INVER GROVE HEIGHTS, Minn. (Catholic Online) The late Pope John Paul II might have found it a sweet irony that millions of Americans tuned into Catholic radio for programs commemorating his death April 2, 2005.
RADIO ANNOUNCER ASKING 'ALL THE RIGHT QUESTIONS' -- Sheila Liaugminas draws heavily upon the teachings of Pope John Paul II in "All The Right Questions," a daily program that airs on Relevant Radio. (Photo courtesty of Relevant Radio)
When he called for a "new evangelization" in the U.S. at the dawn of the third millennium, Pope John Paul described modern media as an indispensable means of achieving it.
"Using the media correctly and competently can lead to a genuine inculturation of the gospel," he wrote in his 1999 apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in America."
At that time, about two dozen Catholic radio stations operated from coast to coast. According to Dick Lyles, chief executive officer of Relevant Radio, Catholic radio struggled to be heard because Protestant radio was so extensive and established.
But it didn't take long for the seeds of Pope John Paul's encyclical to sprout.
By the end of 2000, there were 35 Catholic radio stations, according to the Catholic Radio Association, which was founded in 1999 with the mission "to serve the new evangelization."
Now 130 Catholic radio stations operate in the U.S., the association reports, marking a 400 percent increase from the end of 1999 to today. Catholic radio reaches more than 80 million Americans.
Pope John Paul's fingerprints linger in every corner of these radio stations. His quotes grace their Web sites. His pictures line their office walls. And, in many cases, his handshake inspired their very creation.
For instance, Mark Follett, a businessman from Green Bay, Wis., founded Relevant Radio in 2000 after meeting Pope John Paul. Now Relevant Radio is the largest Catholic talk radio network in the nation. It owns 17 stations, has 15 affiliates and operates in 13 states.
Pope John Paul's salute to laypeople in "Ecclesia in America" empowered them to excel at Catholic radio, said Patricia Lebreton, executive director of Immaculate Heart Radio, which operates 11 stations in three Western states.
"The Holy Father communicated to us laypeople the importance of getting up and getting involved in evangelization," she said. And he called on clergy to show a "profound respect for the witness and evangelizing work of laypeople" That's what enabled Immaculate Heart Radio to expand to a third state last year, Lebreton said.
Pope John Paul's powerful witness down to his dying days deepened Americans' "thirst for the message of Christ and his church," she added. That thirst translates to more listeners.
"Radio is an incredibly intimate medium," said Lyles of Relevant Radio. "When people get in the car, they think they're alone, so they're oftentimes willing to examine their feelings, their thoughts, their values and their attitudes in a way that they wouldn't necessarily do with another medium."
Business acumen and a bold approach have contributed to the success of Catholic radio, said Sheila Liaugminas, host of Relevant Radio's daily program "The Right Questions."
"We take it to the edge, out to where the mainstream media is breaking news stories," Liaugminas said. "We're not preaching at listeners, we're engaging them right where they live and where they're having problems."
Teen pregnancy. Divorce. Stem-cell research. You name it, Liaugminas said. The result is a listener who is steeped in prayer and briefed on news a Catholic who prays the rosary and reads the headlines.
Edgy or not, most broadcasts rest squarely on traditional theology. Explaining church doctrine is often a top priority. That's a much-needed mission, according to the Catholic Radio Association.
Just one in 10 lay religious teachers accepts church teaching on contraception, its Web site states. And 70 percent of 18- to 44-year-olds believe the Eucharist is merely a "symbolic reminder" of Jesus.
But lately, Catholic radio has been posting heartening numbers, too like growth projections. Relevant Radio expects to double in size during the next five years, Lyles said. Immaculate Heart Radio also anticipates substantial growth, thanks in part to the 24/7 Spanish online broadcast.
EWTN Global Catholic Network now offers podcasts, an innovation other Catholic networks plan to offer. Recent reports indicate that more than 6 million Americans listen to podcasts, audio files downloaded from the Web onto a computer and then transferred to a digital audio player such as an iPod.
It may sound hi-tech, but its all in the name of John Paul.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.