Colm Murphy, one of the founding fathers of SIGNIS, a movement for Catholic professionals in the communications media, died at St Columban's in Ireland on 20 October. SIGNIS was created in November 2001 from the merger of Unda (International Catholic Association for Radio and Television) and OCIC (International Catholic Organisation for Cinema and Audiovisuals). Colm was General Secretary of Unda for 13 years from 1981, based in Brussels.
Born on December 28, 1930, in Ireland, Colm Murphy was a Columban missionary. In 1981, he became Unda's new General Secretary and replaced Canadian father Jean Desautels SJ. When he left Unda in 1994, Fr Victor Sunderaj succeeded him. During his 13 years at Unda, Colm visited more than 130 different countries, encouraging and supporting various initiatives in local churches using the media.
He was ordained in 1954 and studied journalism in the United States at Marquette University in Milwaukee. He then briefly worked as a journalist for the Irish Far East, Ireland's oldest missionary magazine, before leaving for Burma in 1958. There, he promoted education among the Kachin people in the diocese of Banmaw, in the north of the country. He studied the local language, which allowed him to teach at St. Columban's High School in Bhamo City. Eight years later, the Burmese military expelled him. Back in Ireland, he took a course on electronic communications and met with Radharc, a television documentary production company founded by Joe Dunn, an active member of Unda.
In 1969, Colm was sent to South Korea. He learned Korean and joined the diocese of Wonju. As Director of Communications for the Diocese, he produced youth programs as well as a series of dramatic radio programs based on stories sent to him by listeners. Debates followed these programmes. They became the most popular programmes of MBC Radio (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation). He innovatively used radio as a tool for evangelisation. From Korea, he managed to broadcast programmes in three Burmese languages twice a day for Radio Veritas (Philippines) and had regular contacts with Unda.
In 1978, Colm was elected Secretary of Unda-Asia. The following year, he organised the OCIC/Unda study days in Bangkok on the theme "The Spirituality of the Christian Communicator in Asia". That same year, he attended the Irish International Missionary Congress in Knock, Ireland, with several members of Unda, including Fr Agnellus Andrew, President of Unda, and Fr Michael Glynn. Finally, in August 1981, he participated as an Unda-Asia delegate in the Unda Executive Committee meeting in Lima, Peru.
In April 1981, after many months of consultation, Unda announced the appointment of Fr Colm Murphy as the new General Secretary. In the announcement, it was noted that he was the director of the Catholic Communications Center in Wonju, South Korea, in the Gangwon province, where he was responsible for religious programming on the local radio. Therefore, he arrived at Unda's General Secretariat in Brussels with extensive experience in broadcasting and the organisation. He spoke not only English and Irish but also Korean and Burmese. In a very short time, he learned to express himself in French and Spanish.
Within Unda, he developed the initiative that OCIC and Unda took in 1978 in the field of media education. In 1982, he participated in the UNESCO symposium in Munich on educommunication. Also, he launched the quarterly newsletter Educommunication News in 1987, which became an essential platform for associations and activities in media education.
He was a member of the Unda jury several times at the Monte Carlo International Television Festival, which awards the Silver Dove for the best television production. He was additionally in favour of greater involvement of lay professionals in international Catholic organisations, but also in Church organisations. He developed excellent contacts with Robert Molhant, General Secretary of OCIC. Together, they organised congresses and meetings, including the first Unda/OCIC Board of Directors in Washington in 1982, followed by the Unda/OCIC Congress in Nairobi in 1983.
Colm was one of the pioneers who prepared the ground for the merger of the two organisations in November 2001, thus giving birth to SIGNIS. What few people know is that Colm allocated part of his salary as Unda's General Secretary to the founding of SIGNIS.
After leaving Unda at the age of 65, he still gave occasional training courses in Myanmar in the diocese of Myitkyina, then accepted a new challenge in 1996 and went as a missionary to Pakistan to develop the local Catholic radio. With the help of the Columbans in Lahore, he obtained the broadcasting of the Christmas and Easter Mass on Pakistan's public radio and television channels. With Zulfiqar Kazim and Anila Saleem of Radio Pakistan, he produced thirteen pilot programmes on interreligious themes. His Korean experience helped him a lot to make this radio one of the most widely listened to in the country.
In 2001, he took a trip to Great Britain with Zulfiqar Kazim, an influential Pakistani radio programme manager. Together, they created radio programmes on Muslim experiences in England. At his initiative, the first interfaith program called Waqt Ki Awaz (Sound of the Time) was broadcast on the Pakistani government media. It presented radio dramas on the value and importance of interfaith respect and cooperation. These dramas were written by local playwrights who spoke Urdu and Punjabi and performed for radio broadcasts by a core group of professional actors. He then became responsible for the Catholic Broadcasting Association in Lahore.
In May 2004, Colm left Pakistan to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of his ordination in Ireland, but he had no intention of retiring. In 2010, he took a sabbatical year to study, meditate and write at the Irish College in Leuven, Belgium. On this occasion, he visited SIGNIS, where he met with Robert Molhant again. One evening, I invited him to eat in a restaurant in Leuven, where he told me he only had a few months left to live. He did not want anyone to know about it.
In 2011, he took part in the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Columban missionaries in the diocese of Banmaw. He then went to the Abbey of Saint Colomban in Luxeuil-les-Bains, near Besançon, not only to rest, or wait for death as he told me during a conversation, but also to lead the community and help the parishes in the area.
In 2014, he felt a little better and visited the SIGNIS jury at the Lumière d'Afrique festival in Besançon, where he even followed part of the program. Since then, everyone had been expecting to receive the bad news, which finally arrived on October 20, 2019.
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