Günther Simmermacher, longtime editor of South Africa’s leading Catholic monthly, The Southern Cross, remembers Fr Emil Blaser OP, his dear friend, who exchanged time for eternity this week.
Truly great Church communicators are rare. This is why after decades, people still talk about 1950s broadcasters like Peyton and Sheen. In South Africa, Catholics will talk in similar ways about Dominican Father Emil Blaser, who died on November 16 after a long illness at the age of 78.
On paper, Fr Blaser’s greatest accomplishment may sound a little underwhelming: he founded a Catholic radio station which is allowed to broadcast in only one region. And a few words cannot do justice to the energy and determination Fr Blaser marshalled to get to that point with the station which he named after the motto of his order: Veritas.
Establishing Radio Veritas was an obstacle course of the kind that might intimidate hardened marines. There was the question of finances, of course. There was the chronic obstruction by the broadcasting authorities. There was a lack of enthusiasm by many bishops. And, again, always the worries about finances.
Happily, Fr Blaser was the kind of man who, with his sincere, charming and always kind demeanour, found his way into many hearts — and wallets. He worried a lot about money, but God always provided.
Born in 1942 in Cape Town, Fr Blaser entered the Dominican Order after his education by the Salesians, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1967. Until his election as Dominican provincial in 1984 he was in parish work. He also was chaplain to the national federation for white Catholic students (whom he encouraged to stand against apartheid) and coordinator of the Justice and Peace Commission in Johannesburg. As a founding editor of the city’s diocesan newspaper in 1985, he published political news of the sort that could get journalists into trouble.
But at the same time, Fr Blaser also used the state-run radio and TV stations as a pulpit for communicating the Good News, in a country whose regime was trapped in anti-Catholic paranoia. At one point he even had his own TV show, titled, with a nod to Vatican II, “Light of The Nations”.
As apartheid faded and democracy replaced it, Fr Blaser served as the associate secretary-general of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. After that term ended, he returned to media. First he tried to get a Catholic TV station, called Lumen Gentium, off the ground. When that proved unfeasible, he founded Radio Veritas. After the long battles alluded to above, Veritas finally received a licence to broadcast on an AM frequency in the Johannesburg/Pretoria region. Through Internet streaming and a presence on the audio channels of the local satellite service, listenership went beyond those geographical boundaries.
Radio Veritas, whose sharp motto is “The Good News for a change”, has served the Catholic community of South Africa as a tool of evangelisation and formation. It has also been a fertile academy for young broadcasters, many of whom now have fruitful careers in the secular field, thanks to Fr Blaser’s mentorship.
Especially through his morning show, the eternally youthful Fr Blaser — whose mother lived to the age of 108 — became a household name in the Catholic community. If that wasn’t clear in his lifetime, then it was so after his death as social media among Catholics exploded with grief.
But grief isn’t what was called for. Fr Blaser retired from presenting his popular morning show in 2018 due to his debilitating illness. For several years he suffered from progressively worsening chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), an acquired immune-mediated inflammatory disorder of the nervous system. The painful illness first robbed him of feelings in his fingers and toes, and progressively made all movement difficult and then impossible.
For a physical man, one who liked to talk with his hands, who liked to embrace people, who liked to get around, who valued his independence, this illness was difficult to bear — physically, for it caused him great pain, and emotionally, for it caused him grief. Eventually even celebrating the Mass became impossible. In the past couple of years, Fr Blaser felt increasingly isolated. This got worse as he lost his ability to even use a cellphone without assistance. The long months of lockdown, when he could receive no visitors in his nursing home, added to the depression. A few months ago he phoned those whom he was closest to. Those of us who received his call sensed that here the great communicator was signing off.
Fr Blaser had made his final public appearance at Radio Veritas’ 20th anniversary celebrations in Johannesburg just over a year ago. Here this man, confined to a wheelchair, was still pouring himself out for his beloved radio station. He was overjoyed to see so many friends, as he always was. He delivered the annual report, and then addressed the assembled guests. For all eyes to see, this once so physical man was a diminished force. For all ears to hear, it was the old Fr Blaser everybody knew, speaking with power and passion in advocacy of Catholic media.
That Fr Emil was still there, inside this incapacitated body.
Fr Blaser was released from the body which in the end trapped his spirit. November 16 was a sad day for those of who knew and loved Fr Blaser. But for him, it was a good day. Freed from the shackles of this world, he could prepare to meet God, whom he proposed and served throughout his life. Those working in social communications now have another advocate in heaven.
Günther Simmermacher is editor of the monthly Catholic magazine for South Africa, The Southern Cross.