I came to Rome three years ago to study Social Communication on what, I readily admit now, was something of an academic leap of faith. I have to confess that the rather lengthy title of my specialization (Institutional Social Communication for the Church) remained to me for some time, rarefied, vague, and even vexing.
It seemed that "social communication" was such a broad umbrella term that quite literally anything could fall under it. After all, what human activity doesn't involve some form of communication? Wasn't it the aim of a specialization to hone in on a particular field or branch of study for the explicit purpose of acquiring a certain expertise in it? How does one specialize in something that is almost interminably expansive, even elusive? It seemed that I was majoring in something so nebulous that when people would ask me what I was studying, I would often respond by saying "journalism," figuring that was tangible… and maybe more respectable.
It wasn't until I set about delving into the rich corpus of Church documents on the subject that I began to appreciate what the Church meant by "communication" when seen through the complimentary prisms of theology and evangelization. After reading these documents, I began to grasp the Trinitarian underpinnings of communication, a theological thread with anthropological relevance. Communication plays an essential role in personal fulfillment and self-knowledge. Communio et Progressio explains it well: "Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level, it is the giving of self in love."
Ever since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has developed these theological implications of communication. The above-referenced document continues: "In the Christian faith, the unity and brotherhood of man are the chief aims of all communication and these find their source and model in the central mystery of the eternal communion between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who live a single divine life." Though the mediums of communication are diverse they all serve the same purpose: Communio et Progressio clarifies that solidarity with one another and human incorporation in the life of the One, Triune God are the ultimate ends of Church communication. Those working in Church communication have a unique responsibility and opportunity to bring the Church's message of salvation to the world.
I'm reminded of a visit to Santa Croce by the pope's former spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls. During the course of his informal talk, he shared with the students a blend of professional counsels and personal memories. "When it's your turn to speak, make sure that you actually have something to say." The advice seems self-evident, even banal. Of course, we all know that we should have something to say. But the more I think of it, the more his advice rings true and the more convinced I am that this insight is not appreciated by many in Church communication. The timeless message of the Church is already out there, but how are we going to make it "connect" with a world that seems to be in a constant state of flux? The great task of those working in the arena of Church communication is to make this message of hope relevant for the world, to demonstrate how and why it remains personally relevant at the most intimate level of the human being who may be experiencing disorienting changes in an uncertain world. This is an enormous challenge.
The truth be told, much of Catholic media today preaches to the choir a message that blows past those in most need of hearing it. The real challenge, it seems, is to bring Catholic media out of itself. Providing quality Catholic programming to those who will unquestionably agree with everything it produces is a respectable role. But venturing into new, uncharted waters involves taking risks.
Further, we need to come up with new ways to anticipate cultural trends that all too often catch us off guard. Disingenuous, agenda-driven pundits, and even sincere but misinformed Catholics, repeatedly use catchphrases to depict the Church: "antiquated," "irrelevant," "out of touch," etc. However untrue, these aspersions, are not born ex nihilo.
Consider how many Catholics have repeatedly come up short when asked by the media for a concise explanation of Church position X. Sometimes, the attempt is truly painful to watch, as savvy media personalities and opposition cronies eviscerate a woefully unprepared and "out of touch" Church representative. The antidote to such spectacles is, first and foremost, top-notch preparation and a firm grasp of the issues. But the second component is also essential: the ability to translate this knowledge into a language that people will not only understand clearly, but that will attract them. I think this was precisely Dr. Navarro-Valls' point.
It seems to me that an overall lack of originality could be cited as a recurring theme with regard to Church communication. Perhaps, for serious Catholics, our understandable confidence in the truth and rightness of our faith leads us to complacency when it comes to evangelization. Fortunately, Catholics have made impressive strides in radio, television and Internet over the past decade. But we still lag far behind our Protestant brethren in actualizing the full potential of the various media outlets. There's an ongoing joke which says more or less that, by Vatican time, the passage of a couple of centuries is the American equivalent to a New York minute. The point is that the Vatican, for better or worse, has a tendency to wait things out — an approach some would call prudence and, no doubt, there's a good deal of wisdom in it. But outside Vatican City, the world seems to move faster by the day and if we wait, we'll be left behind.
Once we have entrusted ourselves to God in prayer, discerned a clear vision of our goals and decided to take some risks, we must attend to preparation, organization, knowledge of the issues, and of our audience. It is not necessary to travel to Rome to become media savvy. There are Catholic resources in America to turn to for help. Here are a couple particularly deserving of mention:
The Pauline Center for Media Studies offers workshops, seminars and forums to encourage and promote media mindfulness in parishes and other educational settings and to integrate a variety of media use with catechesis for all ages. Their two Education Certificate Programs, Master Teacher in Media Literacy Education and Specialization in Media Literacy, will meet the 3rd Saturday of each month from September 2007 – June 2008. On their website, they maintain a library of articles on media literacy education and on integrating media with catechesis and preaching as well as all Church documents on media.
The Maximus Group is a full-service public relations firm inspired by St. Maximilion Kolbe to use the media to infuse the voice of Chirst into the popular culture. The Maximus Group uses the latest methods of communication and technology for its clients to build bridges between the sacred and the secular. They offer everything from message crafting for organizations to personal instruction in making presentations to the media.
When the Gospel message began to be proclaimed, written works were contained on large scrolls. The invention of the codex (bound pages similar to modern books with leaves) was a great media advance and it was spearheaded by Catholics. It is time we reclaimed our place in the forefront of new media, for the world is no less in need of our message than it was 2000 years ago.