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The Media and the Catholic Church: Challenges and Opportunities

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

July 18, 2011
On Tuesday evening, June 14, 2011, Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Canada addressed the Gregorian Foundation in New York City on the topic “Is the Media Against the Catholic Church and Why?” The Gregorian University Foundation was established in the United States in 1972 to support the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium in Rome. The Consortium is the international citadel of ecumenical scholarship, Biblical research and advanced theological education for the Catholic Church entrusted to the Society of Jesus by a succession of Popes since the first school of the consortium was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The consortium consists of three schools serving more than 3,800 students: The Pontifical Gregorian University, The Pontifical Biblical Institute, and The Pontifical Oriental Institute for Eastern Christian Studies. Fr. Rosica is an alumnus of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome (1990). 
Address to the Gregorian Foundation
June 14, 2011 – New York Yacht Club - New York City
Distinguished Guests,
Dear Friends,
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Thank you for this welcome invitation to address the Gregorian Foundation in the United States. I am very conscious of the privilege and responsibility that accompany it and I stand before you this evening as a grateful alumnus of Regis College in the University of Toronto, and the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, two excellent Jesuit institutions of higher learning in the Catholic Church. Let my presence be one small way of saying “thank you” to the Society of Jesus for the quality education I received from them and for instilling in me knowledge, wisdom, a deep sense of “sentire cum ecclesia” that is at the heart of the Jesuit mission of education, and the profound desire that all of our endeavors truly be “ad majorem Dei gloriam.”
You have invited me to speak about “Media and the Catholic Church. Is the Media against the Catholic Church?” Rather than providing an analysis of real or perceived hostilities between the media vs. Catholic Church, or Catholic Church vs. Media, I wish to approach the topic from another angle: sharing some reflections from my own experience of working in Catholic Media and Communications and having both positive, negative and neutral experiences in the wild world of media relations. My reflections do not necessarily flow from my Jesuit education in Toronto, Rome and Jerusalem, but are rather the by-products of that education and the varied ministries entrusted to me over the past fifteen years in particular – as university chaplain; lecturer in Sacred Scripture on a large, secular campus; National Director and CEO of World Youth Day 2002 in Canada, and since 2003, founding CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada. I also work closely with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in the area of Social Communications and since 2009, have been consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. In short, I now have history with the media, for which the Jesuits and the Basilian Fathers never directly prepared me! However we could say that a true Jesuit education prepares one for anything and everything!
If Catholic social communications professionals and those working closely with the so called “secular media” are to ensure that the their skills and knowledge are genuinely at the service of the general human good and that they realize the great potential identified above, they must be vigilant to maintain an ethical commitment to meeting the best interests of others over their own particular needs. The religious lives of many people are greatly enriched through the media and through our work. It is incumbent upon us not to view our skills and knowledge as possessions for private financial gain or social status but as talents to be put at service of others even if that is at a high personal cost and requires sacrifice. This evening I would like to address three areas: the growing digital divide; lessons learned through the sex abuse crisis; and World Youth Days as a public witness of the Church’s life and true identity.
The Digital Divide
One of the great challenges before us today is what many are now calling “the digital divide.” With the increased consciousness of the exploding information society and the role of the new technologies in promoting trade, development and scientific progress in a globalized world comes a responsibility to ensure that these networks do not become instruments of exclusion. It would be a tragedy if the new instruments of communication, which permit the sharing of knowledge and information in a more rapid and effective manner, were not made accessible to those who are already economically and socially marginalized, or if it should contribute only to increasing the gulf separating the poor from the new networks that are developing at the service of human socialization and information. Pope Benedict XVI addressed this point very well in his 2009 World Communications Day Message.
With the electronic age upon us, we are seeing a considerable diminishment of the Catholic and Christian press. This is particularly important for those of you here this evening who have faithfully supported AMERICA magazine, a well know, reputable and hopeful publication of the American Jesuits. Under Fr. Drew Christiansen’s leadership, AMERICA continues to be an excellent teaching tool for the English-speaking world.
We cannot ignore the great potential of online media if we 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 and engagement of the culture around us. A single medium is no longer enough to capture the full attention of the audience. All of our media efforts today must operate on multiple platforms, simultaneously.
In our efforts to communicate, we have to choose between engaging the culture around us or confronting it. There must be times and places for confronting the culture with the message of the Gospel and the Church, but such “confrontation” must be done with civility, conviction, truthfulness and charity. Catholicism has its own internal culture wars that are certainly well known to us. A great part of the culture war phenomenon occupies elites and rarely occasions involvement of denomination membership. We cannot simply bash various cultures and play into the hands of loud agents of culture wars who do not necessarily reflect or speak to the vast majority of ordinary people who spend their lives searching for meaning and truth in daily living.
