Friday, July 01, 2011

150 Years in Print... To a Quarter-Million Hits -- In Six Months, The Vatican's Media Revolution

In the long arc of things, odds are that the Vatican's first half of 2011 will be especially recalled as a time of media milestones, ones both celebrating achievements past and -- at long last -- opening up the doors and platforms for Church Central's further penetration into a drastically-altered communications landscape.

While the new push reached its climax this week with the PopeTweet seen 'round the world and the launch of the portal, the Curial PressFest actually began in February with an unusually-prominent celebration for the 80th anniversary of Pope Pius XI's launch of Vatican Radio, then kicked into high gear with May's Beatification of the church's "Great Communicator" and the following day's game-changing Meeting for Bloggers sponsored by two Curial dicasteries. (To boot, let's not forget last month's well-acclaimed Vatican broadcast of NBC's Today Show, nor the move that heralded it all: the Pope's Christmas Eve delivery of BBC Radio's traditional Thought for the Day.)

Even if the Holy See remains loath to dispense with the widely-panned parchment wallpaper on its main website -- which recently saw its first meaningful updating since the Great Jubilee in 2000 -- the last six months have still marked an astonishing turn of tack; among the many moves, the central page quietly rolled out an optimized version for mobile devices earlier this week, as the news platform racked up just over 250,000 hits on its first day live. Yet above all, though the various observances took pains to celebrate analog and digital communication efforts alike, in a unique way, the six-month shift has made for new media's "coming-out party" at the Home Office, especially as -- beyond dominating the wider storyline -- the Vatican's leaps forward have put an unprecedented degree of pressure on the wider church's sprawling "official" apparatus to follow suit.

Bottom line: much as Benedict XVI has dedicated his last three messages for the church's World Communications Day to the challenges and opportunities of a social-network age, in terms of global circulation and simple water-cooler grist, the visual of the Pope "Aah"ing at an iPad immediately eclipsed not just his media texts, but almost the entirety of his public magisterium, becoming part of the vox-pop narrative of this pontificate (and, frankly, providing much happier B-roll than the last well-trafficked Vatican curiosity: the topless gyrating acrobats whose performance was foisted upon the Fluffy One during a December General Audience).

Clearly, the effort has served to send the outside world a new, different message. The lesson for B16's own, however, is arguably even more powerful... and leave it to a (non-papal) tweet to sum it up best:
"To all church workers who refuse to learn how to use new media: the pope a)has an ipad b)launched a website from it c)tweeted about it."
To be sure, the climb isn't as steep as it was not all that long ago. As ever, though, the work continues.

* * *
All that said, the advances of recent months had to begin somewhere. And accordingly -- it being the Vatican and all -- the roots of the latest innovations to the Curia's media engagement run especially deep and lasting.

So it was fitting that a significant new moment for church media at its highest levels wrapped up this morning with a special Mass in the Pauline Chapel of the Apostolic Palace to celebrate today's 150th anniversary of the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano, which likewise rolled out a new multi-lingual website over recent months.

With the original house organ's staff and contributors on-hand, the liturgy was celebrated by the "Vice-Pope" -- Benedict's Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone -- who termed the paper's "unique" service as one of presenting "the world from the Holy See's viewpoint," that "whoever reads it, anywhere in the world, can find in it the viewpoint of the Pope and of the Apostolic See in every country, in every region, even the most remote."

Yet in his own congratulatory message -- addressed to L'Osservatore's editor, Gian Maria Vian -- the Pope called his daily read "a service to truth and justice."

In tribute to the sesquicentennial of the "Papal Paper" -- and with the thought that its qualities are ones to which every work of ecclesial communication, regardless of vantage or medium, should seek to aspire -- here's B16's full message for his observer's big birthday:

One hundred and fifty years are truly a considerable length of time for a daily newspaper, a long and important journey rich in joys, difficulties, hard work, satisfaction and grace. This important anniversary of L’Osservatore Romano — whose first issue came out on 1 July 1861 — is therefore first and foremost a cause of thanksgiving to God pro universis beneficiis suis: in other words for all that his Providence has disposed in this past century and a half, during which the world has changed profoundly, and for what it disposes today, with the ever more rapid transformations, especially in the communications and information sector.
At the same time, this happy event also affords an opportunity to reflect on the history and on the role of this daily, commonly known as “the Pope’s newspaper”. As Pius XI, of venerable memory, said in 1936, exactly 75 years ago — we are therefore invited to “take a look at the ground we have covered and another at the ground that has yet to be covered”, stressing above all the uniqueness and responsibility of a daily which has made known the magisterium of the popes for a century and a half and is one of the privileged instruments at the service of the Holy See and of the Church.
L’Osservatore Romano came into being in a context both challenging and decisive for the papacy, with the awareness and determination to defend and sustain the principles of the Apostolic See, which seemed to be threatened by hostile forces.
Founded as a private initiative with the support of the Papal Government, this evening paper claimed to be “religious and political”, setting itself the goal of upholding the principle of justice in the conviction, based on the word of Christ, that evil will not have the last word.
This objective and conviction were expressed by two famous Latin mottos — the first taken from Roman law and the second from the Gospel text — which have featured in the masthead since 1862: Unicuique suum [to each his own] and, especially, Non praevalebunt [they (the gates of hell) shall not prevail] (cf. Mt 16:18).
In 1870, the end of the temporal power — perceived as a providential measure despite the abuse and unjust acts to which the papacy was subjected — neither upset L’Osservatore Romano nor depreciated its presence and role. On the contrary, about 15 years later the Holy See decided to acquire ownership of it. With time, the direct control of the newspaper by the papal authority increased its prestige and authority. They were subsequently to develop further, because of its line of impartiality and courage in particular, staunchly maintained in the face of the tragedies and horrors that scarred the first half of the 20th century, “faithful as an international and supernational institution”, Cardinal Gasparri wrote in 1922.
Tragic events ensued: the First World War, which devastated and changed the face of Europe; the affirmation of forms of totalitarianism with harmful ideologies that denied the truth and oppressed human beings; finally, the horrors of the Shoah and of the Second World War. In those terrible years and later during the period of the Cold War and of the persecution of Christians perpetrated by the Communist regimes in many countries, despite its straitened means and shortage of personnel, the Holy See’s newspaper was able to inform with honesty and freedom, supporting the courageous work of Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII in defence of truth and justice, the only foundation of peace.
Thus, L’Ossservatore Romano succeeded in emerging from the Second World War with its head held high, as authoritative lay voices immediately recognized. So also, in 1961, did Cardinal Montini, who was to become Pope two years later with the name of Paul VI: “It was like what happens when all the lights in a room are switched off and only one is left one: everyone’s gaze is directed to the one left on; and fortunately this was the light of the Vatican, the calm bright light fed by the apostolic light of Peter. L’Osservatore Romano then stood for what essentially it has always been: a guiding beacon”.
In the second half of the 20th century the paper began to circulate throughout the world by means of a series of periodical editions in various languages, no longer printed only in the Vatican: actually eight, including, since 2008, also the version in Malayalam published in India, the first to be printed entirely in non-Latin characters. Since that year, in a difficult season for the traditional media, the distribution has been supported by co-publishing with other newspapers in Spain, in Italy and in Portugual, and now also by means of an increasingly effective presence on the internet.
A “singolarissimo” (most unusual) newspaper because of its unique features, L’Osservatore Romano in the past century and a half, has first and foremost maintained its service to the truth and to Catholic communion on the part of the See of the Successor of Peter. Accordingly the daily published the Pontiff’s interventions regularly, followed two Councils celebrated at the Vatican and the many Synodal Assemblies, an expression of the vitality and wealth of the Church’s gifts. Besides, it never forgot to highlight the presence, work and situation of the Catholic communities across the world that sometimes live in dramatic conditions.
In our day — frequently marked by the lack of reference points and the removal of God from the horizon of many societies, even of those with an ancient Christian tradition — the Holy See’s daily stands as a “paper of ideas”, an organ of formation and not only of information. It must therefore be able to stick faithfully to the task it has carried out in this past century and a half, paying attention in addition to the Christian East, to the irreversible ecumenical commitment of the different Churches and Ecclesial Communities, to the constant quest for friendship and collaboration with Judaism and with the other religions, to discussion and to cultural exchanges, to the voice of women and to bioethical topics that give rise to questions crucial to us all.
By pursuing its open policy towards new signatures, and an increasing number of contributors — and highlighting the internet dimension and breadth of readership, present since the daily newspaper’s very beginning, after 150 years of a history of which it may well be proud, L’Osservatore Romano knows how to express the Holy See’s cordial friendship for the humanity of our time, in defence of the human person created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Christ.
For all these reasons I wish to address my grateful thoughts to all those have worked on the newspaper of the Holy See from 1861 to this day: to the Director, to the editorial staff and all the personnel. To you, the Editor-in-Chief, and to all who cooperate today in this exciting, demanding and praiseworthy service to truth and justice, as well as to the benefactors and supporters, I assure my constant spiritual closeness and warmly impart a special Apostolic Blessing.
From the Vatican, 24 June 2011


PHOTOS: L'Osservatore Romano