, 29 June, 2020 / 11:00 PM
The rest of the world is mourning the passing on of Fr. Robert (Bob) Astorino who “married media professionalism” for the Church in Asia, founding the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) and serving as its Executive Director for 30 years.
But as far as Catholic journalism in Africa is concerned, the Maryknoll Missionary Priest will be remembered as a mentor, the man who brought to life a dream that was conceived to “allow Africans to tell their own stories to the rest of the world.”
Fr. Astorino, a native of New York city, died on Thursday, June 25 at a New York State hospital in the United States aged 77.
Sir Benedict Assorow, the Managing Editor of the Catholic Standard in Ghana, first met the Maryknoll Priest in the late 1980s when he attended the Union of the Press in Europe.
“Fr. Astorino struck me as a very jovial man with a ready smile. He oozed a lot of positivity and he would crack jokes that left us reeling in laughter for a long time,” recalls Ben, adding that he made a pint to take the Priest’s contact details during their first meeting and kept close contact with him.
Sir Assorow who served as the Director of Communication at the Ghana-based Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) for over a decade narrated his encounter with Fr. Astorino in an interview with ACI Africa ahead of the burial of the Maryknoll Cleric on Tuesday, June 30.
“I also remember him for his love of cigarettes. He loved to smoke and he always had a mug of coffee in his hand. Most of the time when he sat down to write, he had a cigarette at the corner of his mouth and coffee with him,” Sir Assorow who is managing the Catholic Standard, Ghana’s national Catholic weekly newspaper where the Catholic Bishops in the West African country are the majority shareholder recalls.
The two met the second time in 2007 at an event in Rome. At that time, Sir. Assorow had been mulling over an idea to start a Church media outlet that would allow Africans to tell their own stories on the continent that was witnessing a steady growth of the Catholic Church.
“At that time, we didn’t have a Catholic Church platform that told African stories by Africans themselves. The media we consumed was presented from outside Africa,” he says and adds, “I had shared the idea with some of my friends and I needed a force to realize it.”
It is Fr. Astorino who jolted the idea into motion, helping him organize meetings in Rome, Ghana and Nairobi, Kenya where plans were put in place to start the Catholic News Agency for Africa (CANAA), a continental news agency that gave voice to Catholics in Africa.
Playing the advisory role in the establishment of CANAA, Fr. Astorino sought to model CANAA to UCA News, recalls Sir Asssorow.
“He made it an independent news agency, not relying on other media outlets for content, but with staff in a number of countries who furnished it with enough content,” he says in reference to UCA News, Asia’s largest Catholic news service, which Fr. Astorino founded in 1979.
With three media pundits on the continent who were well grounded in Catholic journalism, CANAA hit the ground running in 2013 and over time became a point of reference for Church news in Africa. These included Sir Assorow who served in Bishops’ communications outlets in Ghana and SECAM, Kenyan-born Fr. Don Bosco Onyalla who had diocesan and national experiences in setting up a network of radio stations in South Sudan and Nigerian-born Fr. Patrick Tor Alumuku who had worked at the Africa Service of Vatican Radio for over a decade, among others.
Fr. Don Bosco, a priest of the Diocese of Rumbek in South Sudan who served as CANAA’s first Coordinator remembers a media guru who always had his back in the management of the news agency.
“The Maryknoll Missionary in Asia always expressed his availability to share his wisdom gained from decades of service in Catholic media,” Fr. Don Bosco says.
He narrates a past incident where on reaching out to Fr. Astorino, the Maryknoll Priest regretted that he was not available at the time and promised to reach him later.
“After having been away for some weeks, he wrote back, ‘I am here to resume our conversation whenever you invite me to do so on whatever subject you care to discuss’,” recalls Fr. Don Bosco.
Fr. Don Bosco who later became the head of the Association for Africa Information (ACI Africa), a news Service for the African continent, says in reference to Fr. Astorino, “I found him pragmatic in his approaches and forthright in speech.”
