Sandro Magister rightly blasts the TV coverage of Papal ceremonies

The gentlemanly Sandro Magister has some pointed observations about the television coverage of papal Masses.

I must say I share his well-expressed views.

Let’s have a look at what he writes on his worthy blog, Settimo cielo, in my translation and with my emphases and comments.

Papal Masses on TV: An Entirely Failed Production

With the procession and the Mass for Palm Sunday, on 16 March in St. Peter’s Square, Benedict XVI initiated the rites of Holy Week.

As we have now seen for some months already, at the center of the altar there were a Cross and a 7th lighted candle.  The Pope celebrated the Eucharist turned to the Cross.  And the faithful, whether they knew it or not, did the same, thus reviving an element of tradition that in the last few decades had been lost.

As always, the celebration was broadcast live on television.  The direction of the program, however, showed its usual lack of sensibility for they exigencies of the rite.

Elementary logic would have it that a television broadcast of a papal celebration would make visible to the public the actual celebration.  Even on the large screens in St. Peter’s Square should serve for this purpose: to show to the faithful in a closer format what was going on at the distant altar.

Instead, no.  There was an out of proportion quantity of closeups of the faithful.  As if someone who wanted to assist at a televised Mass needed that.  [Hear hear!  I was watching the direct internet feed from CTV, so I didn’t have the incessant chatter from the guys at RAI or CTV, but the video portion inflicted constant closeups of people in the square, sometimes praying or watching intently, often eyes wandering around or aping at the camera when they saw themselves on the screen.  You expect that sort of thing at ball games on the jumbotron, but… at Mass?]

Other television programs rightly do not suffer from a similar violation.  For example, someone who watches an opera on TV sees and hears the opera, not the faces of the spectators present in the theater, nor even less the chatter of some announcer superimposed on the music.  In the same way, the viewer of a live brodcast of a papal Mass would expect to see and hear, simply, the Mass, and not something else.  [About the audio.   This is a problem with the English language on EWTN too.  I believe they get their audio from the English section of Vatican Radio.  However, radio people tend to talk more, so they don’t have dead air.  That is a problem for those who have video and not just audio.  Also, the "color commentator" got things wrong.  Pretty distracting.  However, when I did review a bit of the Mass coverage from EWTN, I noted to myself at the time that they were in fact talking less than I remember in the past.  So, maybe they are trying to make adjustments.  I don’t know.  I will try to find out.]

What is instead dished up to him is a bunch of images which for the most part are out of place.  Let’s not even talk about the audio.  [I didn’t hear the audio from CTV or RAI this time, but I have in the past.  They just can’t shut up.  Perhaps they are using the feed from Vatican Radio?]

To make the disaster worse they also add dreadful mistakes of framing the shot. In the Mass for Palm Sunday, at the beginning of his sermon, the Pope was not in the picture, as would be a logical: the sermon began which the picture was wandering around here and there.  And during the singing of the Passion by three deacons, every time one of them was framed in the picture, there was almost always some mistake, that is, he wasn’t the one singing.  It’s as if, at a concert, they showed the tenor when the soprano was singing, or they show the flautists during a violin solo.

The TV coverage of papal Masses is handled by the Centro Televisivo Vaticano [CTV] in collaboration with the RAI.  The details are well explained in an article by Fr. Virgilio Fantuzzi in La Civiltà Cattolica of 19 July 2003 reproduced at www.chiesa: “Liturgia papale, radio e televisione"

Five years after the article, the woes which were denounced persist intact.  If not worse yet.

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24 Responses to Sandro Magister rightly blasts the TV coverage of Papal ceremonies

  1. Henry Edwards says:

    Father Z: This is a problem with the English language on EWTN too. I believe they get their audio from the English section of Vatican Radio.

    This is true. I once inquired of EWTN, and they replied that they simply take the Vatican Radio English-language audio feed as is. In response to my subsequent inquiry of them, a Vatican Radio person mentioned the “dead air” problem, and also the problem that “African natives” and “U.S. Catholics” may have different needs for explanations. I wondered whether this meant that U.S. Catholics might be assumed to know less about the faith than African natives.

