By Tracey Primrose
January 23, 2017 — St. Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary, is credited with converting an untold number of people to the Catholic faith. And more than four centuries after his death, Xavier is also loosely responsible for a thriving religious broadcasting ministry in Brazil.
The RS21 television network is the brainchild of Jesuit Father Edward Dougherty, who read a book about St. Francis Xavier as a student at Jesuit High School of New Orleans and dreamed of a life working in the missions.
Fr. Dougherty entered the Society of Jesus in 1959, right out of high school, had introductory Spanish language instruction in Mexico and was soon missioned to Brazil, where he worked for a Jesuit social center. That was 50 years ago. In the meantime, Fr. Edward became Fr. Eduardo, and the fledgling television show he co-founded is now part of a thriving television network that employs 260 workers.
In the late 1960s, after a deeply moving spiritual experience, Fr. Dougherty devoted himself to bringing the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement to Brazil. He preached, organized conferences, published books, led prayer groups and directed retreats. Remembering that time, he says, “My spiritual life took off.”
Then in 1979, Fr. Dougherty heard God calling him to start a television production center. Operating out of a garage, he co-founded the operation with three nuns, starting with just one weekly television program, which has been on the air since 1983.
The program took off and expanded rapidly to a television station and then to a 24/7 network that reaches 150 million Brazilians. Fr. Dougherty credits the growth of RS21, which stands for 21st century, to fundraising skills he learned in the United States. Today, nearly a quarter of a million monthly donors donate $7 or $8 dollars a month, raising around $14 million per year.
The RS21 production facility is located outside the city of Campinas, San Paulo, in southeastern Brazil, on farmland that now houses five studios, a call center, carpentry shop, and marketing and other offices.
The network includes a wide variety of religious programming, all in Portuguese, including daily Mass, prayer programs, the Gospels in dramatic form, Catholic music and more.
“We have an excellent team. Someone once told me ‘If you don’t know how to do something, surround yourself with competent professionals.’ And I think I’ve done that.”
The network receives no outside funding and exists only through its monthly donors. Of his fundraising apparatus, Fr. Dougherty says, “I’m a beggar priest. People are very faithful and a high percentage of them are contributing because we’re giving them spiritual food. We’re rapidly losing Catholics to the evangelicals and the Pentecostals, so it’s very necessary that we feed the people.”
Fr. Dougherty’s eyes are focused on the future: on creating content, distance learning and digital platforms to attract and train young people. Never one to think small, he aspires to be the Catholic Netflix of Brazil.
“I’ve always believed that if Jesus were here today, he would be on television. And Ignatius would say that ‘this is for the greater glory of God.’ God is pretty amazing, and he does wonderful things. Our television network started in a garage. Big things start in garages.”