Below you will find Fr. Thomas Rosica’s address on Catholic media. He made this special and passionate presentation on this, Day 6, of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Ireland.
On the northwest shore of the Dead Sea in southern Israel is the site of the Essene settlement where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd boy in 1947. The scrolls removed from a cave that day and the days following would come to be recognized as the greatest manuscript treasure ever found – the first seven manuscripts of the Dead Sea Scrolls! The Essenes, an ascetic Jewish sect of the Second Temple were a somewhat fanatical religious group that existed from about 200 BC to 75 AD. They deliberately built their community in an inaccessible site. They were a group of priests and laymen pursuing a communal life of strict dedication to God. Their leader was called the “Righteous Teacher.” They viewed themselves as the only true elect of Israel who alone were faithful to the Law. The Essenes were convinced that the leaders and people in Jerusalem had lost their way and had become unfaithful to God. So these devout Jews fled to Qumran to clear their heads and prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
The Essene writings revealed the mood of Messianic fanaticism among the Jews of the time and have disclosed much about the nature of the Essene community, their way of life and beliefs as well as many details about the Second Temple and its rituals and worship. The Qumran texts provide us with a very good background picture of one aspect of the religious world into which Jesus came.
I begin my presentation with the story of Qumran because it offers the Church one paradigm of how to deal with the world, with news, with media and communications. There are some people and even leaders in the Church today who feel very much like the leaders of the Essene community – who view themselves as the only true elect of the Church, the only remaining faithful who have not lost their way! In their mind, the only way to deal with the world is to flee from it, and construct their community in inaccessible sites like that of the Dead Sea… to build a hermetically sealed fortress that keeps the outside world outside! Communications becomes an internal affair, preaching to the restricted gallery of the saved, the clean and the non-problematic people.
I do not believe that the Qumran method is the way to deal with the world today! Rather than fleeing the confusion and ambiguity of our age, and hiding in the nostalgia of a past that is now buried in the heart of God, some of us must remain in the city, in the present, in the thick of things, offering the world the unambiguous message of the Gospel, the teaching of the Church, a ray of hope, and a dose of badly needed joy. And we have to do this work on different media platforms, simultaneously!
Jesus’ media method
Jesus did not make his home base on the shores of the Dead Sea, but rather in cosmopolitan Capernaum, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In that little fishing village strategically located on the extension of the Via Maris, he had regular dealings with many people including tax collectors, and a Roman centurion. He was very much at home in Capernaum, not in Jerusalem nor at the Dead Sea. Though clearly not a politician, Jesus had a keen sense of politics and rarely turned down an invitation to dinner. Jesus bonded himself with the unclean, the sick and dying, with sinners, and those living on the fringes of society. He befriended sinners and the wretched of his times- never condoning their behavior, but inviting them to an alternative lifestyle. He teaches us that by “being with people” he also heals, restores, renews and reconciles broken humanity.
Jesus asked his followers to go 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. 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.
In using the media to evangelize the masses, we must never lose sight of the need to reach and teach the individual as though he or she were the only person being addressed. We need to keep our focus on reaching the world with a message of hope, a theme that has been key in teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, especially in his encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi.” We must have a passion for the truth, always seeking in depth that solid soil of the vital relationship with God and others, a place to really build a culture of respect, of dialogue and of friendship and a way of respecting the dignity of every man and woman.
We have a long way to go in the media area both in the Church and in our media establishments. Barrier walls and hostilities that exist between media and Church must be overcome. It serves no purpose for Church officials, leaders and individuals to vilify those involved in the media, to stonewall and not respond to the constant “urgent” phone calls of this reporter, that producer, some editor. That’s the nature of the beast! They don’t call it breaking news for nothing!
Nor does it serve any purpose for those in the media world to ignore or marginalize the Church and religious issues into banal, trivial matters that don’t merit serious reflection. We have much to learn from each other, and we have much good work to do together to serve the cause of truth and decency in a world that is becoming more devoid of value, virtue and meaning. The most profound realities and truths cannot be reduced to sound bites.
What is required of Catholics who wish to enter the arena of media- in small and big ways, is prudence, wisdom, intelligence, savvy, humor, and above all, humanity. And dealing with the media today is not the sole work of “designated” church communications personnel- some who know the trade, and know the importance of proactive and active work, while others, (thinking that they are experts), know the trade poorly- always remaining in fearful, reactive and crusading modes of response! We will all make big mistakes and blunders in venturing forward on the media stage. But we can learn from those mistakes, let go of grudges and old animosities, and build a collaborative future.