  2. MartinB says:

    I can only second this.

    As I have been to the vigil-mass of palm-sunday (I was scheduled as lector) I tok the opportunity to watch the TV-covering of the papal ceremony over breakfast (living in Germany does have some advantages).
    This was also to get a “papal directive” over where each of the “roles” should stand for the passion.

    It took me more than 5 (in words: five) minutes of the passion to finally get this question sorted out.

  3. MartinB says:

    I can only second this.

    As I have been to the vigil-mass of palm-sunday (I was scheduled as lector) I took the opportunity to watch the TV-covering of the papal ceremony over breakfast (living in Germany does have some advantages).
    This was also to get a \”papal directive\” over where each of the \”roles\” should stand for the passion.

    It took me more than 5 (in words: five) minutes of the passion to finally get this question sorted out.

  4. Tom says:

    Was yesterday’s Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Square all-vernacular (or virtually so)?

  5. techno_aesthete says:

    For example, someone who watches an opera on TV sees and hears the opera, not the faces of the spectators present in the theater, nor even less the chatter of some announcer superimposed on the music.

    Indeed. I was most annoyed when the Vatican Radio commentator on EWTN’s broadcast spoke about how nice it is to hear the Pope speak his native language and then proceeded to chatter through the entire greeting of the Pope in German. ARRGH! Fr. Z. could you possibly get word to CTV to either use subtitles for the video broadcast or get a live commentator for the video broadcast and stop trying to use radio commentary simultaneously for video coverage? It is just not working.

    IMHO, CTV should also consult with or hire some professional cinematographers who are also Catholic and “get” how to televise a Mass as a solemn liturgical function and not some sort of secular event. Mel Gibson, perhaps?

  6. EJ says:

    I wholeheartedly agree – the coverage was very disappointing. The wandering camera was very distracting – and the commentator on the EWTN coverage was just dreadful dreadful dreadful. He would incessantly and audibly pause: “hmmmm” “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” “uhhhhhh” – and what he did have to contribute was of no particular value. What happened to the nun with the British accent who at least would let you listen in more regularly, and had mostly intelligent things to say? This new man sounds like he’s never been behind a microphone! Unbelievable!

  7. Tom: Was yesterday’s Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Square all-vernacular (or virtually so)?

    Pretty much everything was in Italian, yes. A bit disappointing, really.

    If I am not mistaken the Creed was in Latin. Perhaps others here have a better recollection.

  8. techno_aesthete says:

    Tom and Fr. Z., most of the Mass was in Italian. Some of the antiphons/hymns – Pueri Hebraeorum and Gloria, Laus et Honor – and the ordinary – the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei – were sung in Latin and I believe the Canon was in Latin. There may have been more (Latin), but that is what I remember off the top of my head.

  9. Chironomo says:

    The coverage is produced more like a political event (Town Hall meeting, campaign stop, State of the Union Speech, etc…) where the point is to show the audience reaction and the “support” of the candidate by the people in the audience. These kinds of emotional close-ups, wide pans of the audience, frequent flips back and forth between the speaker and audience to show reaction to statements…all make for very good T.V coverage of that kind of event… but not the Mass! Perhaps the producer is a former News producer accustomed to producing such events.

  10. Habemus Papam says:

    Part of the problem is these are outdoor Masses, the crowd are the natural focus. Indoors with a permanent altar, a Sanctuary, gives a definite focus. CCrowds move around, its a shifting scene.

  11. Geoffrey says:

    I’m always annoyed at the commentary, but I found a solution this time: listen to the CTV feed online while watching EWTN with the TV volume down. Perfect solution! Ha ha!

