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The Founding of Vatican Radio
February 12, 1931

The Beginning of the Idea

To speak about the birth of Vatican Radio and the twelfth of February, 1931, is easy enough. However, it's more difficult to portray the ambience, the atmosphere, and the sense of excitment that permeated that momentous occasion.

Guglielmo Marconi, the great scientist who had for years been celebrated in the world's newspapers, approached the 12th of February with fear; in fact he was almost trembling as he realized the import of the endeavor he was about to undertake for the Supreme Pontiff. Upon the arrival of His Holiness Pope Pius XI, Mr. Marconi genuflected and humbly kissed the ring of the Successor of Peter. Pope Pius nodded paternally, smiled, and placed his hand on Marconi's shoulder in a manner which was almost an embrace. One could continue to explain the beginning moments of Vatican Radio in this manner, but the moment is better conveyed through the exact words of those present on that splendid day sixty-five years ago on the Vatican Hill.

On February 12, 1931, the Marquis Marconi spoke these historical words:

I have the highest honor of announcing that in only a matter of seconds the Supreme Pontiff, Pope Pius XI, will inaugurate the Radio Station of the Vatican City State. The electric radio waves will transport to all the world his words of peace and blessing.

This is how the world-renowned scientist Guglielmo Marconi announced the birth of Vatican Radio. He then continued:

With the help of Almighty God, who allows the many mysterious forces of nature to be used by man, I have been able to prepare this instrument which will accord to the Faithful of all the world the consolation of hearing the voice of the Holy Father. Most Holy Father, the work that Your Holiness has deigned to entrust to me, I, today return to You...may you deign, Holy Father, to allow the entire world to hear your august words.

A reporter at the time of this broadcast wrote, In this moment, the entire worlds awaits...The Vicar of Christ, through the means of this new ineffable instrument, and in a voice heard very clearly, begins to speak. It is exactly 4:49 p.m. on the Twelfth of February, Nineteen Thirty-One.

The rich text of the first radio message was written in Latin by Pius XI himself. The Pope imbued his message with passages from the Sacred Scriptures which emphasize the universality of the Gospel message. Pius XI concluded the first line of the discourse in this manner, Listen, O Heavens, to that which I say; listen, O Earth, listen to the words which come from my mouth...Listen and hear, O Peoples of distant lands! He continued, speaking in the voice of the Old Testament prophet, To the City and to the World! Now, we turn to the reporting of the event and to the story that preceeded it.

Pius XI, was born Achilles Ratti in 1857, at Desio near Milan. He ascended to the Pontificate on February 6, 1922. The theme of his pontificate could be condensed in the motto Pax Christi in regno Christi, that is, The Peace of Christ in the Reign of Christ. Close to the heart of this Pope was the evangelization of the Faith in mission lands. Also, he exhibited great openness and enthusiasm to the expansion of the field of scientific research. The evangelical motto, Let what I say be shouted from the rooftops -- what you hear in the darkness, speak it in the sunlight. The invention of radio finally actualized this passage from the Gospel. The conception, the plans, and the undertaking of a radio broadcasting station that would carry the voice of a Pope to a world-wide audience was the result of many years of research and planning.

Early Plans for a Wireless Station in Vatican City

As early as 1925, the Director General of Communications for Vatican City, Jesuit Father Giuseppe Gianfranceschi, was in the process of drawing up plans for the establishment of a wireless station in the Vatican. A letter written by Fr. Gianfranschi dated July 25, 1925 speaks about the establishment of such a transmission station.

Two years later Fr. Gianfranceschi contacted the Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi to undertake intitial plans and meetings for the realization of this project for the Pope. Marconi demonstrated much enthusiasm for this project and offered his complete availability to the Pontiff. Additionally, he stated that he would perform the work for the Church without charge. Two more years passed before the work would begin. Actually, it was the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929 that gave rise to the initiation of the work on this transmission station in the Vatican Gardens. Only four days after the signing of the Lateran Treaty, Marconi received official permission to begin construction of this project for the Vatican City State.

Work began immediately. Cardinal Confalonieri, the then Personal Secretary to the Pope, describes the installation of this work in the Vatican, The great inventor accompanied me in the Vatican Gardens for the first inspection. The modesty of Mr. Marconi was both impressive and edifying. It is really true that genius does not need to be exposed: it is small men who draw attention to themselves and put on airs...the process of installation of the transmission centre was done quickly and efficiently.

During the course of the construction, Pius XI personally accompanied Marconi through every step and detail. The date of September 21, 1930 was carefully selected. Jesuit Father Giuseppe Gianfranceschi, scientist, Rector of the prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University, President of the Pontifical Academy of Science, and companion of Umberto Nobile on the expedition to the North Pole (1929) was honored to become the first Director General of Vatican Radio. The document of appointment of the first Director General, carrying the signature of the Pope, begins in this manner:

Devoted son, We have thought that this would be the opportune moment to proceed with the choice of a person whom We fully trust, one who possesses complete competence and diligence to attend to the direction of this delicate and important service. Our Choice is given to You, O Beloved Son...Therefore, with Our Letter of Nomination, We nominate you Director of the Radio Station of Vatican City, completely assured that under your direction it will provide Us with those benefits that inspired Us to construct it.

Other high-qualified specialists contributed to the installation of Vatican Radio. Belgian engineer J. Baptise Mathieu, Mssrs. Isted and Jackson of the English Marconi Wireless Company, and Italian engineers Mssrs. Santamaria and Esposito assisted Marconi and Fr. Gianfranceshi in their efforts to complete the project in record time. In less than two years this dedicated team saw the completion of Vatican Radio.

