Known as the “podcasting priest,” Fr. Roderick Vönhogen is a pioneer in the new social media. His podcast program “The Catholic Insider” draws an audience from around the globe. Each week, listeners in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand tune in to his hour-long show. It was his audience’s enthusiasm for the show that inspired him to launch the Star Quest Production Network (or, SQPN), one of worldwide Catholicism’s most popular media platforms in the service of the new evangelization.
Last week, I had a chance to sit down to dinner with Fr. Roderick near the Vatican. Over Italian pizza, pasta, patate fritte, and vino rosso, we talked about the challenges and promises of a digitized Church.
Although Fr. Roderick hails from Holland, his English is flawless and his imitations of Australian and British accents are pitch-perfect. While he can proclaim the Gospel in numerous national languages – he speaks Dutch, German, French, and Italian – it is his infectious cheerfulness that best communicates the message of Christ and the Church. Several times, our dinner table shook as we busted up laughing. More than a media mogul with exceptional talent, Fr. Roderick is a priest alive in Christ Jesus – a man who has been surprised with the generous love of God. And, he communicates the goia Christiana like few others.
Since Fr. Roderick launched his English-language podcast program in 2005, he has traveled the world, broadcasting Christ’s message to countless listeners. He has done shows in his native Europe, North America, Latin America, and Africa. He will be in Rio de Janeiro for the 2013 World Youth Day, which is scheduled for July 23-28. Along the road, Fr. Roderick has had some surprising adventures and he has encountered some demanding challenges, as well. In 2005, just moments after Pope John Paul II died, he broadcast a high-speed bike chase toward St. Peter’s Square where he joined pilgrims beneath the windows of the papal apartment.
Fr. Roderick got started in media when he studied social communications at the Pontifical Gregorian University here in Rome. The “Greg” is oftentimes called the Harvard of the Catholic Church. As a student there, Fr. Roderick studied media and communications with all the attentiveness of someone embarking on a career in secular media. But, he coupled rigorous theological and philosophical research with those studies. Over dinner, Fr. Roderick told me how the Church’s Trinitarian doctrine as well as her theological sense of divine revelation motivate and inform his approach to media. As Christians, we believe in a God who revealed His Word – Jesus Christ – to the world, sending us on a mission to the ends of the earth to teach and bear witness to that Word. To round out the point, the work of media and social communication is implicit in the mission of the Church. And, a new evangelization must take up the task of mastering new means of communication, which include things like Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and podcasting. Fr. Roderick maintains a strong presence in all those areas.
But, Fr. Roderick’s Christian faith and human cheerfulness motivate the content of his media as well. He seeks to offer his audience more than other Catholic media. Although Catholic news and doctrine are discussed in his show, he talks about the same issues we all do. Fr. Roderick doesn’t focus on religious subjects to the exclusion of others. He focuses, in fact, on non-religious topics.
A short time after his ordination to the priesthood, Fr. Roderick began blogging about his love of Star Wars. That blog brought him into direct contact with secular and de-Christianized fans of the movies. For a time, he entered their world and his readers entered his own. In his media output, he explores human topics, but from the perspective of Christian faith. In virtue of the fact of the Incarnation, the whole world has become a Christian mirandum—a sea of wonders pointing toward Christ. Discussion about these topics is the bridge he travels in reaching outward toward his listeners and drawing them into the Church. Even on his recent visit to Rome, Fr. Roderick encountered a numerous pilgrims who became Catholic after getting to know him through his Star Wars blog.
Fr. Roderick claims that relationships and relationship-building are critical to the task of the new evangelization. In his various media productions, he aims to involve hosts and guests with personalities conducive to the task of building relationships. He says that the perceived relationships between him, the other hosts of shows on SQPN, and his viewers are what anchor his shows, build communities around them, and achieve the work of evangelization.
In the course of our conversation, Fr. Roderick and I talked about Pope Francis and the media. He shared with me some of his first impressions about his new boss. He maintains that Pope Francis understands the media well and knows how to make good use of it. He has been impressed with Pope Francis’ personable approach to the papal office. Pope Francis is someone who understands human relationships and their importance for the work of communicating the Church’s message. Fr. Roderick wonders whether we’ll see a lot of theological output from this pope in the manner of papal letters and the like. He suggests that it is likelier that we’ll see more discreet and concrete gestures that communicate the Christian Gospel.
On the other hand, Fr. Roderick and I talked about some of the challenges that the Church needs to overcome in her media outreach. For its part, the Vatican still needs to catch up with the use of the new social media. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI went a long distance in doing that when he opened a Twitter account. Also, the quality and professionalism of a lot of Catholic programs needs to be improved. And, it is important to train people in all the latest technology and theory governing media while also educating them in the faith. Those who want to work in media and communications on behalf of the Church need to be able to translate Church teaching into the language of the media and its audiences.
When he returns to his native Netherlands, Fr. Roderick will be working on concluding a book project, which is scheduled to hit bookstores over the next several months (Servant Books will be the publisher). He is writing on his adventures as the “podcasting priest.” Fr. Roderick also plans to develop the Star Quest Production Network and to make it an even greater tool in the service of the Church’s new evangelization. I look forward to reading Fr. Roderick’s book and to hearing more from him on his network.