The Catholic Church has a compelling story: the story of Jesus found in the Gospels and through generations of authentic Church teaching. It is a story that can change people’s lives and circumstances. Above all, our message must be one of hope, a theme that has been key in teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, especially in his encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi.”
The great challenge in the era of Facebook and Twitter consists in presenting the profound message of Jesus and the teaching of the Church without being sidetracked by technology's superficial aspects. 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 must avoid the great danger of chasing after relevance. Some people work so hard to be relevant that they spin hopelessly into irrelevance. Catholic communicators 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.
Learning from the Sex Abuse Crisis
The tsunami of headlines about abuse of minors by priests and religious in Ireland, Germany, Austria and several South American countries, and re-runs of old stories from various places throughout the United States and Canada, have brought the Church to her knees once again. To watch television networks or read the newspapers, one would think that the sexual abuse of children is a uniquely Catholic problem, one indeed facilitated by a wicked lot of priests and bishops. We have been thrust into what the experts call “a moral panic.” Moral panics are socially constructed problems that are characterized by a systematic amplification of (true) facts in the media or in political discourse. Problems that have existed for decades are reconstructed in the media and political accounts as new, or as the subject of a recent dramatic increase. At the origin of moral panics are objective and real dangers. Moral panics do not invent a problem; they exaggerate its statistical dimensions. In many instances the controversies presented in the media demonstrate a typical characteristic of moral panics: “new” facts going back many years, in some cases over 50 years, in part already known, are suddenly “discovered”.
Each time the heinous crime of sex abuse is reported, as it should be, victims and their families are wounded again, the vast majority of faithful priests bow their heads in shame, and sincere Catholics, Christians and people of good will, experience another jolt of shock, sorrow, anger and righteous indignation. Every single abuse case involving a minor, no matter when it took place is a crime and we must respond to those who have been victimized and hurt by any person acting in the name of the Church. The Church stands by the victims and wishes to be an instrument of reconciliation and healing.
On one hand we acknowledge that the Church needs this intense scrutiny and just criticism for tragic horrors long past. On the other hand we must ask why old and very often well-known cases are being unearthed on a weekly basis, and have attacked the Pope, particularly Benedict XVI. This is truly paradoxical if we consider the seriousness and severity of then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI on this very theme. The sexual abuse of children is an international epidemic, and it is present in every aspect of society. What we seek is that the Catholic Church not be singled-out for a horror that has plagued every culture, religion, organization, institution, school, agency, and family in the world.
The Vatican’s Response
In 2001, Pope John Paul II assigned responsibility for examining cases of sex-abuse against minors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, which was headed by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The experience gave him a familiarity with the pervasiveness of the problem that virtually no other figure in the Catholic Church would have. And driven by that encounter with what he would later refer to as “filth” in the church, Cardinal Ratzinger responded to what he read and learned those years. After being elected pope, Pope Benedict XVI, made the abuse cases a priority.
He is the first pope ever to meet with victims of abuse in various countries of the world. He spoke openly about the crisis some five times during his 2008 visit to the United States alone. Pope Benedict has become the first pope to dedicate a Pastoral Letter on the sex-abuse crisis - his pastoral letter to Ireland. In countries he has visited as pope, where the sex abuse scandal has taken its toll on the victims and the life of the Church, Pope Benedict has courageously addressed the situation and met with victims where possible.
Pope Benedict XVI has said that priestly sex abuse scandal is a "terrifying" crisis that comes from inside the church -- not from an outside attack -- and requires purification and penance to overcome it. "And so the church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. And forgiveness does not substitute justice. …We have to relearn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance," he said aboard the Papal flight to Fatima last year. No one has been more vigorous in cleansing the Church of the effects of this sickening sin than Pope Benedict XVI. The dramatic progress that the Catholic Church in the United States and Canada has made could never have happened without the insistence and support of the very man who is so frequently attacked and criticized for not doing enough.
There are people, both within and outside the Church, who seize upon the abuse crisis in order to silence the Church’s moral voice. Let us also be blatantly honest and admit that there are people in the mainstream culture and media who are unhappy with many positions the Catholic Church has taken on sexual issues, especially abortion and same-sex marriage, and who would prefer to marginalize the church's voice or eliminate it entirely from the public conversation. This is not a startling fact.
