By Michel Chambon*
~ The Catholic Church generates countless media outlets across the world with extremely diverse scopes, audiences, and agendas. However, the past four decades have seen the emergence of three specific kinds of Catholic news agencies focusing on Asia. As research shows, these agencies originated from missionary societies and gradually embraced the work culture and methods of modern news agencies and professional journalism. But what does the proliferation of Catholic news agencies focusing on Asia reveal about the relationships between Global Catholicism and Asia?
This post focuses on the history of these agencies, the actors who have established them, and on their impact on contemporary Catholicism as global networks comprising specific institutions, concerns, and regulations. I do not focus on the material produced by these agencies nor on its reception within ecclesial circles. While Catholic news agencies are important in shaping and spreading conversations filled with religious motivations, national imaginaries, and political agenda, they also allow us to look at Catholicism as a trans-local infrastructure which surpasses the territorial boundaries of parishes, dioceses, and nation states. These transnational networks do not simply give voice to and integrate Asian Catholics into the worldwide making of Catholicism, but also highlight the influence and positioning of their instigators while producing a specific kind of Post-Vatican II Global Catholicism.
The three main Catholic news agencies focusing on Asia are AsiaNews, Eglise D’Asie, and UCANews. Of course, Asia counts many more Catholic institutions spreading information, such as: diocesan newspapers, TV Channels, and Radio Veritas. These, however, are communication tools established to spread information and spiritual material selected by a specific entity of the Church. They do not necessarily embrace the work culture and methodology of modern journalism. They also do not produce and distribute systematic information about Catholics in Asia. Most limit their scope to a single diocese or country. In contrast, the three agencies presented here claim to gather information related to Asian Catholics from the entire continent. They frame their publications for a diverse and critical audience, and not necessarily from pastoral and devotional perspectives. Yet, as we will see, other factors shape the way in which they gather and present information – and together, they impact the making of Global Catholicism.
Data presented below was collected during interviews conducted in 2020 via Zoom with actors directly related to these three agencies.
Case 1. AsiaNews
AsiaNews is the news agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), a society of Catholic missionaries founded in Milan in 1850. Today, PIME recruits vocations from all around the world but few in Italy. They have generated various magazines and journals to collect and share information about their missionary actions around the globe.
In 1986, however, PIME decided to create AsiaNews. The instigator of the project, Fr. Piero Gheddo (1929 -2018) had experience with professional journalism and desired to provide reliable information on Asian churches and cultures for Italian-speaking audiences. In the 1980s, the PIME fathers considered that mainstream Italian media offered very little information on Asian religious news. Furthermore, the approach of secular media was marked by a certain orientalism, as well as economic biases. Following the impulse of Vatican II and its call to rethink missionary work, AsiaNews set out to build bridges between Italian audiences (including the Roman curia so central in World Catholicism imaginary) and Asian Catholics. Its aims include strengthening ecclesial communion between parts of the world and deepening intercultural dialogue between different societies.
Concretely, AsiaNews began as a monthly paper magazine of 32 pages. It included news, commentaries, analyses, and in-depth reports. Over the years, the number of subscribers has grown: 600 in 2003, 1,500 in 2020. Readers are not only individual Catholics interested in Asia but also institutions, such as universities and libraries, who desire to receive the printed edition for their archives.
At the end of the 1990s, Fr. Bernardo Cervellera assumed leadership of the agency. This PIME priest was not a professional journalist but a missionary in Hong Kong. As a charismatic leader, Cervellera reformed the agency in several ways. In 2003, he launched an online and tri-lingual portal: Italian, English, and Chinese editions. Contrasting with the magazine that provides more in-depth analysis, the website began to report on recent events that occurred in Asia. All reports and commentaries were equally accessible in the three languages.
