Fr. Williams: In referring to Jesús as cofounder of Zenit, I would never want to call into question Jesús’ unique and central role in Zenit’s founding and development, both internally and as the public face of Zenit. Nevertheless, from the get-go Zenit was a collaborative effort. In early 1997 a group of Legionary priests had begun an apostolate called Sensus Ecclesiae, which gathered news from the Church and sent it around electronically. They were unprepared, however, to take the next step as a true news agency. Jesús had similar aspirations and time to dedicate to the project, and in discussions between him and the Legion the initiative of Zenit was born. In the summer of 1997, the Legion provided Jesús with an office on the second floor of the Legion’s General Directorate building in Rome, a computer, an internet connection, subscriptions to major news sources, and a salary. Legionary priests helped with some research, though Jesús did the vast bulk of the production work himself. At the beginning, Legionaries managed the email distribution lists, and once the website was designed and launched, Zenit’s first webmaster was also a Legionary named Mark Bylander.
In fact, Father Bylander oversaw all of Zenit’s technical operations, since he had been a sort of computer geek prior to entering seminary, and was the logical choice to manage this sector of Zenit’s operations early on. Originally, the official liaison between the Legion and Zenit was Father Evaristo Sada, but on September 8, 1998, Father Sada met with Jesús Colina informing him that the Legion had named me as publisher of Zenit, news which Jesús happily embraced. From that point on and for some ten years, I occupied that oversight role. Prior to that date I had eagerly followed Zenit’s startup and contributed however I could, but September marked my first official role in the agency. Jesús and I always worked very well together, since we shared a common vision and I was very appreciative of Jesús’ journalistic skills. I don’t want to exaggerate my role, since on a day-to-day basis Jesús was working full time while I only intervened occasionally, participating in strategic planning sessions and presiding over weekly editorial meetings.
CNA: What was the Legion’s role in the English edition of Zenit?
Fr. Williams: In January 1998, when Zenit ventured into English, the first editor was a Legionary priest named James Mulford, and the subsequent two editors of the English edition were also Legionaries: Fathers Mark Bylander and Edward McIlmail. Because of Zenit’s limited funds, having a Legionary as editor made good business sense, since he drew no salary. Nonetheless, we were constantly on the lookout for a layperson who could assume the role. This finally happened in 2006 when Zenit hired Karna Swanson as English editor. I had known Karna as an accomplished writer from when she had been consecrated in Regnum Christi, and she began collaborating with the English edition as a journalist in 2004, moving into the editorial position two years later. Back in 1998, we were able to hire an extraordinary woman named Virginia Forrester, who at the time was working for Sacerdos, a Legionary apostolate reaching out to diocesan priests. Initially the English edition depended almost exclusively on content provided by the Spanish language edition, and Virginia translated a huge amount of material into English on a daily basis. Without her, Zenit would not have been able to start an English-language edition as early as it did. None of this takes away from the incredible work Jesús did, and I would never want to take credit away from him. The Legion’s direct presence in day-to-day operations of Zenit was necessarily more intense in the early days, since we lacked funds to afford a full staff of lay persons. Little by little that changed, however, and as Zenit grew, the Legion’s direct involvement diminished
CNA: Mr. Colina contends that as publisher, you were always very coherent and consistent in your desire for plurality within the fidelity to the Church. But that perspective ended two years ago when Fr. Luis Garza, then Vicar General of the Legion, explained that some top positions should be under the exclusive control of Regnum Christi members. Do you agree with this description?
Fr. Williams: Jesús participated in most of the meetings of Zenit’s board during the period when Father Luis Garza was president of the board. During those meetings—which officially determine Zenit’s actions—no one ever proposed firing someone who was not a member of Regnum Christi or hiring someone just because they were. In fact, the question never came up. In hiring decisions we of course consider a person’s religious affiliations, but have consistently looked for the most competent person for the job, as long as they were faithful to the Church. In fact, during Father Garza’s tenure, when the time came to hire Zenit’s new CEO, the decision was made to hire Alberto Ramírez, a supernumerary of Opus Dei, rather than someone from Regnum Christi.
