“Labouring in the Vineyard: The Difference the Media makes in Religion”
Faith in the Public Square Conference
Munk School of Global Affairs – University of Toronto
August 7, 2014
Thank you for the privilege of offering some reflections on media during this lecture series to commemorate the anniversary of St. Augustine’s Seminary. You have asked me to speak about “The Difference that Media makes in Religion.” I wish to address the topic from a biblical perspective and begin with the founder of my Church, Jesus of Nazareth who lived at a very specific moment in history in an outpost of the Roman Empire.
Jesus was a great communicator. His life and ministry were immersed in religion, communications and “media” and we could say that he is living proof of the difference that media makes for religion! He has much to teach us about our own dealings and encounter with the world that God so loved. His language suggests an imagination that has scanned a great deal of normal human living. His good common sense, his extraordinary attentiveness to the situations and things of ordinary life bonded him with his followers. They recognized him as one who “walked his talk.” His rootedness in God and his sheer love of humanity were open invitations to all those who lived otherwise. Jesus used parables to teach very important lessons. The indirectness of parables makes the wisdom of Jesus inaccessible to hostile literalists.
“The field is the world”
I wish to consider one of Jesus’ parables that offers us a paradigm of how the Church communicates with the world. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds, a story unique to the evangelist and one that reveals this Gospel’s perspective on the community’s role in history. We know the parable well. The farmer sows good seed in his field, and while he sleeps an enemy comes and sows weeds among the wheat. When the mixed crop appears, the servants come to the master terribly distressed and ask if he wants them to tear out the weeds. But the master says no, let both of them grow until harvest time and then they will be sorted.
Perplexed by Jesus’ story, the disciples ask him to explain it, and so he begins, “the field is the world.” God works in the world, not simply in the church. The world is a mixed reality, a mixed bag, both good and bad, and this parable recognizes that the community cannot insulate or shield itself from the weeds.
Matthew’s Christians struggled with self-definition in the midst of the incredible, cataclysmic changes that were a kind of tsunami over both Jewish Christianity and Palestinian Judaism in the wake of the Jewish revolt against Rome and its devastating suppression in A.D. 70. And yet it was for this Jewish Christian community that Mathew wrote his story of Jesus of Nazareth – a community that was swept up in the tsunami of history – a community preoccupied about its sacred, historical roots in Judaism. Matthew had to draw from his treasure house things “both new and old” for the sake of his community.
My friends, the field is the world, and this strange mix of peoples on the peripheries of Israel is among the first recipients of Jesus’ message. We could say that they are unanticipated target audience of Jesus’ mission as it breaks into non-Jewish world and takes root. This is what happens when the seed falls freely in the world and not just in the church.
Matthew’s Gospel reflects an amazing biblical perspective on history worth recalling today. It is the world and not simply the church that sets the agenda for our mission and moves us into God’s future. Time and again the biblical drama shows that what we often call secular events, even wrenching and destructive ones, move history forward and provide the setting for God’s words and plans to be revealed to humanity. All of Jesus’ vivid, rich, biblical metaphors reflect the drama unfolding in the world and its history that surrounded Jesus and his times: gathering and healing, reconciliation and forgiveness, renewal and hope in the midst of great suffering; lost sheep that need to be found; sinners and outcasts welcomed back into the heart of the community; broken, wounded, grieving and sick people consoled and healed; enemies forgiven; dead people raised to life and the kingdom of God announced and extending to people in real time.
Shortly after the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II this past April, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Cardinal Loris Capovilla in Sotto il Monte, Italy, not far from Bergamo. Capovilla, nearly 99 years old and a newly “created” prince of the Church, served as the personal secretary to St. John XXIII. Our extremely lucid and provocative conversation left me with this conviction. The Holy Spirit is alive in the world, not just in the church, and that the Spirit blows where it will. Even the Second Vatican Council originated not solely in the prophetic intuition of Papa Giovanni but in the devastating events of World War II and its aftermath, perhaps as result of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – events that cumulatively led the church to grapple with the realities of modernity.