Let’s recall several key points about the media. Contemporary media are not inherently evil or sinful. Putting energy and creativity into positive expressions will help build a more humane media environment. Catholics involved in the media have a great responsibility to humanize a rather difficult world. At the same time, as the media dramatically reshape society, we must be cautious and wary of the negative side. Let us also not be fooled to think that mass media today is morally “neutral”. It is often subordinated to economic interests intent on dominating the market and to attempts to impose cultural models that serve ideological and political agendas.
The media have a huge role in shaping attitudes, a role that has been amplified by globalization. That requires careful reflection on their influence, especially when it comes to questions of ethics and the solidarity dimension of development. Media have a civilizing effect when they are geared toward a vision of the person and the common good that reflects truly universal values. That means they need to focus on promoting human dignity, be inspired by charity and placed at the service of truth.
Rather than simply rejecting or ignoring new media, we should focus on the ways we can use them to reflect and express our values and help us provide models of empathy, solidarity and respect for the human person. In doing so, we participate in the redemption of new media and the renewal and evangelization of the Christian community.
One of the prized values in the media industry is impartiality in presenting news and current affairs. This means both sides of a case must be presented, ideally within the specific programme or series. To show impartiality in a single programme, an interviewer will put present critical questions and challenge the person interviewed. This often leads to a claim that interviewers are anti the opinion of the person they are interviewing. So whenever a Catholic is interviewed, the interviewer will take the opposite point of view. This means they may sound anti-Catholic to some people. But they sound equally anti-something and anti-whatever the view of the person interviewed. Attempting to handle topics with impartiality is sometimes handled sympathetically and sometimes badly.
Are some news interviewers and programs anti-Catholic? The answer is yes. In the media world, there is much animosity toward the Catholic Church. That is undeniable. Many have personal prejudices as well. Crises in the Church, particularly the devastating abuse crisis over the past years have provided good reason to many to distrust the Church. It is tiring, however to hear Catholics and people of faith condemning the public television networks or even smaller, religious networks for being anti-Catholic simply because the network attempted to present the whole picture.
Several weeks ago when we presented in a very measured, objective manner the current “leaks” crisis at the Vatican, I received numerous nasty phone calls from our viewers telling me that I was showing disrespect by intimating that there were problems at the Vatican! I told one woman that the entire world was speaking about the “Vatileaks” and her response was: “Catholic media should never present anything bad about the Church.” There are many who express this same idea. Others complain when we present positive, happy stories of Catholic life, stating that we should speak much more about hell and damnation, since the world needs to hear that message!
The future of religious broadcasting lies not in demanding more dedicated religious programming but in creating programmes that inform, educate and entertain; this in fact may be a better way to communicate faith to a secular society that literally switches off when religion is presented as education and instruction. No serious public service broadcaster is going to ignore religion but neither will they be cheerleaders for religion. Churches and faith communities need to understand the parameters of the modern media environment and work within them, helping creative programme makers to find new approaches to religious broadcasting, approaches that will inform and entertain according to contemporary criteria of good TV and good radio.
With the digital age upon us, we are seeing a considerable diminishment of the Catholic and Christian press. The Churches cannot ignore the great potential of online media if they wish to keep the truths of the faith in close touch with the emerging culture and the younger, growing generations. At the same time, we cannot ignore “old media,” because many less developed countries around the world still rely on traditional technologies. The task of Church communicators, journalists and broadcasters is to keep working to develop and use new media to communicate the Gospel and promote a culture of dialogue. A single medium is no longer enough to capture the full attention of the audience.
Visual and electronic media, today’s dominant media, need a certain kind of content. They thrive on brevity, speed, change, urgency, variety and feelings. But thinking requires the opposite. Thinking takes time. It needs silence and the methodical skills of logic. Nevertheless these new forms of media have undermined the intellectual discipline that we once had when our main tools of communication were books or print publications. Material progress is never an unmixed blessing. New media also includes the viral world! Video clips that go viral can reach as many people if not more than a TV programme. Churches need to be aware of these developments because they are low cost and highly effective at reaching those segmented audiences.
We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that a perfect communications strategy could ever make it possible for us to communicate every message the Church has to offer in a way that avoids contradiction and conflict. In all honesty, success in this sense would be a bad sign, indicating ambiguity or compromise, rather than authentic communication.
The search for meaning is the most powerful force in the world. What we need to do is show the culture that we’re not against them, that we have a compelling story, and that the story can change their circumstances. 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.