It is true that historically it has been helpful to have several members of Regnum Christi among those on Zenit’s staff, since they were assumed to share in the Legion’s commitment to serve the universal Church, but they have always been a minority in Zenit and most probably always will be. The universality of the Church is beautifully represented in the Zenit team, whose members hail from a broad diversity of charisms and spiritualities. This has always been a true richness for Zenit in its mission. I believe that anyone who regularly reads Zenit knows that its articles cover events and activities of the entire Church and have never favored events sponsored by the Legion or Regnum Christi. A simple internet search will bear this out
CNA: Mr. Colina claims the independence Zenit was looking for was to make sure that the agency would be able to be transparent and accountable to donors, something crucial for Zenit's fundraising model.
He also said that, although Zenit’s account was always independent, the minimal financial information was never accessible to him as Director. Mr. Colina didn't imply ill will, but rather a lack of effective management. Is this the current financial situation?
Fr. Williams: As Jesús has stated, as soon as Zenit’s accounts separated from the Legion’s in 1999, he was always morally certain that Zenit’s accounts were truly independent. That is, in fact, the case. In every board meeting a certain amount of time is allocated to reviewing the finances of Zenit, and they are available for all to see or question. This can be somewhat confusing because as an international agency with employees all over the world Zenit operates under the name of a number of separate entities in different countries, and has numerous accounts operating in different currencies. It is true that we need to come up with a way of simplifying our financial statements, consolidating everything in a way that is clear and easy to follow. Nevertheless, all the information is there, regarding both revenues and disbursals, and there was never a hint of the Legion tampering with Zenit’s finances. Having been a business major myself, I have always been interested in the financial side of Zenit as well as the editorial.
It is true also that Jesús never had control over Zenit’s finances, but that makes perfect sense. As editorial director, it was never part of his jurisdiction. That was always the work of Stefano Magnaldi, hired as Zenit’s administrative director back in October, 1998. Years later, Jesús suggested that the two branches be consolidated under one single executive director to unify Zenit’s efforts, which initiated our search to find a suitable candidate. The person who recently seemed best qualified for the post was, as I have mentioned, Alberto Ramirez, from Madrid. All of the directors, including Jesús, interviewed Alberto, and a consensus followed that he was the person to hire. I am unaware of a problem among Zenit’s donors concerning Zenit’s finances—except for the fact that we have always depended on them for Zenit’s survival!
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
At Catholic News Agency, our team is committed to reporting the truth with courage, integrity, and fidelity to our faith. We provide news about the Church and the world, as seen through the teachings of the Catholic Church. When you subscribe to the CNA UPDATE, we'll send you a daily email with links to the news you need and, occasionally, breaking news.
As part of this free service you may receive occasional offers from us at EWTN News and EWTN. We won't rent or sell your information, and you can unsubscribe at any time.
CNA: How do you envision the future of Zenit looking? What changes and improvements are to be expected?
Fr. Williams: The first thing is to assure continuity in our service during the next few months!The world has already changed considerably since Zenit’s founding in 1997. At the time, Zenit was the first Catholic news agency to use the internet for mass distribution. Now there are many—including yours! Zenit’s uniqueness will continue to be its base in Rome and the vision it gives from the heart of the Church. We sought early on to offer translations of the Pope’s writings and discourses in as many languages as possible, so that people would have immediate, unfiltered access to the words of Peter’s successor. We have developed around this core, offering more and more coverage of news that affects Catholics throughout the world.
In choosing to focus on the written word, Zenit has perhaps been slow to integrate other media into its repertoire, and we are now looking at ways to offer photos and take advantage of services such as twitter to offer people the news in ways that make things easier for them. The new evangelization has need of communicators unafraid to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the rooftops. Zenit aspires to continue to form part of this great movement.