Today he is the President of CatholicTV in the US, a television network that can beam into 14 million homes across ten American states. He is also one of the station’s most popular presenters, a first time author and a friend of Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s, one of Pope Francis’ inner circle of nine advisers.
As a seven-year-old boy, growing up in the Boston area, his happy childhood, which revolved around the kid’s TV show ‘Boomtown’ with cowboy Rex Trailer, fell apart when his father was killed tragically in a road accident.
Speaking to CatholicIreland.net on a recent visit to Ireland, he explained that his mother’s background was Irish Catholic and his father’s was Scottish Presbyterian and so “there was a little conflict in terms of Catholicism in our house”.
Nonetheless, the young Reeds, three boys and a girl, were brought up in the Catholic faith, and attended Catholic schools while the parish was very much part of their lives.
The loss of his father, he explains, was an event which “deeply affected me and my vocation. As tragic as it was, out of tragedy a lot of times God reaches deeply into our lives and sets us on a direction… I really trace my deep love of the Church, the Eucharist, the priesthood, to that tragic moment because it caused me as a young boy to think very deeply about the faith that we shared as a family.”
Though Robert Reed was educated at the local Catholic parochial school, change was already afoot. “Unfortunately, the year I graduated was the year the school closed.”
He went on to Catholic high school and later went into the seminary and had the privilege of studying in Rome at the Pontifical North American College. He was ordained in 1985.
“I had never been outside of the country or travelled to Europe; so to live in a foreign country and have to learn to speak a foreign language was very challenging. At the American College I was surrounded by university men and women who were very bright; it was an intellectual environment – and that was also very challenging for me, it really stretched me.”
“But being so close to the Vatican and the Holy Father changed my life as a Catholic and moulded me for the priesthood in a big way. To see Pope St John Paul II on occasion and interact with him was certainly a great blessing.”
He found the training for priesthood in areas such as liturgy and scripture rewarding and exciting but the area which really spoke to him was pastoral ministry.
“I’ve always been very deeply entrenched in the life of the local parish. I understand myself in that sense, even in my work in television I understand myself as a parish priest. I truly believe that our relationship with Jesus Christ as baptised individuals finds its foundation in the family home and in the parish and on the campus.”
“So I think my understanding and love for the Church is deeply entrenched in the pastoral. We are there to meet people and walk with them on their journey of faith.”
In 2005, he was appointed director of CatholicTV. Under his watch the station has rebranded itself and expanded as a network.
CatholicTV is distributed on cable systems and broadcast stations in the US Virgin Islands in addition to ten US states, as well as via the Internet, IPTV and numerous Over-the-Top applications. It has also built up its high definition broadcast and production facilities.
Fr Reed has overseen the creation, acquisition and delivery of increasingly diverse and high quality Catholic programming. While realistic about the “huge challenges” the industry faces, he is also pragmatically optimistic.
The president of CatholicTV believes the present moment is a time of tremendous opportunity for religious broadcasting.
But to avail of those opportunities and attract and keep its audience, his station must be willing to compete with the highest standards despite having a smaller staff and smaller budget. It is about going the extra mile for the faith.
Speaking to CatholicIreland.net on a recent visit to Ireland, the Boston-based priest commented, “I think we need to be more competitive and less churchy.”
Yet he regularly prays the Rosary with the station’s audience from various locations around the world, he also co-hosts the network’s signature talk show, ‘This is the Day’ and is a regular celebrant of the daily television Mass which CatholicTV broadcasts.
In his view, Catholic television must transmit the message of the Gospel through programmes that “look just like network television if we are going to attract people to watch and listen. We have to compete, at least in the United States, with the major networks.”
Fr Reed himself has always been interested in the use of television and new media for sharing the faith. He holds an advanced degree in Television Management from Boston University’s College of Communications.
He is not just a behind the scenes man as he also hosts ‘WOW – The CatholicTV Challenge’ and a reality series called ‘House + Home’.
Asked about the difficulties of combining his role as parish priest with all these media roles he admits it is not easy to find 48 hours in 24! “Sometimes it feels like that but I know my strengths and my limitations and I am a firm believer in surrounding myself with brilliant and creative people.”
His team is small. Just thirty to run the network. Of the other 29 he comments, “Every single one has an incredible story and is brilliant in their own right and creative beyond imagination. We work together to create an ever developing network that I believe truly transmits the Gospel message in a way that is very much needed today.”
“We have a beautiful headquarters and three beautiful studios. But it is a huge challenge to produce programming every day that would be attractive to a person who is just sitting flipping the channels – looking for something that grabs their attention.”
“He is a very gentle man and a very bright man – a real listener. I have to be grateful to him because CatholicTV is an unusual resource – not many dioceses in the US have anything quite like it. He gives us the space to grow it and develop it and he trusts us with this resource. I am grateful to him for that,” Fr Reed comments.
“I am also grateful that I have a bit of a friendship with him and have the chance to talk with him and be inspired by him.”
It was Cardinal O’Malley who dealt with the fallout of the clerical abuse scandals in Boston. A decade on, Fr Reeds suggests, “Perhaps we’ve turned a bit of a corner but I do sincerely believe that our focus has to always be first on the victims – the protection of children – because what happened can never happen again.”
