ALAN McELWAIN in Rome discusses the problems and pitfalls of covering Papal news and suggests remedies.
WHEN FR. PEDRO ARRUPE, Jesuit Superior General. held his "unprecedented" Press conference recently. he did much more than explain the real meaning and implications of Pope Paul's extraordinarily controversial speech to the Jesuits. He also set a brilliant pattern for the kind of Press relations with the Vatican and the entire Church for which honest journalists and open-minded ecclesiastics have been pressing for years.
They were doing this long before Vatican Council IL Once it came, however, the Council, with its reaching-out towards all men everywhere, underscored how lamentably weak the Vatican was in adapting modem communications to its own service.
We know. of course, that the Council itself fully appreciated the value of modern communications. It drew up a decree on that very subject, the preamble of which said: "The Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those (wonderful technological discoveries) which have a most direct relation to men's minds and which have uncovered new avenues of communicating most readily, news, views and teachings of every sort. The most important of these inventions are those media . . . such as the Press, films, radio and television and the like . . . The Church recognises that the media, if properly utilised, can be of great service to mankind . ."
Having got that down, those responsible for the decree then proceeded to produce, and have promulgated, what is, by general consent, the most disappointing document to emerge from the Council. This symbolised, in its way, not only past Vatican reluctance to create an authoritative, lively public relations system in the service of both Church and mankind but also, apparently, a determination to perpetuate the traditional void between the Vatican and the outside world.
The windows of the Vatican may have been opened, but to the Press. the blinds remained firmly down.
rfHEY WERE UP for a time, though. After getting off to a deplorable inefficient start, the Press department set up exclusively for the Vatican Council later proved just what the Vatican could achieve when it tried in the way of a worthy public relations organisation. It was never perfect, but it had all the makings. Without it. the journalists' task of covering the mammoth event would have been far more difficult than it was.
It produced, as I said at the time, men like the amiable Fr. Edward Heston. of the Holy Cross Fathers, who, as head of the English-language section, cut through ecclesiastical red tape (the daddy of the species), briefed reporters clearly, concisely and good humouredly, and found nothing too much trouble in doing his incredibly efficient job. It is a pity he is not still at it.
Just recently, a pallid shadow of this original ecumenical Press service has fallen across Vatican and journalists alike. The Pontifical Commission on Mass Communications has appointed Mgr. Fausto Vallainc as spokesman on Vatican affairs. Previously he was secretary of the Vatican Council Press Office, but confined himself almost entirely to administration. He is now called Director of the Holy See's Press Hall. Each week he holds a Press conference in the hall near the Vatican, where the Council had its setup.
The Monsignor is a wellmeaning but unspectacular, severely-restricted-from above spokesman. Correspondents attempting to draw him on such topics as the Pope and the pill, or other matters in which the world, Catholic and nonCatholic, is deeply interested, get nowhere. Sometimes, Mgr. Vallainc loosens up sufficiently to say just enough to provide journalists with something to write about, provided they use his cautious utterances as a peg upon which to build up a piece from what has been said on the same subject by all and sundry long before.
Getting anything new, definitive, or refreshingly informative, however. is as difficult as it is to keep an accurate mathematical record of just how often the Director of the Holy See's Press Hall repeats: "I am not entitled to comment on that" or, as a subtle variant: "I am not permitted to cornment on that".
FOR MANY YEARS, the Vatican has had a socalled Press office which is actually, simply a segment of the newspaper Osservalore Romano. Its small staff does its best, but it has no authority to say anything worth while, to dig out facts, or to make official announcements. Thus, through the years, this office has done little more than encourage the mushrooming of those anonymous "Vatican spokesmen", who comment on this, that and the lot, bur never, no matter how eminent or learned they may be, with the impact of their own names upon what they say.
Many important people keep trying to persuade the Vatican to see the folly of bumbling along with an archaic communications service totally out of step with the Holy See's growing importance not only in the Christian movement but in international affairs.
Among them is Archbishop Koenig of Vienna, and one of the Church's most notable, farsighted liberals. He has urged publicly the appointment by
the Vatican of an official spokesman. He also believes that journalists should have greater freedom in developing their own sources of information at the Holy See.
All of us journalists accredited by the Vatican spend a great deal of time building up contacts in the Roman Curia and other Vatican units. My own numerous contacts are top-level, learned, honest, always willing to guide and absolutely indispensable. But also, alas, they are forced to remain anonymous.
/N STRESSING that journalists should be free to develop their sources, Cardinal Koenig meant, of course, that they should be able to do so openly and to quote those sources when necessary. If this were done, suspicious people who now assume that the "spokesman" who said this or that is really only the reporter who wrote the story would be amazed at the pains the reporter has taken to get his facts, and no less surprised at the status and undoubted veracity of those many "faceless men" at the Vatican upon whom he has relied.
Cardinal Koenig's idea of a supreme official Vatican
spokesman is fine, provided that spokesman is the best man available and chosen not because of his official rank, clerical or lay, but because he has a news sense and a sense of responsibility, does not regard the Press as something to be fobbed off with occasional sops, realises the importance to the Holy See of a superlative public relations department at a time when its news value has never been higher, and is as keen as the journalists themselves on getting straight facts out to the world.
In my view, the spokesman should also have with him a compact, workable team of highly trained journalists representing various nationalities, so that queries related to this or that country could be handled, in the first instance, by experts with an intimate knowledge of the territory involved and its specific requirements. This principle is already installed in the Vatican Secretariat of State. where there is an English "desk", a French "desk" and so on.
Before long, the Pope will have in Rome an international Synod of Bishops to help him in the direct running of the Church. One big hope is that there will be among its numbers enough up-to-date, far sighted prelates to insist that their deliberations and decisions are correctly presented and explained to mankind through the ever anxious mass communications.
I could name some bishops I should like to see on the synod. During Council sessions, I was helped and guided by many of them who, lamenting the lack of effective Vatican public relations as heartily as the Press corps, readily gave much of their limited time to filling in gaps. These men are Pressminded not because they like seeing their names in the papers; their one desire is to see printed facts, not guesswork or speculation.
POPE PAUL, whose father was a distinguished Italian journalist, has frequently expressed his admiration for the profession and undertaken to help those who follow it to record the truth. Unfortunately, this sort of solicitude does not always seep through to lower, traditionally Pressresistant ranks.
Pope John, in his memorable "Peace on Earth" Encyclical, said: "Man has a natural right to be respected. He has a right to his good name. Iie has a right to freedom in investigating the truth and, within the limits of the moral order and the common good, to freedom of speech and publication, and to freedom to pursue whatever profession he may choose. lie has the right, also, to be accurately informed about public events".
How well that would have looked in the preamble to the decree on Social Communications!
Meanwhile, Fr. Arrupe has set the pace, announcing this week that the Jesuits were setting up a Press office. It may encourage the Vatican, which obviously takes an intense interest in Jesuit activities, to follow suit.
What we want now is an authoritative centre, which would give the ring of authenticity to every statement which comes out of the Vatican. A centre which would do away with those fobbers-off who at present, to quote Bunyan. talk "of things heavenly, or things earthly; things moral, or things evangelical; things sacred, or things profane; things past, or things to come; things foreign, or things at home; things more essential, or things circumstantial" — and tell us nothing,