- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

He is like a lot of other talk-radio hosts: 35, single, friendly, a smooth talker. But the Rev. Stephen Spahn is also a Catholic priest.Father Spahn holds forth every Sunday at 10 a.m. on WBAL-1090 AM, inviting religious leaders of all faiths to weigh in on everything from poverty to prison.

A Jesuit priest serving for the past two years as associate pastor at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, Father Spahn dislikes “shrill, call-in radio,” he says, but has dubbed his program “Provoke Radio” to “provoke” listeners to action on social justice issues. Radio Mass of Baltimore Inc., a Roman Catholic ministry to the homebound, sponsors the show, which is taped in a confessional in Baltimore’s St. Ignatius Apostolic Center.

“I don’t know who it bothers more: a Jewish rabbi who sees this enormous crucifix on the wall or a little old lady who comes in to confess and sees recording equipment,” Father Spahn says with a laugh.

Guests from all faiths get comfortable with one another as they crowd around a small oblong table. The informal nature quickly gets the conversation flowing.

“One of the challenges is to get the guests to be mindful of their mikes,” the Jesuit says.

Issues discussed on “Provoke” often don’t have obvious answers or easy solutions. Take Father Spahn’s personal favorite topic, inspired by his background in international politics at Georgetown: conflict resolution and international peace.

“We can’t imagine that people are going to be able to solve these problems by listening to the radio show, but we give people a chance to connect,” he says.

Although reputed to be a conservative priest, according to longtime Holy Trinity parishioner Terry Boyle, Father Spahn holds forth on topics that also include liberals’ concerns. This past Sunday’s show was a debate on the merits of Baltimore’s public school system. Other recent shows have been on the death penalty, Darfur and the war in Iraq.

With no more journalistic experience than his high school newspaper, Father Spahn was approached in 2004 by the show’s producer, Claire Hartman to host “Provoke.”

“We want to reach, among others, a young audience: college age to 40,” Ms. Hartman says. “Father Spahn’s youth is a plus in that regard.” The average age for diocesan and religious priests in the United States is 61, according to a 2001 survey by the National Federation of Priests’ Councils.

With about 12,000 people tuning in on WBAL, KUSF-90.3 FM in San Francisco and WLOY-1620 AM also in Baltimore, Father Spahn usually interviews guests live in the studio. He occasionally tapes a show, similar to those on National Public Radio, in which Ms. Hartman tapes the interviews with voice-overs by Father Spahn.

Ms. Hartman sees her most important objective is to give “a voice to the voiceless, people whose stories are not necessarily heard in the more powerful media.”

“We are constantly inspired by so many of our guests who are ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the name of love and justice,” she says. “These are the people the rest of the world needs to hear about.”

The show’s Web site, www.provokeradio.com, lists people or charities to contact to get involved on social justice issues, ranging from AIDS to Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma.

What appears is everyone from Swedish band Abba, singing “Money Money Money” to accompany a show on lobbying, to Irish rock star Bono, a hero of the young Jesuit priest’s.

The show has a built-in audience, as listeners are already tuned into the half-hour St. Ignatius Mass, recorded live for the past 60 years by Radio Mass on WBAL.

“The fact that their show follows [the St. Ignatius Mass], they have a captured audience,” says Sean Caine, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, who enjoys listening to “Provoke.” “Every week we promote the ‘Provoke’ show [through an e-mail bulletin], and we ask our parishes to encourage their parishioners to listen.”

Father Spahn says it is about time more theologically oriented shows were on the air.

“We’ve robbed the public discourse of the perspective of our faith,” he says. Because of a “desire not to offend,” the public has lost out on “the tremendous power of people’s convictions.”

“I can say ‘I think that’s wrong.’ But if you want to understand why I think it’s wrong, I’m going to have to discourse according to my faith. I couldn’t make the truest argument about how I feel,” he says.

He recognizes the importance of talking with people outside a biblical context.

“I’m not going to talk about ‘Saint Anyone.’ I’m going to speak about the good people down the street,” he says. Otherwise, he says, there will be a disconnect.

“I’m not ashamed of the pope or the Gospel,” he says, but if the message is going to be communicated, “it’s got to be more accessible than that.”

Ms. Hartman says the bottom line is finding common ground among people of different faiths.

” ‘Provoke’ wants to be a show that both stimulates intellectually and puts a human face on the issue,” she says. “Therefore, we try to have a balance of guests who are experts in the topic at hand, as well as guests who live the problem.”

Jews and Christians aren’t invited on the show to debate Judaism versus Christianity, says Father Spahn. Rather, “it’s always been inviting a Jew and a Christian to come together and to talk about homelessness. Not at any point do we make faith the topic of discussion.”

Father Spahn will be leaving his position as associate pastor at Holy Trinity Catholic Church to begin vocation promotion for the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus later this month. Recruiting for the Jesuits, he says, won’t interfere with his radio show.

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