As to Pope Francis, who elected Cardinal O’Malley to be one of his Council of Nine and to head up the commission for the protection of minors, Fr Reeds comments, “I can’t think of a more appropriate pastor for the universal church to have at this particular moment.”
“The way I see it, Pope Francis understands my ministry and he understands our life together at the most basic level – the family. He understands what it is like for you and I to be living our faith day to day because he has exercised his ministry in a very real way in the midst of people.”
He also believes that Pope Francis is helping the Church to refocus on a greater respect for the individual person.
“The struggles we have gone through particularly in regard to the sexual abuse crisis – these are problems that have occurred because of misaligned relationships between people. I think he is very powerfully brining us back to a greater respect for the individual person made in the image and likeness of the Creator.”
In Fr Robert’s opinion, the best remedy for discouraged Catholics is a reclaimed sense of the tradition’s riches as embodied in the lives of the saints. In a down-to-earth and encouraging tone, Fr Reed provides ten practical lessons on how to ‘Discover and Receive Your Gifts’, ‘Look beyond the Present Troubles’ and ‘Live with a True Spirit of Joy’.
The book profiles ten pairs of saints who offer lessons in reviving faith, starting at a personal level and radiating outwards to the wider Church.
The twenty saints were selected because they lived in times of crises when the way forward was unclear. Some of the pairings at first glance seem to be unlikely companions, such as St Augustine and St Joan of Arc, St Athanasius and Blessed Mother Teresa.
But the reader quickly detects that these examples contain a framework for personal renewal that is essential for Church-wide change.
The publicity for the book states that ‘Renewed’ is a practical plan for the revitalisation of the Church that maps out steps for a grassroots awakening that every Catholic can undertake today – music to the ears of the Church in Ireland.
“The impetus for writing the book was very much in and for the parish – it is written for individuals but it is also written for people to come together in a small group where faith can be shared.”
“I know that ‘encounter’ – a word used very much by Pope Francis – is the basis for our living out the faith. We in this life are meant to come to encounter Jesus Christ and that happens in so many powerful ways: through the sacraments and personal prayer and our communal prayer, but also it happens in our encounter with one another.”
“We believe that the Church stretches beyond the limits of time and space and so we’re very much connected with the great people who have gone before us. People like Athanasius or Mother Teresa of Calcutta or John Paul II. And we are also very connected with people whom we share our faith lives with – our family members and fellow parishioners.”
“So the book is really about that – about our reaching back and finding strength and encouragement in the witness of those who have gone before us and also finding that same strength and encouragement in those who walk together with us.”
Asked if any of the twenty saints selected for ‘Renewed’ are his personal favourites, he told CatholicIreland.net, “Obviously Pope Saint John Paul II because I had the privilege of actually encountering him and holding his hands and have him pat me once on the cheek and say ‘Good boy! Good boy!’”
St Therese of Lisieux is another favourite and is the patroness of the CatholicTV network “by virtue of the fact that I decided she was! She has always been a good friend to me and I look upon her and the saints as very much that for us – they are companions with us on a journey; they know us and they pray for us and we can go to them and ask them for prayers as I would ask you for a particular intention to pray for me.”
“Therese has always been there for me in my life. I had some very dark moments, as I think many of us experience in life, and when I was experiencing that darkness I went to her for some reason. I was inspired to do that because I was told by a couple of friends you should pray to St Therese and ask her to help you. She has always helped me with a rose and some direction and the strength to get through a particular moment. Of all the saints that I mention in the book she is the closest to me.”
Recalling Pope St John Paul II, Fr Robert comments, “I remember the first time I saw him up close. The different colleges in Rome from different countries would be called in to serve Mass at St Peter’s Basilica or in the Square.”
“At this particular Mass, I was one of the servers and so we were over near the Pieta in a curtained off area and the Holy Father came off the elevator and walked towards us. I just remember being stunned. I don’t know if it was the fact that he was Pope or if it was the white cassock or his personal holiness or all of that together – but it was just a stunning moment and I was transfixed in his presence.”
“There was just something about him and I do believe it is the reason that we now look upon him as one of the blessed in Heaven. I can’t describe it in any other words than that. I was just transfixed.”
He adds, “He is the keystone, the cornerstone to the structure that we call the Church.”
“I look upon Jesus as my only hope and so encountering him through the sacraments and the life of the Church and through one another, though interaction with the poor and our neighbour – whoever that person might be – in our home, next door, down the street, in the gutter, in an enemy – in meeting Jesus Christ we find the key to renewal.”
He concludes, “In meeting Jesus Christ we find the key to renewal and the more we find him and encourage him to be a part of our lives – the more we will find our way to the renewal the Church needs in our day.”
Renewed: Ten Ways to Rediscover the Saints, Embrace your Gifts and Revive your Catholic Faith by Fr Robert Reed, President of CatholicTV. Foreword by Cardinal Seán O’Malley OFM Cap. [Ave Maria Press/Alban Books Ltd €11.50]