Pope and the media – a new beginning
In January 1990, John Paul II himself suggested how to utilise new tools in the daily mission of the church community — writes ks. Józef KLOCH
What a sensation that was – the Pope wrote about computers in the context of their use by the Church! The text in question was written at the turn of 1989 and 1990. At the same time, Tim Berners-Lee was developing a computer protocol system at CERN known today as the World Wide Web. And it was only a little earlier that ordinary people got their hands on personal computers, such as IBM PC, Atari, Commodore or Apple.
In January 1990, John Paul II himself suggested how to utilise new tools in the daily mission of the church community.
It took place at a time when computers were much more associated with gaming, yet the Polish Pope already saw them as a new tool of dialogue with the modern world. He realised that memory systems allowed access to knowledge that is human heritage, to the teachings of the Church, to the Holy Scriptures, and to the achievements of the great masters of spirituality. He would also emphasise that, in the new “computer culture”, the Church could inform the world faster about its credo as well as explain its position on any problem or event. It is also possible thanks to computers to hear the public opinion’s voice more clearly and to constantly engage in a dialogue with the world gathered around the Church. The Pope’s writings did not amount to mere wishful thinking – deeds soon followed the words. And what John Paul II started, his colleagues continued.
John Foley and Joaquín Navarro-Valls proved to be immensely helpful in the matters of communications. The former is an American priest, journalist, and ex-editor-in-chief of “The Catholic Standard and Times” (in the years 1970–1984). The latter, a Spanish graduate in the fields of medicine and journalism, correspondent from Rome for the daily paper “ABC”. The year 1984 brought some dramatic changes into their lives: Foley was appointed chairman of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and made archbishop; Navarro-Valls was appointed spokesman for the Holy See and director of its Press Office. After six years of leading the Church, the Pope decided to introduce changes to his personnel, among them, in key positions related to the media and social communications.
With a high degree of probability, one can presume that both Foley and Navarro-Valls were the main contributors to the ideas contained in the 1990 message. The United States were the cradle of computers and the Internet, which was rather quickly put to good use by the Holy See. The spokesperson for the Vatican was a supporter of the global network and those were his efforts that led to the launch of the papal website. In this place, one more person should be mentioned: the daughter of an American computer scientist of German descent, Judith Zoebelein, a Franciscan sister. She was invited in 1991 to the Holy See to set up and administer the Vatican website.
Presumably, the spiritus movens of the Franciscan’s nomination for the head of Centro Internet was Archbishop Foley. He was also the driving force behind the “.va” network domain.
The Holy See’s own domain gives Internet users around the world the confidence that whatever is in it (from documents to e-mail addresses) is official, reliable, and dependable.
Since Christmas 1995, the Vatican’s website has provided information about the pope(s), the history of the Church, and on Vatican’s documents.
The mailbox with the address JohnPaulII@vatican.va got flooded with Christmas wishes for John Paul II. Its popularity and response of Internet users took the website’s creators by surprise.
The Polish Pope was a great advocate of the Web and saw great potential in it, but he observed the world of media from a much broader perspective. In 1978, there were a press office, publishing house, newspaper, and radio in the Vatican. During the pontificate of John Paul II their operations were intensified; other social communications centres were also launched: the Television Center headed by Fr. Federico Lombardi (until 1983, Italy’s state television RAI would broadcast the events John Paul II participated in), and the already mentioned Vatican Internet Services. The Vatican Radio and “L’Osservatore Romano” gained new language sections, Sala Stampa with Navarro-Valls as director became a professional institution competently and efficiently aiding journalists.
It was possible, among other things, thanks to the consent of John Paul II to one condition set by the future director of the Press Office. This prerequisite read “no intermediaries in access to the pope at any time of the day every day”. The Pope from Poland never disappointed Navarro-Valls’ expectations.
And so, until 1995, the Pope and his colleagues launched new Vatican media or dynamised the existing outlets. However, those were not the tools of mass social communications that were most important, but the competences of those involved: Archbishop Foley’s, Navarro-Valls’, Fr. Lombardi’s, Sr. Zoebelein’s and of many others – and… the competences of John Paul II himself who was open to working with journalists. His friendliness towards them could already be felt during the first joint trip by plane to Mexico. Indeed, Paul VI personally greeted journalists on his flights, but no one ever dreamt to ask him questions and expect answers. And that is what happened while traveling on a plane from Rome to Mexico City. Analysing this peculiar “press conference”, Fr. Federico Lombardi stressed the magnitude of the Pope’s personality, and his tendency to a less ceremonious and distanced relationship with the media. It was a completely new style for the Head of the Church, perhaps driven by his positive attitude towards representatives of non-communist media. He treated them as allies, thanks to whom his words could be disseminated without any restrictions or hostility that he had previously experienced for years in Poland.
The Pope’s novel behaviour was apparent from the very first moments after his election. This “man from a faraway country” not only blessed the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square, but he spoke to them with kindness in his voice in Italian. After the mass inaugurating his pontificate, the Pope stupefied the master of ceremonies and security staff when, breaking all the rules, he approached his fellow Christians. John Paul II’s unusual demeanour, full of gestures and based on his extraordinary personality, or how he would modulate his voice – all were eagerly picked up by the media and widely commented on by journalists and remembered by witnesses of his long pontificate.
Who does not remember the Pope’s hands clenched on the cross on Good Friday in 2005, his hand inserting a piece of paper between the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the meeting with the assassin Ali Ağca in the latter’s prison cell in Rebibbia and many other snapshots from the life of John Paul II? “Kodak moments” – be it photographs or moving pictures – have been and will continue to preach the Gospel through deeds.
It was made possible to record those contemporary illustrations of the papacy because of the unprecedented consent of the Pope to the presence of journalists at almost every moment of his life.
Sending an e-mail about the Church in Oceania with a single click of a mouse serves as the best summation of John Paul II’s positive attitude towards the Internet.
However, the Pope did not limit himself only to gestures, symbols, and images. After each of more than a hundred apostolic journeys, he would invite several representatives of the Vatican media to dinner. These pleasant meetings also contained considerable analytical work – what did journalists understand and how they communicated his message, how large the group of people was that were reached by the voice of the Roman pontiff through the media in the matters he raised. The Pope acted like a seasoned communications specialist. Post-pilgrimage analyses are probably the best proof of the attitude of the Head of the Church towards the media, that is, treating publishers seriously. After all, their outlets were places where he spoke in his own voice, but with their help, because for John Paul II the media were an integral part of reality and evangelisation.
Those meetings at the dinner table also proved his great humility – the media have their own sets of rules; one ought not to be afraid of them, but one must not underestimate the generally accepted regulations. It is better to make use than not of information transfer mechanisms in order to be better understood. On the part of the papacy, it was a completely new philosophy, a new beginning in working with journalists and the media. And it was initiated by our Slavic pope.
Fr. Józef Kloch