From a cramped studio in Hampshire, Franciscan friars are serving up prayer, ethical debate and even a comedy drama

‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature”: the Bible is consistent in its message that it is our duty to spread the word of God. The technological age brings new challenges, though, and the Church is constantly attempting to adapt while retaining its essence. Even Pope Francis has Twitter. And now, in the small parish of Gosport in Hampshire, three friars and three priests have come together to create Radio Immaculata, one of the first Catholic internet radio stations in the country, which broadcasts at radioimmaculata.org.

On paper, a digital Catholic radio station sounds decidedly modern. I am therefore surprised when Friar Rosario Joseph Mary, one of the six clergy who founded Radio Immaculata, shows me a minuscule room with whitewashed walls, no bigger than a cupboard, and tells me that this is the heart of the station, which has amassed more than 1,000 listeners since its launch in December last year.

Fra Rosario is tall and surprisingly young with a warm, open face and an air of slight nervousness. “We are still growing,” he says, before telling me that the aim isn’t necessarily to increase audience figures.

“I wouldn’t aspire to worldwide broadcast, but that would be nice, though,” he laughs. Instead, Radio Immaculata is all about spreading the word. And despite the relatively low audience numbers, there are listeners in Nigeria, Barbados, Italy, Kuala Lumpur and America, tuning in to listen to the debates, conferences, Mass, music and drama series – all broadcast from this tiny cell in Gosport.

The room is extremely basic, with two computer screens (one showing the 24-hour schedule), two microphones and two statues of Our Lady. It quickly becomes apparent that Radio Immaculata is not concerned with the modern but instead with transmitting the message of Christ.

Radio Immaculata was launched on the feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) by Gosport parish priest Fr Seraphino Maria Lanzetta. The friars and priests responsible for the station believe that it is unique owing to their devotion to Mary.

This Marian culture could be said to be the defining characteristic of Radio Immaculata. “The aim is always to know Jesus,” Fra Rosario tells me, but “Mary is the most effective way for souls to know Jesus. Mary is the means. Our aim is to give Mary to souls so that they can have the same means of being able to know Christ in a more perfect way.” Do they see themselves as missionaries? Yes is the answer, given without a moment’s hesitation. Their aim? “To bring people closer to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to enable people to know her love through the radio.”

It isn’t just Mary whom the friars look to for guidance. “We are very much inspired by St Maximilian Maria Kolbe,” Fra Rosario says, telling me the saint’s story. (He died a martyr having volunteered his life in place of a stranger’s in Auschwitz. He had spent his life promoting the veneration of Mary and he founded a Polish radio station to help him do so.) Balancing modern means of communication with a traditional identity is to walk a tightrope that requires bravery.

In its quest to proselytise, does the station discuss contentious issues such as abortion or divorce? The answer is that it’s trying to. “We have to love God and to do His will,” Fra Rosario tells me with complete conviction. “We are not ashamed to give the Catholic position on these issues.” The radio hosts a weekly pro-life forum, in which a friar and a young student “present the arguments surrounding the issue”. The friars are hoping to broadcast a debate on ethical issues in the summer and there’s a comedy drama series broadcast, Dialogue with Fr John, in which “a posh priest goes into inner-city London and meets people there and speaks to them, so he meets youths and they present arguments that a young person might voice”.(Incidentally, the scriptwriter has chosen to remain anonymous.)

Why radio? Why aren’t the friars evangelising predominantly by going out into the community or through publishing their works? “Every media is a form of art,” says Fra Rosario. “Sculpture, for instance, communicates something through the material, the clay. Through a voice, through hearing, to hear someone’s voice: this can go straight to the heart of the listener. There is a certain closeness in hearing beautiful words. When you turn on the radio, the voice enters your home. It can be a companion. We would like people to be in the companionship of Mary. Through our words, she can be close to you. She can enter your home.”

The radio station relies on “donations and benefactors and the generosity of the people”. The mixing desks were donated and the microphones purchased by a benefactor. “This is all part of divine providence,” says Fra Rosario, helping the friars to “deliver the Holy Roman Catholic faith without watering it down”.

And what is the future of Radio Immaculata? Aside from more listeners, what do the friars want for the station? “Hopefully it will be a means to instil courage,” Fra Rosario says. As I walk down Gosport high street, I reflect that Radio Immaculata’s listeners are unlikely to fail to be inspired by this innovative and holy project.

Constance Watson is a freelance journalist.

This article first appeared in the June 9 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here