This multilinguistic and online development represented a major shift for the agency. It diversified its audiences, speeded up the diffusion of its reports, reinforced its commitment toward the Chinese world, and brought the agency to a new international level. Also, the produced information was less a scholarly analysis of the long-term dynamics that shaped the life of Catholics in Asia. Rather, AsiaNews became a tool to communicate quickly about events occurring in Asia and impacting the Church.
In 2013 when an Argentinian Cardinal was elected pope, AsiaNews added a Spanish section to its online portal. The goal was to increase Latin American’s awareness of, and interest in, the Church in Asia. Informants argue that while South America is deeply Catholic, the number of Latino missionaries going abroad is proportionally less than those coming from other Catholic regions of the world. Thus, AsiaNews intends to bridge both Latin American Asian Churches.
Another goal of this multilinguistic turn was to facilitate the propagation of papal statements as well as to influence communications between the Vatican and Asian Churches. Through AsiaNews, PIME provides translations and comments on news, speech, and documents coming from the Pope and the Holy See. Their goal is to not let secular media be the primary vector, influencing the presentation of news coming out of Rome. AsiaNews aspires to stand by Asian Churches in their effort to understand the Holy Father. At the same time, by highlighting specific statements and providing additional interpretations, AsiaNews seeks to shape and mediate conversations between the Holy See and Asian Churches. Presenting itself as a Rome-based Catholic news agency, it cultivates the impression that its stands as an official channel of communication of the Vatican – or at least, as source of information very close the center of Catholicism.
In 2020, the AsiaNews website reported approximately 20,000 connections per day. One PIME priest and four professional journalists, all based in Italy, were working full-time for the agency. For each non-Italian language, the agency employed two translators. AsiaNews also relies on a network of 30 local correspondents around Asia. Most of them are lay Catholics with some training in journalism. AsiaNews also depends on PIME missionaries willing to provide analysis and informed opinions on local situations. Most of these missionaries have spent years within a local Asian society and have the necessary socio-cultural knowledge to contextualize and interpret a specific event, as well as to explain it to an international audience.
In sum, one may notice that AsiaNews is constantly evolving. Parts of the initial mission remain but new opportunities and challenges are forcing the agency to reformat itself. Thus, the very concept of a Catholic news agency is never entirely stable and self-explanatory. Second, the charismatic leadership of Father Cervellera has been recognized by his peers as central to the successful development of the agency. While AsiaNews is financed by PIME, it was Cervellera who gave it its recent shape and scope, before moving back to Hong Kong in 2021. Third, as a Catholic and international network, AsiaNews has been able to position itself in a rather paradoxical way. On the one hand, the agency highlights its proximity with the Holy See to assert its voice within the broader Catholic world. On the other hand, it reports contradictory commentaries and views which challenge narratives and claims made by the Holy See. In some occasions, it publicly questions decisions made by the Holy Father and the Roman Curia. The most documented case relates to the Sino-Vatican relationship. In the 2010s, officials of the Holy See have even complained that AsiaNews tended to be unilateral and polemical, reporting only bad news from Hong Kong and mainland China.
In conclusion, AsiaNews manifests how news agencies and missionary societies cultivate critical autonomy within the broader Catholic ecosystem, highlighting how the relationships between local churches and the Roman center is far from the conventional vertical model. News agencies provide new avenues for missionary action and influence within the wide networks of world Catholicism.
Case 2. Eglises d’Asie (EDA)
Eglises d'Asie (EDA) is the news agency of the Paris Foreign Missions society. Established in the 17th century, the Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) is the oldest missionary society of the Catholic Church. Over the past five centuries, it has sent missionaries to most parts of Asia and generated a wide range of socio-missionary enterprises such as modern schools, printing presses, and leproseries. Although the society has long published various magazines and journals propagating information from the MEP missions, it was only in the late 1980s that it created a news agency to respond to two challenges of the time.
The first challenge was linked to the understanding and integration of boat people in French society. In the 80s, the French population and authorities were seeking ways to understand these refugees and called upon the MEP to share their cultural expertise. The second challenge related to a vast scandal of the late 80s that brought unwanted attention on the MEP and called them to develop new tools of communication.