Successful Catholic media experts throughout the ages
In every age the Church has used whatever media are available to spread the good news. St. Augustine practically invented the form of the autobiography; the builders of the great medieval cathedrals used stone and stained glass; the Renaissance popes used not only papal bulls but colorful frescoes; Hildegard of Bingen, who is said to have written one of the first operas; the early Jesuits used theater and stagecraft to put on morality plays for entire towns; Dorothy Day founded the simple Catholic Worker newspaper; Jesuit Fr. Daniel Lord, S.J., jumped into radio; Bishop Fulton Sheen used television with tremendous success; and now we have cardinals, bishops, priests, sisters and brothers and Catholic lay leaders who blog and tweet.
And don’t forget Rita Antoinette Rizzo (a.k.a., Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, who founded the Eternal Word Television Network out of a barn on her property in the deep south of the United States. Say what you wish about her, but she is one of the most chutzpah-filled women I have ever met and known. Then of course there is Fr. Robert Barron, the Chicago priest who has given Catholic apologetics a new brand and incredibly beautiful, credible image through his “Word on Fire” and masterful “Catholicism” project.
This evening I wish to highlight, however, two individuals from our Catholic heritage who exemplify for us the power of evangelization, media, symbol and communication. St. Francis of Assisi sought to convey the Christmas story through the nativity scene enacted in the Umbrian hilltop town of Greccio on December 25, 1223. Francis made a living Nativity scene, to be able to contemplate and adore it, but above all to know how best to make known the message of the Son of God who for our sakes was stripped of everything and became a little child. Francis’ intuition was astonishing: the nativity scene is not only a new Bethlehem because it re-evokes the historical event and focuses attention on its message, but it is also an occasion of tremendous consolation and deep happiness.
The nativity scene celebrates the covenant between God and man, between earth and heaven. Thanks to St. Francis, Christians are able to understand that at Christmas God truly is ‘Emmanuel’, the God-with-us, from Whom no barrier or distance separates us. In that Child, God became so close to each of us … that we can establish an intimate rapport of profound affection with Him, just as we do with a newborn child.
The second communications expert I would like to hold up for you is one closer to us, to our moment in history. Let me take you back to the moment when he entered the world stage. It was a lovely, fall evening, October 16, 1978, when Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla walked out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. Following the white smoke from that now familiar Sistine Chapel chimney, the stranger was presented to the waiting crowd as “Pope John Paul II” and he spoke personally to the huge crowd in St. Peter’s Square, going beyond the prescribed Latin words of an Urbi and Orbi blessing. He immediately bonded with the audience, describing himself “a man from a distant country” now called to Rome. From the very beginning of his Pontificate, the youthful, athletic pope took the world by storm. The media knew from the beginning that they had a friend in this Church leader. And Church-media relations were forever changed on that unforgettable night. We witnessed those changes on a daily basis over the next 27 years.
For three months during the winter and spring of 2005, the world was inundated with words, stories, and profoundly moving ceremonies coming to us from Rome- images that helped us recall and evaluate this world charismatic leader’s life and mission. In this age of titillating television reality shows depicting the crudest form of human existence, the world was invited to take part in another kind of reality show of deep pathos and emotion- first in the Papal Apartments at the Vatican, then at Rome’s Gemelli Policlinic and finally back in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican.
The 2005 reality show invited the entire world into the passion of John Paul II from Rome- the mystery of his suffering and dying, of life and death and new life. Rather than hide his infirmities, as most public figures do, he let the whole world see what he went through. The Vatican reality show reached its apex in the Octave of Easter and was an extraordinary teaching moment for the church and for the world. It was brought to us by the media and choreographed by the star himself, John Paul II. It came as no surprise- for the late Pope had remarked on several occasions in private and public discourse: “If it doesn’t happen on television, it doesn’t happen.”
Throughout his nearly 27-year Pontificate, John Paul II taught us that communication is power. He told us to use that power wisely. Prudently get our message out and it will have a shot at bearing fruit, despite obstacles. And if anyone knew about obstacles, John Paul II did- having lived long and prospered, despite being faced from the very beginning with the tyranny of Nazism and then Communism. Hiding our message will do no one any good, after all. Like the mustard seed in that New Testament parable, we must sow in order to reap.
Blessed John Paul II taught us that there is much more to the Church and the papacy than preaching, speaking, writing, greeting people and traveling – although he certainly did enough of all of that. He communicated through spontaneous, symbolic actions that were often more eloquent than some of his speeches, homilies and encyclicals- especially his finally moments on the world stage. Those actions were often powerful symbols. The word ‘symbol’ comes from the Greek word ‘symbolein’ – ‘to bring together’; it’s the opposite of the Greek word ‘diabolein,’ ‘to break apart, to divide’ – the origin of our word ‘diabolical.’ Symbolic actions help to bring people together in peace and in love. Up to the moment of his death – and even after, Pope John Paul II was bringing people together in peace and in love. That was communication at the service of truth.
