Vatican Radio, the voice of the pope, turns 90

Catherine MARCIANO
·3-min read

For 90 years, Vatican Radio has carried the voice of the pope to far-flung corners of the world, translated into dozens of languages.

As it celebrated its birthday Friday, Pope Francis was among those paying tribute to a broadcaster that has provided a vital link between Rome and Catholic churches across the globe.

"Radio has this beautiful trait: it carries the word to the most distant places," the Argentine pontiff said.

Robert Attarian, one of the two people who run Vatican Radio's Armenian service, told AFP that he feels like "a bridge between the universal church and local Armenian churches, a diaspora of around 10 million people".

Italian missionary priest Pier Luigi Maccalli has described how he listened to Francis' words via the station after being kidnapped by jihadists in Niger in 2018.

The priest, who was released in October in Mali, described the short-wave radio as his "window of air".

Another of its loyal listeners is French nun and coronavirus survivor Sister Andre, who turned 117 on Thursday. "It's young!" she said of the station.

- Horrors of the Holocaust -

Vatican Radio was set up by Pope Pius XI after the establishment of the Vatican City State in 1929.

He called in one of the inventors of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, to help and it was inaugurated with a Latin address by the pope on February 12, 1931.

The next pontiff, Pius XII, took to its microphones to evoke the horrors of the Holocaust during a famous Christmas Eve address in 1942.

He spoke in Italian about the "hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction."

Pius XII did not explicitly mention the Jews, and whether he did enough to denounce their persecution is still a matter of intense historical debate.

In any case, historians believe that the papal speech went largely unnoticed in Germany, as the Nazis used to jam the airways to sabotage foreign radios.

Vatican Radio has since 1995 been broadcast by satellite, but can also be heard on the internet or via short-wave radio.

Its programmes are retransmitted by a myriad of local Catholic radio stations, reaching unexpected places.

It employs 350 staff from 69 countries, broadcasting in 41 languages including Latin, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Russian, Kikongo and other African tongues.

- 'Radio still has a future' -

Staffers in Rome, based in a palace near the Tiber, are also responsible for the Vatican's multilingual news portal, Vatican News, which was recently revamped as part of a wider reform of its communications.

There are plans to further expand coverage: for its 90th birthday, Vatican Radio launched its first dedicated online channels in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and Armenian.

Eventually, Vatican Radio should be able to offer the "web radios" with tailored content in 35 different languages, said Jean-Charles Putzolu, a French member of the editorial coordination team.

"Radio still has a future, it's a local medium," he argued, recounting how an English-speaking colleague was recognised as one of the voices from Vatican Radio and hailed as a star when he visited a refugee camp in Uganda.