Father Guillaume Arotçarena (1944-2015), who had spent 17 years in Singapore and knew the complexity of the Republic well, was put in charge of the agency until 2007. With other MEP priests, he worked at developing professional and Christian journalism. In the beginning, EDA produced a bi-monthly newsletter on religious news in Asia and a monthly supplement with longer articles analyzing religious and cultural trends in Asia. Information was gathered through the MEP network and EDA publications provided in-depth and long-term perspectives on Asian societies and their religious dynamics. It soon attracted various audiences, and over the years, the reputation and professional expertise of the agency grew wide and deep.
In 1999, in addition to three MEP priests, the agency hired a lay professional journalist, Régis Anouil. The following year, an online platform was launched to make EDA more accessible and to keep up with the rapid evolution of new technologies and news industry.
From its beginning, EDA operated in partnership with the Union of Catholic Asia News (UCA NEWS) –. But EDA was never a mere translator of UCANews – it provided further analysis. Also, in the 2000s, UCANews did not necessarily have strong coverage of countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, etc. In those regions, EDA had to secure its own access to information through the MEP network.
After the retirement of Arotçarena in 2007, EDA had to clarify its identity and mission – both among the multiple communication services of the MEP and within the broader landscape of Catholic media. In 2010, EDA stopped its printed publications to focus on its online portal. By the mid-2010s, most of the effective leadership decisions were undertaken by the layman, Anouil, and contributions provided by well-informed MEP priests became less frequent. Unlike during the pre-internet period, the agency had to develop more pro-active communication strategies – spending more time on social media to promote its material.
In 2015, the readership included three kinds of audiences. First, there were professional circles such as journalists, diplomats, and scholars. Second, there were ecclesial circles including French-speaking missionaries, and numerous French-speaking Asian priests and nuns in Asia. These Asian readers reported how their home environment did not provide religious information (Bangladesh, Vietnam) and how EDA was important for them. Finally, the third kind of readers were various individuals with interests in the Church and/or Asia.
Nevertheless, in 2016, the MEP decided to reform their news agency again. They integrated it within the broader communication service of the missionary society. While the MEP maintained their financial support to UCANews, they reduced the scope of their own French-speaking agency. Through the perspective of the MEP fathers, the agency continues to provide a Christian approach to religious and secular information coming from Asia. EDA mostly selects and translates information to promote the accomplishments of Asian Catholics and seeks to balance the alarmist approach of other media which may focus on interreligious violence, civil wars, poverty, and economic trends. In 2020, the agency had only one full-time worker— a layperson – without any MEP priest directly involved.
In sum, one must highlight the exclusive relationship – and financial dependence – between EDA and the MEP (comparable to the link between AsiaNews and the PIME). Some missionary societies are willing to reconsider their missionary work and to engage with the world of media in order to step into the production of public discourses and images related to Asian churches. Through their news agencies, missionary societies continue to co-shape and influence the ways Asian Christians join –or are brought into— the making of world Catholicism.
The second aspect relates to the linguistic dilemma of Global Catholicism. Unlike AsiaNews that went multilingual in the early 2000s, EDA remains solely French-speaking. Until 2010, this was not perceived as detrimental since its material and opinions were accessible by many French-speaking foreigners such as officials in the Vatican and Asian clergy members. But in 2020, international information about Asian Catholics was not debated in Latin, French, or Tagalog, it was, and presently is, mostly conducted in English. Without ignoring how Italian remains an important vector for Catholicism, English is becoming the common language of the Global Church – even in Asia. But as international Catholic networks increasingly rely on this language, they correspondingly risk distancing themselves from Asian Catholics who usually do not speak English. Furthermore, they risk embracing the politico-cultural framework transmitted by the Anglo-speaking world. In other words, finding a common language and balancing its socio-political risks are a constant challenge for Catholic news agencies, and Global Catholicism.