In a similar way, could we not also reiterate what the great Benedict XVI taught us through his 8-year pontificate, that the devastating horrors of clerical sexual abuse of minors – as repulsive, criminal and destructive as it has been for the church and the world – could also be an opportunity for the church to repent of its clericalism and its lack of transparency, and be a time for a renewed commitment to put the protection of the vulnerable far ahead of fear of embarrassment and causing “brutta figura” for the church and its leaders? Could it be that out of the chaos of the abuse crisis, a deeper call to holiness has been planted in the hearts and minds of all those called to ministry and service in the Church?
Should we not see the great, contrasting events and movements that so profoundly affect our church and our religious communities as the work of the Holy Spirit alive in human history? For those of us involved in religious communications and media, the field is the world, which means that we must not only immerse ourselves in the church’s traditions and unfolding wisdom but also by being alert to the world and its drama where the Holy Spirit is also truly at work. The field is the world – not only as the object of evangelization, but as the catalyst of the Spirit awakening the consciousness of the church itself.
Even before he was elected Pope and assumed his new Petrine ministry, the first Pope from the new world sounded the alarm and said simply that the Church is called to boldly break out of herself and go towards the outskirts, not only the outskirts of place but also to the outskirts and the frontiers of our existence; those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of ignorance; the outskirts of indifference, the frontiers of human wretchedness. And he added when the Church does not break out of herself in that way she becomes self-referential and so shuts herself up in a room of stagnant air. “The evils which as time passes afflict ecclesial institutions are rooted in self-reference, a sort of theological narcissism.”
The task of Church communicators, journalists, and broadcasters, of those interfacing with the “secular media” is to develop and use new media to communicate the Gospel and story of the Church and promote a culture of dialogue. A single medium is no longer enough to capture the full attention of the audience. What we need to do is show the culture that we’re not against it, that we have a compelling story, and that the story can change peoples’ circumstances, their lives, and their destinies. When that happens, people will listen. We must avoid providing what are portrayed as easy and simplistic answers for every question addressed to us. Often the right answers are difficult to accept but they must be provided.
The Papal Transition of 2013
February 11, 2013 did not only shift the plates of the earth for the Church, but marked a seismic shift in my own life. Early that morning in Rome, Benedict XVI resigned and caught the world and the Church off guard. Such an event had not happened for nearly 700 years! Several days later, I was invited to join the staff of the Holy See Press Office at the request of Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, to be part of an adventure that included a Papal Resignation, the Sede Vacante or Interregnum, a Conclave taking place without the atmosphere of a Papal funeral, and the surprise election of the first pope from the Americas, not just any pope, but a Jesuit pope; the first modern Pope to have been ordained to the priesthood after the Second Vatican Council. Those days would become some of the most important teaching moments that the Church has ever had on a world scale. They were vivid opportunities to illustrate today’s topic: that media could make a huge difference in the presentation of religion.
One of the most poignant moments of my Roman sojourn took place on February 28, the last day of Benedict’s pontificate. His departure from the Apostolic Palace and the Vatican captured the heart and mind of the world. Benedict’s touching farewell from his co-workers on that crisp, Italian afternoon, the brief helicopter flight to Castel Gandolfo, his final words as Pope, reminding us that he would become “a pilgrim” in this final stage of his life, touched us deeply. There were no dry eyes in Rome that night. The whole departure reminded me of that emotional moment in the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 20) when Paul took leave of the elders at Ephesus.
The Sede Vacante
Once the Pontificate ended, our work in the Holy See Press Office multiplied in spades! Over 6000 journalists descended upon Rome and they were hungry for information. Together with Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, and Msgr. Gil Tamayo from Spain, we led the daily press briefings for hundreds of accredited journalists from every corner of the globe. The Vatican strategy of spreading the table of information before the television cameras of the world began to bear fruit. I was asked to handle media requests in English and later in French, and we worked 18-hour days for six solid weeks with television, print and radio media from every corner of the globe. I lost count after doing 165 television and radio interviews with every possible network you can imagine… first in English, then French, Spanish, Italian, and German.