Karol Józef Wojtyla began his historic service to the world with words that would become the refrain of the entire Pontificate: “Do not be afraid!” Would that many of us in the Church and in the media world take these words to heart! Think of the walls that might come tumbling down! Imagine the bridges that would be built!
Interestingly enough, the last major formal document of Pope John Paul II was an Apostolic Letter entitled The Rapid Development, released on January 24, 2005. The contents of this remarkable document were somewhat eclipsed by the late Pope’s final suffering and death, and the election of his successor. The letter was addressed “To Those Responsible for Communications” and contains an important message to every media mogul, copy editor, reporter, writer, broadcaster, producer, web master and blogger, whether Roman Catholic or not. A “spirituality of communication” is one of the major contributions of the letter that is none other than John Paul’s Testament on Social Communications. It is not a coincidence that the last document of this great Pope should be on the theme of Communications, for if any church leader ever embodied and exemplified the great communicator, it was John Paul II.
In Rapid Development, John Paul wrote: “The media provides a providential opportunity to reach people everywhere, overcoming barriers of time, of space, and of language; presenting the content of faith in the most varied ways imaginable; and offering to all who search the possibility of entering into dialogue with the mystery of God, revealed fully in Christ Jesus.”
Communicators must be witnesses of values that are good for society. But there was also a warning and a challenge in this brief document: “Many people, in fact, believe that humanity must learn to live in a climate governed by an absence of meaning, by the provisional and by the fleeting. In this context, the communications media can be used ‘to proclaim the Gospel or to reduce it to silence within men’s hearts.”
“Rapid Development” should be required reading for every single person who works with young people. For the document, far from being merely a manual for communications workers, is a charter for those who wish to evangelize the modern world, especially through the multiple platforms of media available to us today. And if any generation of young people has been entrusted with the mission and vocation of Evangelization through the media, it is this generation.
People constantly ask me where I did my media training and film studies. I smile and tell them that I don’t even watch TV and I see few movies. I studied Scripture at the University of Toronto, at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, the Ecole Biblique et Arcéhologique Française de Jérusalem, and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I learned about ancient texts, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic verbs, and things of the past. I never studied filmmaking, media, public relations, and all the other hi-tech things that are now part of my new world.
But I also tell them that I had the privilege of having a master and mentor who knew the power of words and images, and who taught me everything I know about television, media, and Evangelization. It was a character study of nearly 27 years… a master class that I never sought out and certainly never deserved.
Blessed John Paul II taught us how to engage the culture around us. There is certainly a time for confronting the culture with the message of the Gospel and the Church, but such “confrontation” must be done with civility, conviction and charity. We need to show the culture that we’re not against them, that we have a compelling story, and that the story can change their circumstances. When that happens, people will listen… as they stopped and listened to the story of Pope John Paul II. And in doing so, many saw the face and heard the voice of God speaking to them and to our world.
How can this continue to happen in our day? Pope Benedict uses the image of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, not a remote encampment far from the city, on the shores of the Dead Sea in a very inaccessible place on earth. The Courtyard of the Gentiles was the part of the Jerusalem Temple that was open to all peoples, the part that Our Lord cleared of money changers: “Today too,” he says, “the Church should open a sort of ‘Court of the Gentiles’ in which people might latch on to God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery…there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely Godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.”
People are drawn to the Church in order to find their spiritual purpose. They are not Godless and they wish to learn from our wisdom. This is part of the new Evangelization that will lead some, but not all, to church membership. Many people today seek meaning and purpose in life, be they affluent or poor. This contemporary search defines our work in the broadcast media, both Catholic and secular; handled properly, the media can indeed be the Courtyard of the Gentiles for the 21st century.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, Canada
President, Assumption University – Windsor, Canada
* Fr. Thomas Rosica has been a priest in the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers) since 1986. A scripture scholar and lecturer in New Testament, he was chaplain of the University of Toronto before becoming National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 and the visit of Pope John Paul II to Canada. Following World Youth Day, he became the founding CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Television, Canada’s national Catholic Television network. In October 2008, he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as the English-speaking Media Attaché of the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God at the Vatican. In February 2009, Fr. Rosica was appointed by Pope Benedict as Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. As of December 1, 2011, Fr. Rosica is also President of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario (Canada).
- Photo Credit: Emanuel Pires