When we deal with our Catholic faithful, with the public, and especially with the media, our message and response must focus on several key elements: asking forgiveness from the victims, demanding accountability for those who have made mistakes and offering transparency in our dealing with the cases. What hurts the communications effort on sex-abuse is not only the blatant cover-ups, but also the conflicting and uncoordinated statements, especially when they come from Vatican officials and other local Church leaders on very sensitive topics. The credibility of the Church will only be regained when we honestly recognize the failures of the past.
[singlepic id=47 w=320 h=240 float=left]The lesson of World Youth Day for the Media
The third challenge and opportunity I wish to mention is what the Church has learned from the media about World Youth Days, and what the media has learned from the Church’s experience of World Youth Days over the past 26 years. I cannot help but recall Cardinal James Francis Stafford’s stirring words spoken to the throngs of young people gathered in St. Peter’s Square and its vicinity at the opening ceremonies of the rather apocalyptic Jubilee World Youth Day on August 15, 2000. Cardinal Stafford was then President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Vatican department that oversees World Youth Days. Addressing a visibly moved and aging Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Stafford said:
Holy Father! These young people come as pilgrims from 157 nations. …Not too long ago, it was an ominous portent when thousands of young people moved across national borders. Citizens trembled in fear. They closed and barricaded their doors. For those hosts of young men signified armies of war, instruments of destruction, plague and darkness.
At your initiative, Holy Father, these young men and women of Europe and of the world have formed a different kind of army. …Holy Father, you have seen clearly that these young people are the generation of the Second Vatican Council. They are "on pilgrimage from the Lord" (LG 6). They reflect the beauty envisioned by you and the Fathers of the Council. That beauty, still incomplete but ever orientated towards fullness, is found in the weaving of the various paradoxes of freedom and obedience, of faith and culture, of eros - passionate joy of living – and asceticism.
Holy Father, as you walked in the 1960's to the Council's sessions to express again the mystery of the always-youthful Church, you experienced the embrace of these great colonnades many times. Today we all pray that your happiness may be full. For these youthful multitudes, now embraced by the arms of St. Peter also, are living witnesses to the Council's hope and to yours.
Allow me to share with you some personal reflections from our Canadian experience. World Youth Day 2002 hit Toronto at a very low ebb of the Church’s history. The historical backdrop included the aftermath of September 11 and a world steeped in terror, fear and war; a Church enmeshed in a major sex abuse scandal in the United States; a Pontificate that was visibly aging, feeble and nearing its end; and a Canadian culture of religious indifference and increasing secularity. Yet hope bloomed in the most unlikely of places as we watched an incredible journalistic pot-pourri erupt in secular Toronto. Of course we had the irritatingly predictable but mandatory coverage of naysayers, critics, "Catholic anarchists," condom-pushers, and the rest. How could there not be for a Catholic mega-fest?
Four thousand two hundred journalists from over 500 media outlets descended upon Toronto. When they realized in the first days of the event that Pope John Paul II was not going to die in Canada’s largest city in the midst of an international jamboree, they suddenly shifted their focus, lenses and pens to another story that was unfolding before their very eyes. Some gushed with enthusiasm, pumping out eloquent and passionate prose. Others carried the requisite critical pieces filled with joyless individuals hammering the Roman Pontiff for sins real and imagined, and the very Church for daring to exist, but in general it was a pleasure, and dare I say a miracle, to pick up the papers each morning that week and see that it was possible to tell the alternative story of the Church. Reporters couldn't believe what they were seeing. One of our notorious and incorrigible national newspaper reporters wrote that the Pope made "the ignoble and sacrilegious like me feel lucky" to have been a witness to his visit, admitting that she wept and grinned at the sight of him. Some phoned me and asked how much I paid her to write those words! However, for all of the interviews with disgruntled Catholics, unhappy former nuns and elderly, frustrated ex-priests and would-be popes, there was a veritable outpouring of roses in the form of earnest, sincere attempts by journalists: commentators, reporters, photographers, broadcasters, to convey the spirit of what was happening on the streets of modern, secular Toronto.
I am a student of the Scriptures – an alumnus of two of your prestigious Jesuit institutions of higher learning in Toronto and Rome, and my most vivid images come from the pages of the bible.  The image that remains engraved on my memory from all of that frenetic and dazzling activity is the story of Zaccheus.  The media climbed high in the trees and watched.  And as Jesus and his hundred of thousands of young disciples passed – one by one they climbed down from the branches and become part of the great pilgrimage.
Our national Globe and Mail felt obliged to run a half-dozen pages or more of coverage on some days, including a full-color centre spread of an aging, bent over John Paul II saying Mass with his entire homily printed underneath. I have that framed and placed prominently in our Salt and Light broadcast centre in downtown Toronto. I often glance at it when we have one of those bad days with the “secular” media, knowing that there is indeed another way to tell the story.
