Missionary appreciates BBC World Service

Society of St Columban

Society of St Columban

Peter Hughes,  a Columban priest who heads the Columban Justice and Peace Team in London, reflects on the  BBC World Service, which is downsizing because of budget cuts.

Before I went to Chile as a missionary priest in 1977 I was given very good advice by a friend of mine who was already working in Chile. He told me that the two most important luggage items to bring were a good Biblical commentary and a good short wave radio. Fortunately I took his advice. I probably used the radio more than I used the Biblical commentary! Most evenings I would tune in to the World Service on the BBC. The reception would not always be excellent but I would be able to hear enough to get the latest world news and even more important to get the true news about what was going on in Chile.

I spent twenty seven years in Chile, most of that time under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Under his regime all the television and radio news channels were heavily censored. The same applied to the newspapers. For our news we relied on a modest Church bulletin called “Solidarity” that existed clandestinely and on the BBC World Service. I cannot speak too highly of its value to us in Chile at that time. News about torture, or disappearances of people, or social unrest never appeared in the Chilean communication media. We relied on the World Service to inform us about what was going on in the country that we were living in.

I remember one famous occasion during the visit of Pope John Paul II to Chile in 1985. There was a lot of tension between the Dictatorship and the Church about the planning and media coverage of the visit. Pinochet obviously wanted to use the visit to his own advantage.   On one occasion during the visit   a huge crowd gathered in a city centre park called “Parque O’Higgins” for the canonization of the first Chilean Saint – a Carmelite nun called “St Teresa de Los Andes.” During the canonization ceremony a disturbance started, bonfires were started by dissident groups in different parts of the park, not to protest against the Pope but to make the world aware of the very oppressive situation in Chile at that time. The Police Special Forces invaded the park with water cannons and tear gas. I still remember vividly the mayhem in front of the alter where the pope was saying Mass. The police were firing tear gas and spraying everyone with water. The tear gas reached all of us on the alter including the pope who was offered a slice of lemon by one of the attendants to chew, this acts as an antidote to tear gas. The pope declined the offer, although I must admit I did accept the slice of lemon that was offered to me. Afterwards we all rushed back to our parishes to listen to the World Service describe those extraordinary events. There would be no point listening to the local media as we would just be given the same old propaganda.  At times like this the World Service was invaluable. Colleagues of mine who work in various countries around the world all tell me that same thing.

The World Service  not only kept us up to date on world events but we also received the latest sports results, you can imagine that the Chilean TV would not be too interested in how Arsenal was doing in the championship! Since I came back to England in 2005 I have continued my love affair with the World Service.  I think that it is far superior to BBC 24 of Sky News. It provides a detailed, well researched analysis on what is going on   and is listened to by thousands of people who have few other means of informing themselves.   

Share this story