Case 3. UCANews
In 1979, the American Maryknoll father Robert Astorino launched the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCANews). Founded by several sources, this media was not a Maryknoll agency per se, it was a united agency established to decolonize Catholic communications and serve Asian Catholics as an independent enterprise. In the 1980s, UCANews opened four bureaus across Asia. Between 1990 and 2005, ten more local bureaus were opened to reinforce the coverage of the agency. In the early 2000s, UCANews had 62 employees; the vast majority of which were Asian citizens. During its first two decades of existence, UCANews printed a fortnightly bulletin that had news reports and opinion pieces written by journalists and clergy members from Asia. In 1997, a website was launched, and daily reports went online.
In 2009, Astorino asked the Australian Jesuit, Michael Kelly, to take over the leadership of the agency and to adapt it to new technologies. Kelly worked at rationalizing the function of the agency and reforming its business model. Since its inception, the agency was mostly founded by Catholic charitable entities. Main resources came from the German Catholic agencies Missio and Misereor, the MEP, the American Maryknoll, and the Holy See’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Yet, to strengthen the financial safety of UCAN, the MEP and the Maryknoll agreed on generating an endowment fund devoted to the agency. Thus, to diversify its income and widen its impact, Kelly has developed new partnerships with French Bayard Press and Italian Jesuit La Civiltà Cattolica to produce books, podcasts, and media material.
Since May 2018, the agency is led by an Indian layperson in collaboration with a board of directors. By the end of 2020, the agency maintained a network of reporters in 21 Asian countries. The majority of them are local citizens and most but not all are Catholic. Most of the executive team is based in India, and the agency produces around 20 original articles per day.
Nonetheless, UCANews is marked by three paradoxes. First, the agency is both a Catholic and an independent institution. On one hand, the agency is strongly rooted in Catholic institutions, yet it is not controlled by a single Catholic institution (missionary order, Vatican office, or Asian diocese). It makes significant efforts to diversify its resources and to not depend on a single benefactor. The agency is not designed to be a communication tool of a particular clerical group. By highlighting events, accomplishments, and challenges met by Catholics in Asia, it stands as a public platform open to various voices, secular and religious, with different political and theological preferences. UCANews contributes to transregional and horizontal conversations that give voice to a variety of actors and holds those-in-power accountable.
Second, while most of the 200 million Catholics of Asia are not anglophone, UCANews publishes solely in English. Thus, only a small fraction of Asian Catholics can read UCANews directly. This linguistic paradox reflects how the agency seeks to increase the attention and understanding of worldwide Christians and policymakers regarding the situation of the Church in Asia. In front of this diversified readership, the agency has both to contextualize its reports and to highlight their global significance.
Finally, while UCANews is the most Asian news agency of Global Catholicism, it is mostly funded by Catholic entities that are not Asian. So far, the agency has failed at convincing most resourceful Asian Catholic entities to sponsor it more significantly. Most Asian Catholic entities prefer to support their own communication platforms devoted to local events and clergy statements through their native language and pastoral framework. Asian Catholic entities are obviously hesitant about a professional and autonomous Catholic news agency covering the entire continent.
Catholic News Agencies can be understood as an enactment of the Vatican II missiological turn. They are an attempt by well-established missionary societies to reformulate themselves, their contributions to Asian Churches and societies. They let local Churches and individual Catholics to have a more direct voice in the making of the Church. Still, each agency has to constantly redefine itself, to secure its funding, and to specify its positioning within 21st century Catholicism. They can either be more analytical, pro-hierarchy or social. The linguistic question illustrates these continuous transformations.
Nonetheless, these agencies remain mostly funded by Western entities. The ‘us’ (Asian Catholics), that these agencies claim to present and represent, emerges in relation to non-Asian Catholics, especially Western Catholics who are more willing to pay for the service. In some sense, these Catholic News agencies reveal how ‘Asian Catholicism’ is an on-going construction in relation to the non-Asian world.
*Michel Chambon is a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.