What does it mean to communicate? Unity, Truth, Goodness and Beauty

Salt + Light Media

April 5, 2018
Fr. Federico Lombardi
Photo: Salt + Light
How to communicate? Why communicate?
What does it mean to communicate?
Unity, Truth, Goodness and Beauty
Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ
Former Director of the Holy See Press Office, Vatican Television Center and Vatican Radio
President of the Joseph Ratzinger - Pope Benedict XVI Foundation
Inauguration Ceremony for the new Salt and Light Broadcast Centre
Toronto – May 25, 2017
Your Eminences, Cardinals Collins, Lacroix and Wuerl,
Deputy Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus Patrick Kelly,
Fellow Journalists,
Distinguished Guests,
Dear Staff, Board Members and Friends of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation,
I am very moved and grateful to have been invited to participate in this event that marks a new and most important step in the beautiful history of Salt + Light Television. Yours is a story that I have been privileged to accompany with a deep friendship and closeness from its very beginnings, in the context of the unforgettable World Youth Day 2002 of Toronto, and then in its marvelous growth with splendid fruits for the Church community. I can attest to these fruits that have not only been visible in Canada and North America but now for the universal Church, present on many continents. The service rendered by Salt and Light Television on the occasion of recent Synods of Bishops for example – in a great spirit of collaboration – has made a significant contribution that has been shared by countless other media, agencies and websites, thus making known and easily understood the works and messages of the Synods of Bishops in countless places of the world.
What useful words may I offer you this evening, as an old worker in the vineyard of the Lord in the field of communications at the service of the Popes, and as a friend who has joyfully participated in the opening of a new stage of your service that is filled with the enthusiasm of the Gospel: the salt and light of the world? I feel that I can naturally share with you several lessons that I have learned from the three Popes that I have served, and then, inspired by these lessons, to propose to you several simple messages for the future of your mission and ministry.

How to communicate: the lessons of three Popes
John Paul II

John Paul II always impressed me for his “authenticity.” He was always “himself.” From the very first moment of his unforgettable homily at the beginning of his pontificate in 1979, he repeated to us those words: “Do not be afraid.” He told the world that it should not be afraid of opening the doors to Christ, but at the same time he told each of us that we must not be afraid of giving witness to our faith. And he was the first example of this witness. He was not afraid to say what he believed nor what he thought. He was not afraid of showing himself, his feelings and his ideas, his convictions and finally his own physical conditions. During the Angelus address when he said “no” to war, he banged the lectern with his fist; when he challenged the mafiosi to conversion or when he admonished his own Polish people to wisely use the freedom that they had regained, his voice cried out, filled with a holy anger…
When he visited in prison Ali Agca, who tried to kill him, to offer him forgiveness, he was not afraid to allow television cameras to capture that moment. I was perplexed, given the spiritual intimacy of that moment, but when I understood that the Pope was offering us the strongest image of forgiveness that we had ever witnessed in our life – and perhaps even in our century! – I understood that he had good reason to allow us to witness this moment… And then the years of his sickness, of his suffering that was lived out with patience and faith, not only before God but before the world. During those years I was Director of the Vatican Television Center and I can assure you that following the Pope who was sick with a television camera – and the most painful, visible sickness of Parkinsons – was a great responsibility that was difficult and challenging. How and how long were we to show his face? When were we to withdraw and divert from his facial gestures out of respect and discretion? But John Paul II wanted to be seen, and he offered himself to us as a way of communicating to the world his suffering in faith. I asked myself many times about the reasons for his choice. In the end I think I found the answer when I read his poetic meditations in “The Roman Tryptic,” in which he contemplated the work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel that focused on God’s creation as a “vision.” God created the world and preserved his creation in being: "seeing it," "seeing us." God is the "first one who sees" – “omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos eius”– as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes: “And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Heb. 4:13.)
For John Paul II, it was clear and evident that his entire existence was exposed naked and opened under the gaze of God. Therefore how could one be afraid of what human beings would see? If I live under the gaze of the “first one who sees,” I may live without any fear and without hiding myself in any way even before the eyes of other human beings. This was the secret of the courage and authenticity of John Paul II. And for this, he was a communicator who was absolutely credible and one with authority.
There is another lesson. “Papa Wojtyla” – as we called him – trusted the media and those who worked in the media. On one hand he was optimistic about them. This often struck me very much because I, for my part, was always a bit pessimistic: I see how much damage is caused by television and now the internet, how many bad things pass through them, and this often strikes and discourages me.
John Paul II had a different attitude about the media. He revealed this from the beginning of his Pontificate, meeting in a very familiar way with the journalists who accompanied him on international trips. Most probably because he came from a country where there was no democracy, he understood that the freedom of the press was an essential aspect of living in freedom, and that if journalists had understood his messages, they would have been able to be great allies in his mission. In fact, after every international trip, he wished to have a working lunch with those of us who worked in Vatican communications: the Directors of the Holy See Press Office, l’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio and the official from the Secretariat of State charged with following the press, in order to hear from them how everything went, especially from the point of view of communications: what was understood and what message were transmitted to the people and which messages didn’t get through, etc. There were 104 international journeys. These working meetings he continued from the first until the last, and in the end he was ill but still wished to continue having them! John Paul II knew well what he wished to say and did not change is mind in order to please the media; it really mattered to him if people understood or not his message! For this reason, he wished to know and reflect on communication. He really held this to be important. In the end, the thing that struck me the most was that which we could call his “prophetic vision” on the positive possibility of the media.
Once during the Pope’s meeting with university students in the Paul VI Audience Hall, my colleagues and I were trying to coordinate a series of difficult, live satellite television links in various countries, thanks to other groups of students gathered in various countries, in Krakow, Moscow, Spain and elsewhere who wished to see the Pope and have a conversation with him. I was extremely worried and sweating outside in the media truck as to how this would work. At one moment I heard the Pope exclaim: “This television is a tremendous invention! Now that I find myself here in Rome I can see my students in Krakow and they have a new Cardinal that I can also see on television, and therefore both of us can say: here is a blessed institution, this television! And the young people in Krakow can also applaud on television!” “Blessed television!”
I felt my heart pounding! John Paul II saw the positive, beautiful possibility of a new experience of meeting and widening his ecclesial and human relations open to new technologies. These were the first interactive experiences. To be sure, he was not naïve, knowing full well that there were also risks and bad aspects of television, but he saw above all what was positive and he helped us, and helped me – to see the positive and to make it prevail over the negative, in order to open up new pathways to communicate love and that which is good. For this reason, he was a prophet.
“Blessed television!” and I wish to repeat it also today one more time, with the prophetic conviction of John Paul II for all of you, especially for the young people who work with enthusiasm at Salt + Light Television, not with the ingenuity of those who are fascinated by any technological innovation, but with the focus of a positive mission to be accomplished.