    Regarding the use of Latin, the Eucharistic Prayer (either II or III) was in Italian. I think the Lord’s Prayer was in Latin, but with the embolism prayer sung by the Holy Father in Italian. I’m guessing there was more Italian because of WYD? Which makes no sense if it there was a more international gathering, but I digress…

  12. Steve says:

    I usually try to watch Papal Masses whenever I come across them on EWTN. With today’s broadcast technology, I expect much more than they deliver. From the poor quality video to the enraptured crowd shots, I really think they can be doing much better. This has been a pet peeve of mine for sometime, and hopefully they will look for ways to improve the broadcasts. I would really love to see more of the rubrical aspects of the mass than being forced to watch some teary-eyed pilgrim look at themselves on the jumbotron. I think that if more priests can see the nitty gritty of how the mass is celebrated by the Holy Father, it could be a powerful learning experience for them.

  13. Angelo says:

    Television & other such technology are generally not
    the proper media for the transmission/propagation of the Faith
    and an important point is that how (in quomodo)we receive the Faith
    is just as important as the substance of the Faith itself.
    As the Apostle said, “Faith comes by hearing.”
    Also,any televised viewing of the mysteries being inacted is a
    profanation of the mysteries themselves.

  14. Fr. Aidan Logan, OCso says:

    Every time I watch a Papal Liturgy on EWTN I swear I will never do it again – not because of the Liturgy but because of the maddening and inane commentary.

    Archbishop, now cardinal, Foley was bad enough with his constant droning on about the various cardinals and archbishops and who had what job in the Vatican. His dogged adherence to the ICEL texts meant that he was often reading something entirely different from what the Pope or other ministers were in fact proclaiming.

    For a while we had that wonderful nun who would ever so gently intrude with a real, un-ICEL translation of the text and then shut up so that we could listen. Alas, she has been replaced by what can only be described as two pious but ignorant “guys” who treat us to such remarks as: “The Holy Father has finally made it to the altar where he will prepare to say Mass.” Was there some doubt as to his ability to get there? Oh, yes, of course, the distance from the obelisk to the altar, we are told several times, “is very great.”

    Then there was this: “The cross in the center of the altar is a new tradition introduced by the Holy Father.”

    In the middle of a rather soupy instrumental interlude the commentator broke in and hesitantly told us: Uh….we will now hear the second offertory hymn”. We had yet to hear the first one and the soupy music continued.

    On at least three occasions we were told that Holy Communion will be distributed “very quickly” because of all the priests at communion stations through out the square. You can’t imagine how relieved I was to know that!

    Their take on Latin pronunciation is interesting for the official radio station of the Roman Catholic Church. Apparently no one at Vatican Radio has bothered to tell the about never accenting the last syllable or the quality of the vowels in Ecclesial Latin. “The choir will now sing the Sank-TOOOS.”

    All kidding aside, I am totally mystified by this. Is there no one in Rome who can speak English and give and intelligent, discreet and uplifting commentary during a Papal Liturgy? As for EWTN, they are hardly better. For all their vaunted orthodoxy there is little to indicate that their writers and producers actually get what the Liturgy is all about. If their must be a commentary (and I do not concede this) pious nostrums about the real presence and the re-presentation of Calvary interspersed with anecdotes about cardinals and the papal household hardly fit the bill. In fact, they actually eviscerate the power of the Sacred Liturgy to speak for itself and immerse us in the Mystery of Faith.

  15. Thomas says:

    One of the more annoying aspects was after the opening procession, prayers at the obelisk, and procession to the altar, the camera cut away. It’s the only time I can think of when the Holy Father has to change vestments on the spot and they didn’t show a single second of it. It would have been interesting to see how the Holy Father vests for Mass, but instead I have to see wide shots of the Piazza and close-ups of the faithful. It was all very irritating and a blown opportunity.

  16. I haven’t got a chance to see the Papal Mass, but I have seen plenty of EWTN Masses, and I can say this:

    – The camera going from the altar to the pews, or altar to statues, is annoying! This is the celebration of the Eucharist, not the celebration of the people.

    – The radio people talking while the Mass is going on (this has only happened once for me) is confusing and distracting. I want to see and hear the Mass, not some radio person. Isn’t there a way for them to not comment? The Mass isn’t a spectatar sport!