In the couple of meetings that Fr. Don Bosco and Fr. Astorino attended, the late Priest underscored the necessity to have financial resources to run Church projects.
In one of the numerous letters that Fr. Don Bosco received from his mentor, Fr. Astorino wrote, “CANAA's major challenge right now is to secure the funds it needs to develop as a competent and credible news service. Without money, nothing can happen. No money, no talk, as the Chinese say.”
It is a challenge that led to the collapse of Sir Assorow’s brainchild. He says, “It makes me sad that CANAA died because we didn’t have the funds to steer it forward. We had the backing of the Bishops within SECAM but lacked the moral as well as financial support of the rest of the Church.”
Fr. Don Bosco attests to the fact that many people have gained from Fr. Astorino’s wealth of experience in overseeing Catholic media outlets “with a significant audience.”
“In the process of establishing ACI Africa, I am finding Fr. Astorino’s advice about having a lean staff at the headquarters (HQ) spot on,” the Priest says of the agency that he has been managing since August last year.
At some point, the ACI Editor-in-Chief once asked the Maryknoll Priest how to go about staff remuneration for a continental news service.
His answer was, “Be sure to find the right person for each job and pay whatever it takes to engage that person. This is especially important for people whose positions directly involve journalism tasks such as editing,” Fr. Don Bosco recalls.
Fr. Astorino also once said that he had learnt from his own experience of managing media outlets in Asia that full-time personnel working in different parts of the continent must be paid according to their locality.
In another advice to the Diocese of Rumbek Priest, Fr. Astorino also advised, “Hiring an unqualified person as an editor just because their salary would be lower than that of a genuinely qualified person would be really counterproductive for the whole news service.”
“He was very keen on emphasizing the need to have an editorially ‘independent news service’ that can tell Africa’s story from a Catholic faith perspective,” Fr. Don Bosco further says.
He recalls Fr. Astorino’s advice in that regard, “CANAA should not be tied to be tied to SECAM if it wants to be respected as a credible, professional and independent news service. If it stays closely linked with SECAM, it can only be regarded as a public relations venture of the African Bishops.”
As for Fr. Alumuku, who founded Catholic Television of Nigeria (CTV), a television network that is uniting Christians across Africa’s most populous nation, news of Fr. Astorino’s death was shocking.
“I am stunned by the news of the passing away of Fr. Bob Astorino, priest and journalist of repute,” Fr. Alumuku told ACI Africa.
Fr. Alumuku who doubles as Director of Communications in the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja recalls meeting Fr. Astorino in one of the meetings towards the establishment of CANAA in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
“He (Fr. Astorino) had an incredible wealth of experience in journalism. He came to Nairobi from Hong Kong where he was working at the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN),” Fr. Alumuku says, and adds, “His tremendous contributions shed light to the task of setting up the African Catholic news agency.”
Born on May 27, 1943, Fr. Astorino was educated in Catholic schools in his home city of New York before entering Maryknoll as a seminarian.
Following his ordination in 1970, Fr. Astorino went to Hong Kong in 1971 and helped launch the Hong Kong Catholic Social Communications Office where he was assistant director for several years.
After conducting a feasibility study on church information needs in Asia, he launched UCA News in 1979 to provide news for the Catholic Church in Asia, eventually establishing 14 news bureaus to cover 22 countries.
Fr. Astorino is known for pioneering Catholic media in Asia and mentoring many people in journalism, with those he trained proceeding to work in Catholic communications and in secular media.
His ministry in Catholic journalism drew recognition from high places. He served as a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communication. the Catholic Press Association in the U.S. recognized him in 1998 with the Bishop John England Award, which honors “publishers who used the Catholic press to defend the rights of religion and individuals in a free society.”
In their condolence messages, the three media practitioners in Africa remember a humble, generous and jovial man who “gave himself wholly in the field of communications in the Church.”
In his farewell remarks to the late Maryknoll Missionary Priest, the Abuja-based CTV founder says, “He served God writing, may God write his name in the book of life.”