"John Paul II gave me a media masterclass..."
Fr Thomas Rosica is a straight-talking, high-powered son of the state of New York. He was born in 1959, the eldest of six children. Growing up in Rochester he was surrounded by his extended Italian-American clan: his parents, siblings, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Medicine and teaching are the two dominant professions in Fr Rosica’s family. But as a child he felt called to be a priest when he was in primary school. It was the Basilian Fathers in his high school who informed his vocation, because of “their simplicity, dedication to secondary education, commitment and fraternity”.
The teenage Thomas Rosica knew he could follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor or a teacher like his mother. But as he says: “I knew that one concrete decision is better than 1,000 options. So I decided to spend the rest of my life taking my baptismal promises seriously in the Congregation of St Basil, a community of priests dedicated to the work of evangelisation and education.” Little did he know the great plans God had for his life. “Back then I never dreamed in my wildest imagination that I would become a university chaplain and lecturer in Sacred Scripture, head of a World Youth Day, superior of seminarians or founder and CEO of a national Catholic television network,” he says. The one small difficulty that met Fr Rosica in training to be a priest was that he was asked to travel to places outside his comfort zone. For his postulancy he was assigned to a school in southern France, the “motherhouse high school”, in Annonay. From there he went to Detroit, Michigan for his novitiate, and then to Toronto for three years at the Jesuit faculty of theology. This required a lot of globetrotting, but he believes he got “excellent formation”.
Leaving parish life, Fr Rosica journeyed to Rome to begin graduate studies at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. In 1990 he received a licentiate in Sacred Scripture and then spent a further four years of studies at the École Biblique et Archéologique in Jerusalem. After years of demanding academic study Fr Rosica took up a new and different challenge in 1994 when he was entrusted with the administration of the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto. He was initially wary of moving to this chaplaincy, which had the reputation of being liberal. It was Fr Ronald Fabbro (now Bishop Fabbro of London, Ontario) who twisted Fr Rosica’s arm, assuring him that there were “some small challenges, but that the Newman Centre was open to new life”. (“Fr Fabbro has always been a master of understatement,” Fr Rosica jokes.)
When he arrived it was not the most orthodox chaplaincy: there was no crucifix in the chapel, because the liturgists insisted that crucifixes were “gender exclusive”, and in its place were two large railway ties on the wall in the form of a cross. Fr Rosica does not mince his words when he says it had become “a centre primarily for the disaffected and the marginal, a gathering place for adults who had some great difficulties with themselves, with Catholic identity, with authority, with the Church in general”. But Fr Rosica quickly understood that the biggest problem was that the centre had lost “the method to proclaim the Gospel and the message of the Church to a huge university community”.
Fr Rosica set about rectifying this as best he could. While he had been hesitant to go there, he is certain that “it was here, in this place, from 1994-2000, that I feel my most significant work was done during the first 25 years of priestly ministry”. It was, however, a trying time and Fr Rosica took heart from the example of Bishop James Walsh, who spent 12 years of solitary confinement in a Chinese prison. Upon his release from captivity Bishop Walsh said: “The task of the missionary is to begin in a place where is he needed but not wanted, and end by making himself wanted but not needed.”
But unquestionably the saintly bishop who was Fr Rosica’s greatest mentor and hero was John Paul II. Fr Rosica had met him in 1979, but it was during the preparation for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002 that he got to know the Holy Father. It is no doubt a sign of the high esteem in which Fr Rosica was held that he was appointed head of the event. One fond memory from the time Fr Rosica planned the gathering with the Pope happened, one August morning in 2000, after they had celebrated Mass together at the Pope’s summer villa in Castel Gandalfo. “I asked him for some words of wisdom as we set out to plan Canada’s greatest event,” Fr Rosica says. “I shall never forget what he said to me: ‘Keep young people close to you and be close to them. They will keep you young and faithful.’ ”
Fr Rosica adds: “World Youth Day came to Canada at a low ebb of our history. The backdrop included the aftermath of September 11 2001 and a world steeped in terror and war, a Church enmeshed in a major sex abuse scandal.” But this did not daunt the pilgrims, who flooded into Toronto. “During that World Youth Day several hundred thousand young people from 172 nations descended upon Toronto, and with them came the elderly and infirm Pope John Paul II.
After World Youth Day in 2002, Fr Rosica had hoped to return to university work, but was invited to launch and be the CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Television Network. People constantly ask Fr Rosica where he did his media training and film studies. In reply he smiles and tells them that he doesn’t watch secular television and sees few films. “But I do tell them that I had the privilege of having John Paul II as a master who knew the power of words and images, and who taught me everything I know about television, media and evangelisation. It was a character study of nearly 27 years. A masterclass that I never sought out and certainly never deserved.”
Salt and Light is now in its 10th year. Canada’s first Catholic television network won its fourth Gabriel Award from the Catholic Academy for Communication Arts Professionals this June. Fr Rosica credits its success to “the five pillars of the Salt and Light Television network: prayer, devotion and meditation; multilingual Catholic liturgy, Vatican events and ceremonies; learning and faith development for all ages; stories of Catholic action and social justice”.
Continually drawing on the advice given him by Blessed John Paul II, Fr Rosica has a way of employing vibrant, young Catholic professionals who are trained in journalism and television. They are an international group, representing not only Canada but the United States, Australia, Italy, Panama, Holland, Chile, Poland and the Philippines. “The great contribution of Salt and Light to religious broadcasting is the unique manner in which young Catholics have assumed leadership roles in our evangelisation efforts,” Fr Rosica says.
It is this key intention – mentoring young people to employ modern media to advance Catholic culture and teachings – that may turn out to be Fr Rosica’s most enduring legacy.
Keep up to date with Fr Rosica on his Salt and Light hosted blog.
PS - I met Fr Rosica at the Eucharistic Congress in Ireland, where Fr Rosica was a keynote speaker and also one of the main broadcasters. I did this interview for the July 3rd edition of The Catholic Herald.