    Let us pray for the radio people.

  17. My solution: When the Readings, Prayers, etc are said. Volume on.
    Otherwise Volume off.

  18. Adam says:

    Yes I agree with the overall criticism of tv coverage of papal masses.
    There is far too much camera coverage of the people there and when they see
    themselves on the big screens they wave and shout and this is shown. The whole
    point of having the Masses filmed ought be to allow the sight of the pontiff
    celebrating the eucharist or other liturgies. It is often the case with Vespers
    and other ceremonies I have watched over the years in the basilica. The TV
    coverage as made by the director is terrible and it would be interesting to
    see how much time is given to the pontiff versus ‘others’ on screen. They pan
    away so often, pan out and go off the pope at key moments. Why is this so and
    why don’t the directors get the point of papal ceremonies?
    It really does need a shake up and a complete relook at how these
    papal ceremonies are filmed for the public. CTV is failing in this and
    needs a total revamp – its ultimate goal ought be the film the
    Holy father at ceremonies and show him to the world as the
    supreme pontiff leading the faithful. About time they got it right and I am
    glad this column has at last focused on something that ought be
    corrected. Grazie.

  19. Maureen says:

    “Television & other such technology are generally not
    the proper media for the transmission/propagation of the Faith…”

    Actually, one of the popes said that, if we don’t use every medium to transmit the Faith, we aren’t doing God’s will. That’s why Vatican Radio was started, IIRC.

    “…and an important point is that how (in quomodo)we receive the Faith is just as important as the substance of the Faith itself.”

    That’s why we’re complaining about how the Masses are being televised. Doing it more fittingly would also be more useful for faith formation and evangelization.

    “Also,any televised viewing of the mysteries being inacted is a
    profanation of the mysteries themselves.”

    I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. One notes that all the Popes of the twentieth century have allowed televising, radio broadcasts, and filming of the Mass; so if you acknowledge their power to bind and loose, it’s clearly no profanation.

    But long before that, God Himself was known for giving visions of the Mass to various saints — most notably to St. Chiara (Clare) of Assisi, who was able to see and hear everything that went on at Mass when she was too sick to go.

    If it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me.

    “As the Apostle said, “Faith comes by hearing.””

    Sound (and light) is an electro-magnetic wave, just like the radio and television frequencies. If you acknowledge the goodness of Creation, I don’t see how you can count one frequency of waves as evil and another good.

  20. Sylvia says:

    What did Magister mean by assisting at a televised mass? Can’t you only really assist at mass when you are present? I must admit I am quite ignorant on this issue, and I have only watched a mass on TV once and at that time I was doing other things besides.

  21. Habemus Papam says:

    St Clare of Assisi is (or was) patron saint of television.

  22. RC says:

    Broadcasts of orchestal concerts are often well-planned, with camera work timed to show each soloist during the brief passages when he is prominent. Perhaps the CTV can obtain some help from those experts in designing their own camera strategy.

  23. Tom says:

    Tom: Was yesterday’s Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Square all-vernacular (or virtually so)?

    Father Z replied: “Pretty much everything was in Italian, yes. A bit disappointing, really.”

    Thank you, Father, for your answer.

  24. roberta trew says:

    I spent many moments exchanging emails with Sr. Janet Fearns at Vatican Radio last year trying to get her to understand that all the journalistic chatter was positively ruining the liturgical participation. I finally stopped trying.
    It all reminds me of the ‘spirit of Vatican II” : “We have to explain and translate EVERY word for you[because you are just too stupid to understand unless we tell you!]”
    I don;t think they get “active listening”. don;t you love when they say the choir is singing such and such BUT YOU CAN’T HEAR IT BECAUSE AFTER ONE BAR THEY START TALKING?!

    Can any priest get to the ear of the new Marini, who seems like he would NOT like the liturgy to be treated with such little respect by such pedantic and unprofessional journalists.