“Brothers and Sisters, Good Evening!”
I will never forget the experience of that cold, rainy Wednesday evening of March 13, when the white smoke finally appeared. With the “Habemus Papam” came the name of a stranger, and outsider, who instantly won over the crowd in the Piazza and the entire world with the words, “Fratelli e Sorelle, buona sera!” (Brothers and sisters, good evening!) Who would believe a pontificate beginning with those simple, common words? Never in my wild imaginings did I expect a Pope to be called Francis! Nor could I comprehend the scene of over one hundred thousand cheering people suddenly become still and silent as Papa Francesco bowed and asked them to pray for him and pray over him. The media’s portrayal and transmission of those images made a huge difference for our religion, our Church, and for the world.
Speaking to journalists several days after his election, Pope Francis offered this insight: “Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events! But they do have one particular underlying feature: they follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the “worldly” categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public.”
Shortly after the papal transition last year, I was invited to New York City to meet with the heads and editorial teams of the major American television networks that had provided massive coverage of the entire papal transition period. Similar meetings have since taken place with Canadian media outlets. Those meetings were rather astounding and offered me and the Vatican communications machine some unique insights .
Among the common points that emerged from major television and radio networks, and many newspapers, was universal praise and gratitude expressed to the Holy See Press Office for the openness, cooperation, patience and kindness shown to the English language media in particular. Many said that they never received such attention and care in all their years of dealing with Rome. One woman from CBS exclaimed: “There was English! There was English!” There was universal appreciation expressed for the daily press briefings, accessibility, the “sound bite”, translations and commentaries in English shared with the media, and the availability of people to answer questions and offer background information in real time!
There were rave reviews about the Vatican TV coverage of Pope Benedict’s departure from the Vatican on February 28. Many journalists and technical crews that had camped out in Rome for nearly five weeks stated how “deeply moved” they were by the images Pope Benedict’s serene departure from the Vatican on the last day of his Pontificate. Senior television commentators confessed that they wept as they watched the Pope leave the Vatican and take the helicopter ride to Castel Gandolfo. I told them that Fr. Lombardi and I were not without tears that day.
One of the senior producers of CBS 60 Minutes, a committed and engaged Catholic man, summed up what many had expressed at the meetings in New York City last year and continuing now over one year after the 2013 conclave: “February and March 2013 offered the church a golden opportunity for evangelization, education and hope and shifted the plates of the earth for our relationships with the Church.”
Over the past 17 months, I have learned that Pope Francis is the best thing going for the Catholic Church in the area of communications, religion and media. And not only for the Church! He is the clearest example of the New Evangelization. If you want to know what the New Evangelization is, it’s not a book, a text or a synod. It’s Francis. What he has done since March 13, 2013, is to force all of us to rethink the ways we communicate, the ways that we understand religion and media, and the ways that media can be at the service of religion. Having Francis as the leader has helped all those involved in Catholic communications not to hide behind walls for fear of the madding crowds, but to reach out and build bridges—not to be afraid to deal with the so-called “media.”
Initially perhaps many of us (myself included) may have thought that Pope Francis’ free-flowing interviews are more a source of consternation and frustration than opportunities to learn more about the Church, her founder and her message. But Francis has chosen many different opportunities to speak and encounter the world. Now matter how fraught with confusion and misinterpretation those methods may sometimes be, the world is now listening to the Pope in ways that have never happened before. No longer can we simply attribute this interest to an initial fascination, a “honeymoon period”, or other infantile ways of trying to analyze what is really happening. Let me be very honest: we are no longer in the “honeymoon” period of this Pontificate. The world is listening because Francis and the Church have something solid to say and to offer to a world plunged in chaos, war, despair and darkness.
Pope Francis’ vision of the Church challenges all of us but in a pointed way it challenges those who are involved in the media, especially in the world of Catholic media. Francis has an amazing ability to find simple words to pose fundamental questions about the life of the Christian and of the Church. No one can deny that the “secular media” has been fascinated and mesmerized by his expressions that come from daily homilies, addresses, and messages:
“How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor!”
