Listen Up: Podcasting Has Arrived; Choral Thrill

Vatican Radio's New Form of Broadcasting

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, JULY 14, 2005 (Zenit.org).- When Vatican Radio recently launched its podcasting option for audio files, it didn't expect the big response it received from around the world.

It was like a "resurrection of this 70-year-old voice of the Vatican," the director of the English Section at Vatican Radio, Sean Patrick Lovett, told me.

As it stands, Vatican Radio broadcasts in more than 40 languages to every country via all long, medium and short waves and, for the last four years, has enabled its listeners to tune in via the Web, at www.105live.vaticanradio.org. These methods have required listeners to stay close to their computers or radios.

Now, with the latest development, listeners can simply connect their iPod into their computers, download the audio programs they want, and listen to a clear sound from the Vatican anywhere, anytime.

"Within 24 hours of the launch, we had approximately 1,000 downloads," said Lovett. "And that was without promotion, which signified a lot to us with regard to who was really listening" -- meaning young people, who own the most iPods.

It was with this indication -- that youth wanted to know more about the Church -- that one of Lovett's ex-students from the Gregorian University originally proposed the podcasting idea to Vatican Radio.

After having begun his own podcast (www.catholicinsider.com) from Rome, Father Roderick Vonhögen, a Dutch priest from the Archdiocese of Utrecht, realized the evangelical possibilities behind the phenomenon.

"Listeners have been asking for more ever since I began my own podcast," he told me on his most recent visit to the Eternal City.

"I thought that my regular parish life would probably not be catchy enough to start my show with, so I decided to wait until I visited Rome to get things under way," he said.

Father Vonhögen happened to visit Rome during the first hospitalization of Pope John Paul II, so even more people tended to pick up his program. He noted how they went beyond requests for medical bulletins, going as far as to ask for explanations of the Catholic faith and commentaries on holy Roman locations.

"Listeners say that they are amazed to find a priest who is not old and boring, which goes to show that their experience of the Church is limited," Father Vonhögen explained. "The thing about radio is that it's a very personal medium and podcasting makes it more so."

Originally, Father Vonhögen had not expected to work in the field of radio and took a course in it "just for fun" during his social communications studies at the Gregorian University.

"It's a wonderful medium because you can allow people the freedom to construct their own images from the information given to them," said the priest who oversees four parishes in the city of Amersfoort and who acts as communications consultant for his archdiocese.

"I had never thought I would be able to do radio realistically as a simple priest due to it being so commercial and financed by the state, but now I have around 6,000 listeners per show!" he said.

Many Catholic podcasters are establishing a worldwide network. To find more of these and to subscribe, just write to catholicinsider@gmail.com.

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Sacred Music in Sacred Spaces

Rome is often filled with the sound of choral music. I met with two groups visiting last week who expressed their thrill at being able to perform their music at the See of Peter.

First, an Australian group from St. Ignatius' College, Riverview, came through. Then came Les Petit Chanteurs of Canada.

By the time both groups arrived in Rome, they had already worked their way around Austria and other parts of Italy, performing every step of the way.

Each of the organizers and singers told me how they enjoyed the warm reception of each ancient little European town they passed. Yet, though it was great to have adoring crowds, it didn't compare to the heightened sense of religiosity they experienced in each of the churches along the way.

Middle-school student Tom Randall of the Riverview choir expressed his amazement that "we, a bunch of pretty normal kids, can produce these beautiful sounds in such holy places."

He refers to those places that you can't find in Australia, or in Canada for that matter. As 17-year-old Eric Dancereau noted: "They are very different places to what we have … it has been exquisite to note the devotion to faith these people had just through their obvious devotion to the arts. I mean, acoustically, they made these churches for music so as to worship God with the sound of angels."

And the choirmasters of each country had ways of encouraging the singers to produce this sound too.

"Certainly everything for the Vatican is liturgical," explained Gilbert Patinaude, who has directed the Canadian "Little Singers" for the last 27 years.

"They are a choir originally founded for sacred music and they have had to be at the service of the St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal at least 80 times a year," he said. "Yet, all the boys are emotional about this opportunity to sing here in Rome."

The director of the Australian group, Bruce Rixon, admitted shedding a few tears at certain moments of their Vatican Mass performance. "We really became a team in that moment," he said. "I wouldn't replace those tingles up my spine for anything in the world."

The vice tour-captain of Rixon's choristers, Matthew Gallagher, spoke for his team when he said that every sacred church concert pointed the group in a more "faith-dominated direction" and was "all about promoting our spiritual being."

Gallagher, 16, regrets not being able to go on more choral tours, but is certain that the growth from this one will stay with him.

"The way the music just came together in these amazing places and the sound we produced was remarkable," he said. "I'll never forget it."

James Kelly, 10, admitted that though "stressful at times," the tour was an encounter he would be sure to tell his "grandchildren all about."

One young man I encountered at the Canadian Embassy to the Holy See was actually making a documentary on the tours as a "way of giving a taste to the world just how great it can be."

François Beaumier, now a famed TV director, sang in Les Petit Chanteurs for eight years until high school graduation in 1990.

"It really changed my life to be in touch with art and education in that way," he said. "I learnt more than just an appreciation of music, but how to be more serious about school, how to concentrate more, gained a deeper sense of religion and, contrary to popular belief, it even helped me focus better in the sporting arena."

Such choral groups are becoming rare and so the ones that are left are promoting the joy found in the tradition at all costs.

"It's more than just making music, it's about living it through arts that unify ages and cultures like a choir," said Rixon. "It will take you anywhere."

If you would like to apply for your choir to sing at the Vatican, just fax a request to the Pontifical Household: (39) 06-698-85863.

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Playing With Passion

Those attending the world première of "The Passion of the Christ" symphony, in the outdoor amphitheater of Rome's Parco Della Musica Auditorium, were moved to ponder the sacrifice of Our Lord.

At least, this was one of the significant sentiments I heard from a fellow audience member, Archbishop John Foley, following last week's performance.

The archbishop, who is the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told me that the work had exceeded his expectations.

"It was a very impressive presentation," he said. "There were a number of unusual instruments which evoked the time period, I think, very effectively, and were reminiscent of Mel Gibson's film."

Archbishop Foley, who met with and blessed the famous composer of the score, John Debney, after the spectacle, commented on the sacredness one could feel while listening to the music and viewing the corresponding artistic images on the screen behind the St. Cecilia Orchestra.

"At times there was a definite sense of the sacred," the American prelate said. "You had the Gloria and I even thought I heard traces of the Dies Irae … throughout the production."

Accompanying the archbishop to the spectacle under the stars was Monsignor Daniel Thomas of the Congregation for Bishops. The monsignor noted: "There were moments where it was tremendously moving and where the use, both of voice, instrument and visual, made a marvelous complement to the work -- it was splendid."

Archbishop Foley added: "The chorus and orchestra were excellent and beautifully prepared. I think that the composer, who was also the conductor on this occasion, can be very proud of what he has done with this exceptional rendition."

The archbishop especially enjoyed the stunning sounds of the soloists: "I thought the tenor was particularly good and, as I said, those instruments really had a plaintive tone at times which was quite moving."

The symphony's composer, Debney, gave autographed limited edition copies of his score of "The Passion of the Christ" to both the archbishop and me with hopes that a Vatican performance may be able to be organized in the future.

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.