Many journalists publicly criticized their colleagues over such outlandish, positive media coverage during World Youth Day 2002. They said to one another: “You went overboard, you crossed over, you lost professional objectivity – you became part of the story.”
I didn’t quite see it that way. So many journalists came to Toronto to see the Pope – they ended up meeting Jesus and discovering what Benedict XVI would say at his mass of inauguration in 2005: “a church that is alive and young.”  The curious journalists and television personnel wept – they were moved, they made new friends.  In the media profession, one may call this the loss of objectivity.  In our business of the Church, we call it evangelization and transformation.
What is really going on with World Youth Days? How can the Church use these powerful instruments of the New Evangelization to transmit a message to the media? And what can the media learn from the Church through the whole adventure of World Youth Day in a particular country of the world. We are on the eve of World Youth Day 2011 to be held in Spain this coming August. Over 26,000 American young people are attending this event and nearly 6000 Canadians will be there as well! There is much to be gained by a proper use of the media in Madrid during this stellar event.
In the wake of sexual abuse scandals that have captivated the media for far too long, and will continue to do so, World Youth Days are really an indicator of a rebirth that's taking place in the Church. It's a rebirth that is happening as the world turns upon us. Whether we wish to admit it or not, there is a whole army of fervent young Catholics who are filled with hope. We meet them at colleges and universities, at youth and pro-life activities, and even in high schools. They are even more obvious among the small group of seminarians and younger priests and religious. The media, and even some within the Church, label and castigate this new army as “ultra orthodox”, “papal groupies” “deer in the religious headlights” and simply dismiss them from the current ecclesial landscape. The Toronto World Youth Day experience proved otherwise. And it was the media, the secular media that attested to that brilliant, glaring fact.
In remarks at the concluding Mass thanking Pope Benedict XVI, Sydney’s Cardinal George Pell said that World Youth Day acts as an antidote to images of Catholicism as in decline or wracked by controversy. "It shows the church as it really is, alive with evangelical energy." Cardinal George Pell concluded his address to Pope Benedict XVI at Randwick Race Course in July 2008 with these prophetic and affirming words:
Your Holiness, the World Youth Days were the invention of Pope John Paul the Great. The World Youth Day in Cologne was already announced before your election. You decided to continue the World Youth Days and to hold this one in Sydney. We are profoundly grateful for this decision, indicating that the World Youth Days do not belong to one pope, or even one generation, but are now an ordinary part of the life of the Church. The John Paul II generation – young and old alike – is proud to be faithful sons and daughters of Pope Benedict.
Remembering Paul and John Paul II
Allow me to conclude with two individuals who left us legacies of great media relations with the religious and secular cultures around them. First- St. Paul, the great media mogul of the New Testament. For Paul, the God of Jesus Crucified was revealed, not in the trappings of power and splendor, but in the marvel of what some humans counted as weakness: a life poured out for others. One of the most remarkable and important insights we have gained into Paul is that he operated within an extraordinary network of co-workers. He simply enjoyed people, trusted them, empowered them and worked with them. Paul’s collaboration comes from his vision of the Gospel, rooted ultimately in his image of the God who gathered all people, who was the God of Jews and gentiles. Paul’s qualities and methods are badly needed today among those who work as Catholic communicators and who work closely with those in the “secular media.”
The second person is one who lived closer to our own histories and times and left a deep, lasting impression upon the world: Blessed John Paul II. In his final Apostolic Letter, Rapid Development, released only three months before his death in April 2005, John Paul II 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." The Pope said that communicators, both within and outside the church, must apply in their own lives those values and behavior that they are called to teach others. The communicator is not only one who practices his work, but someone who "lives" his work. Communications and the media become instruments at the service of peace, at the service of the development of human 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.
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.
As the curtain was about to fall for the last time for the Great Communicator John Paul II in early April 2005, the athlete was immobilized, the distinctive, booming voice silenced, and the hand that produced voluminous encyclicals no longer able to write. Yet nothing made him waver, even the debilitating sickness hidden under the glazed Parkinsonian mask, and ultimately his inability to speak and move. In fact, the most powerful message he preached was when the words and actions failed. It was then, in the passion of Karol Wojtyla, that the world saw what authentic communication was all about. 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 brought people together in peace and in love. That was communication at the service of truth.
We had in him a brilliant teacher, communicator and model of goodness and humanity… a wise communicator who would become a “Pontifex Massmediaticus”. He began his historic service to the world with words that would become the refrain throughout his 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! I assure you: it is possible!
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network, Canada