The Vatican, the Knights and Mass Media

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11/28/2009

Speaking Oct. 29 to the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Pope Benedict XVI noted, “Even a casual observer can easily see that in our time, thanks to the most modern technologies, a true and proper revolution is underway in the field of social communications, of which the Church is becoming ever more responsibly aware.”

He added, “These technologies, in fact, make rapid and pervasive communication possible, with an ample sharing of ideas and opinions. They transmit information and news, making them easily accessible to all.”

As new technologies emerge, the Church uses these tools to bind together her global community, creating an engaging relationship with the whole human race. Commencing and maintaining this relationship would be difficult, if not impossible, without the advances of broadcast communication, namely television, to provide the public with a powerful looking glass into the intimate life of the Church.

For decades, the Knights of Columbus has supported the Church’s social communications initiatives, including a telecommunications project that has allowed papal events to be transmitted worldwide by satellite since 1974. Every year, the transmissions of this program bring the pope and the reality of the universal Church into the living rooms of millions of people around the world.

FORMING A PARTNERSHIP Back to Top

In 1964, the Vatican and 10 other countries founded the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT), through which the Holy See was able to transmit live audio and video anywhere in the world. Argentina and Chile were the first countries outside of Europe to pick up the broadcast in 1969. With the Knights’ support, the number of countries increased to 35 in 1985 and 47 in 2006.

This partnership between the Knights of Columbus and the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications (the commission was elevated to a pontifical council in 1988) began in 1974 at the request of Cardinal Andrzej Maria Deskur, who then served as president of the commission. The Order’s Board of Directors approved the commission’s request for funding, while at the same time fulfilling a 10-year-old resolution to expand and diversify the Knights’ use of media.

Since that time, the Order has provided for the “up-link” cost to transmit signals to the satellite and, in certain situations for developing countries, the “down-link” cost for reception of the transmitted signal. Specifically, this program annually supports transmission of the Christmas Midnight Mass, the pope’s Christmas Day message, the Jan. 1 Mass for the World Day of Peace, numerous Holy Week ceremonies, the Easter Sunday Mass and the pope’s Easter message.

In addition to these ceremonies, the Order has funded the transmission of numerous special events in the life of the Church, such as the 1987 canonization of Lorenzo Ruiz, the Assisi Peace Summit in 2002 and the beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 2003, to name a few.

Commenting on the satellite uplink program in 1975, then-Supreme Knight John W. McDevitt said that the program was “ideally suited to meet a crying need of our era. It will give hundreds of millions of people throughout the world an opportunity to see and hear our Holy Father at a time of desperate urgency for inspiring spiritual leadership.”

HISTORIC EVENTS Back to Top

In 1978, the Catholic faithful were confronted with the death of Pope Paul VI, the election and death of Pope John Paul I, and the election of John Paul II — all within three months. The Vatican broadcast these events via INTELSAT, and the world watched. Television crews hurried to Rome Aug. 12 for the funeral of Paul VI and the ensuing papal conclave and election of John Paul I. They soon returned at the end of September to report the sadly familiar cycle of events: papal funeral, conclave and election.

“Cardinal Deskur called me and asked if we would pay to broadcast the funeral, the opening of the conclave and then the installation of the new pope,” recalled Past Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant. “That’s what we did. And then when [Pope John Paul I] died 33 days later, Cardinal Deskur called again.”

Cardinal John P. Foley, who served as president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications from 1984 to 2005, related a story at the 113th Supreme Convention about broadcasting World Youth Day 1995, which took place the previous January in Manila, Philippines. Since the crowd was so large and the popemobile could not fit through the crowd, the pope had to be taken out of town and flown in by helicopter, forcing the Mass to begin 90 minutes late.

“We had ordered three and a quarter hours of satellite time, but with the pope an hour and a half late, he got to his homily just an hour before we were scheduled to go off the air,” said Cardinal Foley. “I ran out of the studio during his homily for some phone calls — one to extend our satellite time, and another to find Virgil Dechant to see if he could pay for the extension.”

It was at this time, Dechant added, “Father [James] Reuter bumped into me, so right then we agreed to go ahead and broadcast the whole thing until it was over.”

One of the largest known gatherings of Christians in history, estimated at 4 million in attendance, Cardinal Foley added, “It was a minor miracle that in the half hour of the pope’s homily I was able to make those two essential contacts to keep us on the air and to keep the Holy Father’s message going around the world.”

On April 8, 2005, the world’s eyes again turned to Rome when the beloved Pope John Paul II was laid to rest. People watched in churches and public squares, in their homes or in public. With the aid of the Knights’ satellite uplink program, 137 television networks and 81 countries broadcast the funeral. It has been estimated that billions of people watched the event, a solemn commendation that brought an end to the third longest papacy in history and mourned the loss of a dedicated shepherd.

Days later, the College of Cardinals elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the Church’s next pope. Both the election and first Mass of Benedict XVI were broadcast by the power of technology and the generosity of the Order to an estimated 2 billion people worldwide, making it one of the most-watched television events in history.

There have been numerous smaller events transmitted far and wide with the Order’s support. Most recently, the Knights sponsored the broadcast of an evening recitation of the rosary with Pope Benedict to viewers in the Democratic Republic of Congo Oct. 10.

During the event, Pope Benedict remarked: “This evening, too, we have availed ourselves of modern technology to ‘cast a net,’ a network of prayer linking Rome to Africa.”

RECENT CHANGES Back to Top

Over the past two years, the satellite uplink program has changed its platform for worldwide broadcasting from INTELSAT to Eurovision World Feed. Through this change, coverage to Africa, Asia and Oceania has greatly improved; uplink costs are lower; and downlink costs are nearly obsolete. Due to the overall lower costs, worldwide coverage expanded to include the Jan. 1 Mass for the World Day of Peace, while Europe and North American coverage extended to include Palm Sunday and all Holy Week events. Thaddeus Jones, the satellite telecasts coordinator for the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, expressed hope for further expansion.

“Apart from continuing work to improve satellite coverage, promotional efforts and monitoring reception of the broadcasts, we also hope to explore new ways of offering live online streaming of the telecasts,” he said.

In a message earlier this year to a conference in Dallas concerning evangelization and mass communication, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, noted the importance of mass media in evangelization: “The Church is committed to engaging with the new media and the new culture of communication they are bringing into being. We must be willing to venture forth with faith and with a willingness to learn as we journey.”

The task of communicating the Gospel to the modern world is not an easy one, but the “journey” so far has brought the Vatican to within a hand’s breadth of countless millions thanks to the Knights of Columbus.

The words of Supreme Knight McDevitt to delegates gathered for the 93rd Supreme Convention in 1975 remain true today: “While this should not be a guiding consideration, it must give us all a comforting feeling to realize that when the Holy Father appears on the television screen in our homes, you and I and all the members of our cherished Order have helped to bring him there.”