Benedict XVI

Who has had the ability to express himself with order, clarity, synthesis, depth and refinement, comparable to his own? I will tell you a small episode that I cannot forget. On the eve of his last trip to Germany, German television had asked Benedict to send a short message for the "Wort zum Sonntag - Word for Sunday" program, aired on Saturday night for the duration of three minutes. The Pope accepted to record it and I went to Castel Gandolfo with the crew of the Television Center (it was September). We prepared ourselves and when the Pope arrived, without having anything written in his hand, I told him that if there had been any mistake or inconvenience, he could quietly stop or repeat, because it was easy for us to correct or edit it. He thanked me and told me only to tell him when he should start. I motioned with my hand and he spoke - of course in perfect German - in an absolutely clear and linear manner, without the slightest uncertainty, without interruption, looking at the camera, and at some point, he ended. I looked at the watch: 2 minutes and 55 seconds! We were astonished. The Pope asked if he had to do anything more. We told him no, because he was perfect. He greeted us with his usual kindness and departed. This was Benedict: he knew what he wished to say and said it well, in an orderly and clear manner. In very few minutes he spoke very deep thoughts and concepts. During the Great World Youth Days in Cologne, Sydney and Madrid - young people did not often interrupt him with cries and applause in response to his words, for they realized that it was best to follow the thread of his addresses so as not to lose their meaning and depth.
But the deepest experience I had with Benedict was that of the commitment to grow in truth and transparency. And I understand that this has a price, which could be very painful. We all know that one of the great "crosses" of Benedict's pontificate - I think the greatest - was the story of sexual abuse in the Church. He bore it with great humility, patience and perseverance, personally making all the necessary steps for a long journey, ranging from the recognition of the severity of the faults in the Church, the personal hearing of the pain of the victims, the establishment of the norms and procedures to do justice, to punish the guilty ones, to purification and internal conversion, to provide the criteria for the good selection and training of seminarians, to the spread of a true culture of crime prevention and the protection of minors. It was necessary to recognize the truth even when it is extremely painful, to go deep into the truth before God and men. To not be worried about the "image" first, or concerned about "saving face" (bella figura). Of course, we must wish that our image be good, but only if it corresponds to a good reality. If not, it is a deception. And we've seen what were the tragic consequences of a culture of "cover up," founded precisely on the primacy of outward appearances. Some have tried to accuse Benedict of being compromised with the cover-up of crimes. This is absolutely and incredibly false. On the contrary, he has a "historical" record before the Church and the world in the area of combating sexual abuse. Benedict, who as a thinker and theologian, has always insisted on the primacy of truth and the search for truth, was also in his life and in his behavior as Pope a great witness to the transparency of the truth, with humility and personal suffering.


