individuals) which was interesting if you knew the person: “Look, Ma, there’s Fr. John.”
You couldn’t blame the priest moderator because he oftentimes had no budget with which to work. I know from firsthand knowledge, because I produced and moderated a number of those shows for stations owned and operated by ABC, CBS and NBC.
When the world was moving forward in the area of social media, the church was still trying to figure out what it wanted to present and how to present it.
This was coupled with the church’s own internal dilemmas created in the social upheavals of the post-Vatican II era.
When John Paul II came onto the scene, this figure of gigantic proportions captured the interest of the media. He pastored the world so everyone knew of this Karol Wojtyla. This was coupled with the rise of Mother Teresa of Calcutta who was promoted by the famed British personality Malcolm Muggeridge. These two future saints alone brought attention to the Catholic Church with a fascination not before experienced.
How to best use the instruments of communication to present the Gospel through these figures was a question now presented to the church. The church needed to up its game.
Many in the United States were also concerned with the message being presented and the use of social media. A vacuum calls to be filled and in enters Rita Antoinette Rizzo from Canton, Ohio, born into a poor, struggling Catholic family. At this time, the Catholic communication centers were struggling with a mission and a singular message.
Rita entered the convent and took the name Angelica. How ironic since an angel is a “messenger” which would characterize her great contribution. She was committed to religious life and often assessed how best to use the simple resources offered to her to maximize spreading the Gospel message.
In one of her journeys, she discovered the power of media; bitten by the media bug, she dedicated her efforts to presenting Catholic communication. Starting in a garage, she established what would become the Eternal Word Catholic Television Network.
Her message was singular: to present the truth of the Catholic Church. Her mission was to reach every person on the globe.
“Go preach, teach and baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Who would have given her much of a chance to accomplish her goals broadcasting from a garage? Yet, great Catholic figures of our and any age always demonstrated their abiding trust in God.
Mother Angelica provided a place on EWTN for Catholics who hungered for pietistic spiritual practices and to celebrate that fact without being ashamed or considered archaic. Her devotion to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and adoration challenged Catholics who had forgotten the teaching and had become lax in their respect for the real presence.
She provided the world with a Catholic vision that was proud of its contribution to the thought and development of Western civilization and she demonstrated a hunger for a Catholic broadcast network.
She overcame obstacles throughout her journey through life. In her last years she suffered from a stroke that left her incapacitated with only EWTN to speak for her. She carried her cross united to the redemptive suffering of Jesus as an example to all of us, as all believers understand that the cross leads to empty tomb and his resurrection.
It’s fitting that she died on Easter Sunday, a sign that her voice was heard by the one she proclaimed.
She left us a communication network, an example of determination to preach the Gospel and a challenge for us to evangelize using whatever means at our disposal to share the faith.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord.