Wonder what on earth Pope Francis is up to? Mary Shovlain has a new weekly radio show with some answers. An American in Rome who has covered the Vatican and the Catholic Church for EWTN, Vatican Radio, and other outlets, Shovlain is the host of The Vatican Report with Mary Shovlain on SiriusXM’s the Catholic Channel (Saturdays at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. EST; Sundays at 1 p.m.). I was on last week, and you can hear Austen Ivereigh, author of a recent book on Pope Francis, this week. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s an American woman like you doing in Rome?
Mary Shovlain: I came to Rome to do graduate studies in theology and philosophy at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, and wanted to get my doctorate so I could go back to the U.S. and hopefully teach in a Catholic university. While I was finishing my coursework a friend of mine was leaving her job at Vatican Radio and told me that they were looking to fill the position. So I thought I would do it just to pay the bills while I finished my degree. Vatican Radio hired me and I immediately fell in love with the world of social communications and broadcasting in particular! I love live radio and live television — that is where I really feel at home. I first came to Rome in 1995 as a student, I went back to the U.S. a couple of times since then — once in 1997 to get a master’s degree from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and then again in 2002 to work for EWTN in Alabama. But I came back to Rome in 2003 because I noticed that Catholic media outlets did not have a lot of programming coming to them from Rome, and I wanted everyone to know and love the Vatican and Rome like I did. So since 2003 I have been here making television and radio programs and continuing to collaborate with Vatican Radio to provide live coverage of papal events. Every once in awhile I write articles, but only when I have time.
Lopez: Is there really a place for women there?
Shovlain: I have never felt more respected and valued as a woman in the workplace than I did when I worked full-time at Vatican Radio, or as I do even now when I need their collaboration for projects that I do in Vatican City. That may sound surprising to those who would think that because the Vatican is run by a hierarchy of men, women wouldn’t have a place or a voice here, but I can only speak for myself when I say that if I was offered a promotion or appointed to do an important task, it wasn’t because I was a woman and a quota needed to be filled. I felt that it was because they thought I might be the best person for the job. There are many women who work in the Vatican, many laywomen and those in the consecrated life. I’ve never heard them complain about not being treated fairly because they are women.
I’ve definitely encountered some challenging opinions through the years when people try to think creatively about women in leadership here, but, again, never from Vatican officials I’ve worked with.
Lopez: What unique lens do you view the Vatican through?
Shovlain: I think it is good that I came to the world of Catholic communications through a path that started with a journey of faith and then deep philosophical and theological study. I love the Vatican because I love Christ and His Church. That’s the lens that I look at the Vatican through . . . love for the Church. I have an STB, an MA, and an STL in theology, and through my work I have seen the good and the bad elements of the Catholic Church. We are a people of faith and reason, and I live in and understand the secular world. I see the tidal wave of relativism that this society is drowning in, and so I see connections — the Vatican’s reasons behind a “Jubilee of Mercy,” for example, and the need to get these people who are drowning through the “door.” So my “lens” helps me understand and communicate a lot of the “whys” behind the Vatican’s actions, whereas others may look through a more political lens, and if you do that you won’t fully understand the actions of the pope or the Holy See.
Lopez: How is Rome different with Pope Francis? How it the same?
There is a new “springtime” happening here under this pontificate. It is a springtime spoken of going back to the Second Vatican Council.
Shovlain: There is a new “springtime” happening here under this pontificate. But it is a springtime spoken of going back to the Second Vatican Council and reiterated time and time again by St. John Paul II. The Catholic Church is emerging from one of the deadliest and darkest centuries for the faith — the 20th century, which saw more Christians killed for their faith than all other centuries combined. But with Pope Francis and his joy and his calls for forgiveness and mercy and his very hands-on pastoral approach, there is a freshness and a newness that is awakening hearts and getting people listening. What is the same is the Church’s message, and Pope Francis was preceded by two of the most amazing theologians in modern times, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. But Pope Francis’s papacy and his very “Franciscan” approach to running the Church resonates with Catholics and non-Catholics. When people ask me about this papacy I point out that if St. Francis of Assisi, the inspiration for Pope Francis’s name, had been pope, I imagine it would look something like this.
Lopez: What’s your goal with your new show?
Shovlain: Everyone is talking about Pope Francis! From world leaders and celebrities to the average person on the street. When I came back to Rome in 2003 to make television programs from Rome about the faith and the Vatican and the Eternal City, there was no one else really doing that in English for a specifically Catholic audience. But now we have a lot of Catholic news organizations doing just that — Aleteia, Rome Reports, EWTN, Catholic News Service, Catholic News Agency, to name a few — so I looked around and noticed that what we didn’t have coming from Rome was talk radio, and with this papacy I think we need a conversation happening from the Vatican and about the Vatican. When is Pope Francis not making headlines? It’s an endless supply [of topics] for conversation, and a lot of fun, too. The goal is to keep the conversation going and hopefully reach people in the pews and in the peripheries with the Church’s message.
Lopez: What are the fun aspects of your show? The important ones?
Shovlain: Whenever I make a program, whether it is for TV or radio, I always think of my audience first. So for them I hope it is fun to go “inside the Vatican” and hear from Vatican officials and experts and cardinals and archbishops and get to know the Church a little more. The Vatican seems so mysterious at times to Catholics and non-Catholics, but it’s “home” for Catholics, and I want to help them connect with the Vatican more and to invite non-Catholics and non-believers to join the discussion. And it’s a way for the Vatican to talk to the modern world too. They already are . . . but I want them to do it on my show!
One thing I have introduced with The Vatican Report is a segment devoted to “Vaticanistas.” Vaticanistas are journalists who specialize in the Vatican in one way or another, and among the Italians it is often a lifetime occupation, not just a “beat” that one covers for a few years. I know so many people who cover the Vatican, and they all have so much to share that might not come out in the articles they write. And I want to talk to the Vatican-based photographers who are literally at every papal event, capturing every moment and seeing history being made through their lenses. How many anecdotes they have to share just by their proximity to the pope! And for the most part we are all fun — and funny — so it makes for good radio.
Lopez: Why is it important to have venues like the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM?
Shovlain: I love the voice that the Catholic Channel has on SiriusXM. Love it. It’s real talk and it’s real Catholic. The talk you hear is the way we talk about the faith and the Church when we’re out with friends or over dinner, it’s relaxed and fun and yet very deep at times too. Nothing is off limits, and it is all done in a climate of respect and faithfulness to the Church. As a journalist I can be more of myself, a conservative Catholic with a sense of humor. I got to laugh during an interview with a cardinal the other day because this is talk radio. In the past I might have edited that out!
Lopez: What are you most grateful for?
Shovlain: In life? I am most grateful that I can call myself a child of God through baptism, with all that that means!