“Have a good Sunday, and a good lunch!”
“Priests must be shepherds with the smell of the sheep.”
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”
“We have fallen into a “globalization of indifference.”
“Who am I to judge?”
“I want things messy and stirred up in the church. I want the church to take to the streets!”
“I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
“It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”
“The papal apartment is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight.”
“I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”
“The image of the Church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God.”
“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
“The court is the leprosy of the Papacy.”
“God never tires of forgiving us.”
“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”
“I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.”
“An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.”
“I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization.”
I dream of a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything.”
“Mercy is the greatest of all virtues.”
“The confessional must not be a torture chamber.”
“The Church is not a tollhouse.”
“I beg you bishops, avoid the scandal of being airport bishops!”
“We need to promote a culture of encounter.”
“Mary, a woman, is more important than bishops.”
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Asked if he would ever baptize Martians, Pope Francis responded: “Who am I to close the door?”
Pope Francis is challenging us to become “the tender embrace of the Church” for all who are marginalized and on the fringes and on the frontiers of the society in which we live. We have all seen that pictures are worth a million words for Francis.
Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, (of which both Cardinal Collins and I are member and consultor) speaking recently to the celebrations of the outstanding United States Catholic Newspaper Our Sunday Visitor, said this:
“The Church has many unloving critics; critics who seem at times keen to reveal the negative aspects of the Church in order to wound it. The Church is not well served either by those who might be described as uncritical lovers; people who, often out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, try to deny the existence of tensions and problems in a manner that ultimately may damage the credibility of the Church. The Church needs a media that is not afraid to expose mistakes and failures, but whose motive is to challenge the community of believers to continue on the path of conversion, so that the Church will be more fully what it is called by Christ to be – a community that witnesses credibly in word and deed to the love of God for all humanity. The Catholic media will not be credible if it does not confront sins, abuse, weaknesses and failings within our community but it would be less than objective and fair if it did not also point to events and happenings that point to the abiding presence of the Spirit.”
If we are to serve the cause of truth as Catholics involved in communications and media, and truly become what we say we are, we must be professional and live up to the highest professional standards of the broader profession to which we belong. This requires balance in reporting and the normal professional standards about verifying sources. But there are several major temptations and challenges before us in this brave new world of communicating religion to the contemporary secular society around us.
There is a great temptation for us to think that we are using modern media and social communication and understand what exactly is involved in the process. It is not just a question of having a website, a blog, Twitter accounts, new-fangled gimmicks and gadgets and a You-tube channel. There is an inherent risk of doing quick, clever, trendy, cute things with social media as if social media is going to be the true method of communication. Let’s tweet for the sake of tweeting! We tweet to send people back to links with solid content. One of the problems of social media is there’s not a lot of content. So the Church has to be vigilant and prudent about not being caught up in that tidal wave of saying we have 10,000 Twitter followers, 2 million intimate friends on Facebook or similar rather meaningless statements. We run the risk of being caught up in a sheer numbers game. How do we prepare solid, comprehensible, creative content that leaves our readers and viewers desiring something more? How do we truly bridge the gap between religion and media, especially the so-called secular media? Numbers of hits do not guarantee reception and understanding of the message! For many who are seeking deep answers, there are times when all we offer is a trivial and bickering, inward-looking, stonewalling Church which does not really reach out to the needs and challenges of living the faith in our society.
Many of us claiming to work in media and particularly in Catholic media and communications, have ended up in a very dangerous rut, stuck in our stories, and in the same old narratives and outdated, tired methods that no longer communicate and connect people. In my work for the Holy See Press Office, I recently had to respond to numerous questions from various parts of the world asking why Pope Francis speaks so frequently about the devil! I researched all of Pope Francis’ daily homilies and addresses to discover all of the places where Francis talks about the devil, and one of the interesting things he says is that diabolical works are about monologue. The works of the Spirit are about dialogue. Monologue is all about people speaking to themselves about themselves and speaking about others, not speaking with others. Works of the Spirit are those based on solid dialogue.