And finally we come to Francis. Francis is closer in time and is very often before our eyes. It's hard to say what we have not already seen and heard! But it's also worth mentioning something, which I found very instructive for me on how to communicate. First of all, proximity: eliminating all forms of distance and barrier, and becoming closer to the people – leaving the apartment in the Apostolic Palace and living with the others in Santa Marta; leaving the bullet-proof pope mobile and always using an open and ordinary car… choices that speak for themselves and are in continuity with affectionate hugs with the sick, the little ones, all kinds of poor people.
Then there is his spontaneous attitude of listening and dialogue. Even for conversations in general, Francis generally wants journalists to ask all the questions they wish; he does not ask to see the questions in advance in order to prepare a response. He wants his answers to be spontaneous even at the cost of not being exhaustive or complete, for in authentic dialogue, we arrive at the truth together, step by step, listening to each other. Not every answer can be the last word, but in dialogue we can draw closer to a deeper and greater truth together. From this closeness and listening also flows concrete and understandable language, drawn from the experiences of people's lives. Francis also recommends it to priests for their homilies in Mass. He says that their language will be understandable to the people if they live their lives in the midst of the people, listening to their questions, their culture and their wisdom. Francis obviously seeks out the encounter with the other. He talks to us constantly about the "culture of encounter" and makes us realize that it is not enough to communicate concepts; we need to talk about ourselves, to enter into the game so that the other understands that we offer him or her a real piece of our life, our whole self. The other also feels he or she is invited to confidently share what is deepest and most precious so that the future can be built together.
However in Francis, words go together with gestures. The body expresses the heart and mind. Words and actions complement each other and explain each other. This was already true of Jesus, who spoke about God with his teaching and with his "signs": healing, forgiveness, sharing and multiplication of the loaves and the fish. Francis' gestures, especially those of mercy for the poor and the suffering are so effective and revealing and transcend the limitation of his knowledge of languages, which is lesser than his predecessors, but compensated by the effectiveness of physical expressions and gestures which open the heart and attract even peoples of cultures far from his, such as Asian or African peoples.
Finally, Francis invites us to clearly give primacy to what is positive, to love and to mercy. The message of God's mercy is not new. All the Popes have spoken very often of this; And we, too, have always tried to speak about it. But it is true that Francis’ insistence on God's mercy, on forgiveness, on his acceptance of everyone, on the gestures and concrete works of mercy and solidarity ... and the example he has given us by doing these works, has attracted and set in motion a very wide and spontaneous wave of gratitude, almost as if all of this has responded to a deep expectation. Many of us had the impression that a widespread prevention attitude against the Church, which saw her as the "Church of no," of negative precepts, closed in on herself and ready to condemn – an attitude that we often experienced with pain – be loosened following the repeated proposal of Pope Francis’ message of love, forgiveness and consolation, presented in plain and concrete words, and translated into spontaneous gestures of obvious significance.

Communicating: Why? Communicating: What?

After having remembered with emotion my "popes" as unmistakable masters of communication, I would like to reflect with you on the deepest meaning that is the goal of your mission of communication.
To communicate for union. As we have mentioned before, we can communicate to establish a dialogue to arrive at an encounter and thus to build together communion in the Church, in society and in the family of peoples. This may seem like a given but it is not; It is not trivial at all. Because we can also communicate to divide, to offend, to spread hate, to prevail over the other. Indeed, sometimes it is theorized that communication is more effective, interesting and dynamic if it is conflictual, if it thrives in opposition and struggle. Many television broadcasts, talk shows and debates are set up on the programmatic exclusion of listening and of benevolence in interpreting what the other says. But what kind of society can we build together on these foundations? