Fr Federico Lombardi’s testimony

At the service
of inculturation

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20 February 2021

Vatican Radio is celebrating 90 years since its establishment. In these decades the broadcasting station of the Holy See has experienced and reported epochal moments in world history, such as the fall of the Iron Curtain, from 1989 onward. Fr Federico Lombardi arrived at Vatican Radio in those very years, first as director of programming, then as general director. He explains how those events changed communication with the Churches that emerged from clandestine silence.

“Those were crucial years”, he says. “We were in the middle of the Pontificate of John Paul ii , who had already made an impact to change the situation with his journeys, and then there was the actual collapse of the walls. An entirely new opportunity opened up in the relationship between the newsrooms of countries behind the Curtain, from Eastern Europe, and the environment in which they were speaking. It became possible to have interviews, voices, travels, contacts that previously had been extremely rare and limited. For me it was very important to help explain that the collapse of the wall did not mean that there was no longer a need for these programmes in the East because communism had fallen and the adversary had been defeated. We were providing a service to a church, to a society and to people who were in a moment of transition. And thus we also had to renew our contribution for them, taking advantage of the new opportunities for communication and facing new problems and our listeners’ new situation. It became possible to have formational discussions on the vision of the Church, on society’s problems, on what it meant to live in a democracy, to be confronted with a western culture that was making a somewhat impetuous entrance into a different world. These were all rather important issues that the programmes had to face in a new world. It was a different situation. It was therefore essential to insist on the continuity of a service in a situation that had changed”.

From the very beginning, Vatican Radio has been characterized as multilingual, which remains its distinctive trait still today. How has this ‘multilingualism’ been read throughout these years of the radio station’s history?

Naturally, it was a request from the very start, to speak in different languages in order to reach the different peoples, first and foremost in Europe, then also on the other continents. However it was not just a matter of repeating the identical format in the same way in the various languages, but rather of expressing a common message, which was firstly that of the vision of the Church and of the Pope, but to state it for listeners who were in different cultures and situations. This developed throughout the entire history of Vatican Radio in a continuous way — I gladly continue to speak about the theme of inculturation — that is, it was not just a case of translating, but rather a matter of speaking to a world, to a specific culture, by people who knew this culture, who were its representatives even while being here in Rome.

Father Lombardi, Vatican Radio, and in particular, the Italian edition has always been a place of encounter and dialogue. What has its social role been with the lay world and also with the non-Catholic world?

As time passed opportunities increased for the radio to be a place of encounter and dialogue and not merely a microphone through which a message was sent from a centre to a periphery. And this increased particularly in the decades following the Council, even as experienced attitudes. So we are talking about all those messages of the Church of dialogue, on which Paul vi had insisted a great deal, and that were later developed in the direction of ecumenism, and then also of dialogue with various religions. Let us think of John Paul ii in Assisi, and then also of the developments now with Pope Francis. Thus, radio is a place where if there was time for somewhat ‘relaxed’ interventions or even for a live conversation with guests — as occurred primarily with the Italian programme — it reflected the reality of the Church in dialogue with the world. We have always fostered a very active space of ecumenism with other Christian confessions. We have also always been proud to have in our newsrooms non-Catholic Christians, with whom we have had perfect and full cooperation. Also in regard to other religions, we have always been very happy to be able to have interviews, to meet, to dialogue. Naturally in Rome in particular, because countless persons pass through Rome, not only representatives of the Church who come to meet the Pope and encounter the heart of the Catholic Church, or for reasons of international relations. Thus, along the way, Rome has always been, as appropriate areas to host them were developed, a place for dialogue, for interviews, for encounters with people who represented other components from the religious, social and political standpoint, but also from the standpoint of great personalities. Here, having programmes in so many different languages, we have had guests, interviews with personalities from many different countries that have also allowed us to expand on international themes in a very rich and very broad way.

Luca Collodi