Inauguration of Vatican Radio

On the inauguration day of Vatican Radio a large group of reporters and cameramen from Paramount News of the United States was present. They brought equipment of the highest quality to record the event. The cameras, although hand-powered, shot for the first time in the history of cinema exterior footage with live soundtrack. The film footage of the event, which is conserved in the archives of Vatican Radio, is an irreplaceable testimony of the event in the history of the Church and telecommunications.

It is a cold clear day, with a light wind coming from the mountains in the exactly 3:00 p.m. a Papal gendarme orders the evacuation of the premises. Two Papal banners suspended from each side of the building flutter in the wind. Inside everything is prepared and ready for the first broadcast. The transmitters have been tested for the last time. At 3:30 p.m. the Marquis Marconi arrives; the illustrious inventor goes directly to the Amplification Studio, places the earphones on his head, and begins the transcontinental conversations. The voice arrives clearly in New York, Melbourne, and Quebec. Fr. Gianfranceschi works with his usual conentration in preparing the final arrangements for the broadcast of the Pope. Although beseiged with many questions he responds with his characteristic smile and kindness. His manner serves to reduce the commotion and nervousness of the day. After several moments the equipment is shut down and will be reactived only after the arrival of the Pontiff.

Now, the Station is immersed in a profound silence: the powerful machinery awaits in silence; the lamps on the control panel are switched off; the entire world nervously waits. In just a few moments the spark will be struck which will send out the signal to the entire world. This will be the miraculous moment that will give glory to God and to His Church.

It's now 4:20 p.m. The trumpets sound the arrival of the Holy Father. He arrives in the automobile, and makes his way to the Radio Transmission Station. As the Pope moves past the small party, all genuflect in reverence to the Successor of Peter. At the entrance of the building, Fr. Gianfranceshi and Guglielmo Marconi stand to greet Pius XI. The Pope is then accompanied to the Generator Room where, with a steady and definite manner, he moves the controls which activate the power. First a whirring is heard, then the sound of the powerful vibration of the motors takes over the room. His Holiness accomplishes several other maneuvers which will complete the opening of the circuits necessary to initate the transmission. Now everything is ready; the Pope has completed the operations necessary for the first transmission of Vatican Radio.

The first signal to be sent out is in Morse code. The technician types the words, In nomine Domini, Amen, that is In the Name of the Lord, amen! At this very instant radio stations, ships, and anyone who has the equipment to receive the signal hears this benediction and invitation. After a brief introduction of the Pope by Marconi, Pius XI takes the microphone and inaugurates the first world-wide radio message ever given by a Pope.

Excerpts from the Press of February 12, 1931

  • From L'Osservatore Romano:Yesterday in Rome all the radio sets were turned on; groups of people gathered around the wonderful apparatus to listen. Wherever there was a radio set available, people would crowd around it. Loudspeakers were placed outside many electric and appliance shops, or outside the offices of the newspapers. There are crowds everywhere, blocking the traffic in some areas...
  • From the Gazzetta del Popolo from Torino: The Italian capital of radio transmission has today, between the hours of 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., witnessed an unforgettable moment. Many ecclesial and missionary Institutes have their headquarters here in Torino. Members of these groups waited this afternoon in feverish anxiety for the words of the Pope.
  • From News Chronicle: For the first time the voice of a Pope was heard in London, and by millions of other believers about the world...3,500 Catholics stood for hours in Westminster Cathedral waiting to hear the voice of the Pontiff.
  • From an editorial in the New York Herald: Few events in the history of the world can compare with the profound impact the Head of the Holy Roman See made during his address directed to the entire planet...and such a thing could not have been forseen by any preceeding Pope. This is a miracle of science, and no less a miracle of faith.

Vatican Radio Today

In 1996 Vatican Radio can boast of programs beamed worldwide on a daily basis. Programs are offered in 34 languages, and are sent out from the Vatican on short wave, medium wave, FM, and satellite. The Jesuit Order has been charged with the management of Vatican Radio since its inception in 1931. Continuing in the spirit of diligent work and professionalism of Father Gianfranceschi, S.J. is Father Pasquale Borgomeo, S.J., the present Director General.

A new milestone was reached in 2007 with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Santa Maria di Galeria Broadcasting Centre, in the presence of the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. During that year, a multimedia novelty made its appearance on the Radio website: Thanks to images taken shortly before by the Vatican Television Centre (CTV), one-minute televised “pills” are published daily in the video news, giving an account of the Pope’s activities.

In more recent years, there has been a sustained effort in experimenting digital transmission technologies (DRM, T-DAB, T-DMB). From the information point of view as well, our news reports and bulletins have undergone considerable extension in distribution, thanks to the systematic use of newsletters, podcasts, audio and video, paving the way to a Web TV. Vatican Radio and CTV go on YouTube in 2009, with the new Vatican channel in four languages, and on Twitter (6 channels) in 2010.

These are the latest examples of Vatican Radio’s efforts at outreach; true to its long tradition, VR continues to maintain itself in the wake of vanguard technology, either to adapt its mission to the “rapid development” of communications, or “to give a soul” to the digital world and to Internet, as Benedict XVI said in a very recent exhortation.

Vatican Radio, born on February 12, 1931, thus celebrates its eighty years of existence, looking ahead: with 45 languages regularly used on air, and 38 languages in the website; with a staff of 355, mostly lay people, of 59 nationalities; with over 66 hours of daily broadcasting, totalling 24,117 hours of annual broadcast.

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