If we truly believe that religion and media are important for the Catholic Church today, we must not spend all of our time eliminating or putting Catholic media efforts in second and third place. We have to speak about preparing professional people to be involved in these roles. This means finding time, talent and treasure. It means allocating proper funds to this effort.
What is the future direction of our efforts in communicating with the world? In Pope Francis’ landmark Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he offers a critical insight into our work with the media. I quote #34 of that document:
34. If we attempt to put all things in a missionary key, this will also affect the way we communicate the message. In today’s world of instant communication and occasionally biased media coverage, the message we preach runs a greater risk of being distorted or reduced to some of its secondary aspects. In this way certain issues which are part of the Church’s moral teaching are taken out of the context which gives them their meaning. The biggest problem is when the message we preach then seems identified with those secondary aspects which, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message. We need to be realistic and not assume that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel which gives it meaning, beauty and attractiveness.
Let me conclude with one of my favorite “media” stories from the Acts of the Apostles (8:25-40). This exotic story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza illustrates the widening circumference of the Christian circle. Through his angel, God takes the initiative and directs Philip, his witness, to take the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. In immediate obedience, with little information but complete trust in the God, Philip sets out and encounters an Ethiopian eunuch and his retinue. The eunuch is exotic, powerful and pious. He is also the chief treasurer of a wealthy, foreign kingdom.
What’s happening here? Philip was sent to meet with an outsider: a person of color, of complicated gender, a government official to the ruler of a foreign power. This outsider had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and was reading the prophet Isaiah while riding home in his chariot. As the chariot passed him, Philip called out to the Ethiopian: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30). The Ethiopian answers, “How can I unless someone explains it to me? (8:31)” The eunuch was reading the Greek version of Isaiah 53:7-8. The eunuch wants to know whether the prophet is talking about himself or someone else.
When the carriage arrives at some water, the eunuch exclaims, “Behold water! What is preventing me from being baptized?” The eunuch is baptized as Philip stands with him in the water. Though Philip is taken away suddenly, the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing. For Luke, joy is a manifestation of a person’s salvation, particularly of reception of the Holy Spirit.
The Ethiopian did not ask for a teacher, he asked for a guide. There is a big difference between the two. Teachers point and say, “Go there, do that.” Guides reach out and say, “This is the road I travelled. You might want to try it, but whatever road you choose, I’d like to walk it with you.” Both Philip and the eunuch end up going down in the water for the moment of baptism. Teachers say, “I told you so.” Guides come after you if you lose your way. The Church needs teachers who are good guides, and contemporary men and women need guides and teachers who are first and foremost witnesses.
We who are entrusted with the work of communications and media in the Church, and with the daunting task of working with the secular media, must be teachers who are first and foremost good guides. But even more, we must be what Pope Paul VI described in his ever-timely and still beautiful 1975 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
Philip both answers the eunuch’s question and points to Jesus’ saving significance. Philip teaches the Ethiopian that Jesus, the righteous sufferer, crucified and risen again, has won the victory over sin and death, and now repentance and forgiveness of sins are available in his name. That still remains breaking news in our day.
Let me return to Jesus. He asked his followers to go to the peripheries – to the ends of the earth, not just to places where they felt comfortable. He always spoke in a language that people understood and used the media that people found accessible. He was the ultimate communicator. His incarnation was God’s greatest communication with humankind. His challenge remains the same to us today. To do this effectively, we must engage with the traditional media and new media, whether as communicator or consumer. And we must do this as good guides, not merely teachers who tell others, especially in the secular media: “I told you so.”
Our field is indeed the world. The most effective way we can use the media is by bearing true witness to the message we seek to deliver. The strength of our message and our stories lie in the authenticity and transparency with which they are presented. When we do this, let’s not be surprised that those who receive our message might begin to believe it, share it with others, and even put it into practice in their own lives. That has certainly been my experience all these years, but most especially over the past 17 months.
-Fr. Thomas Rosica CSB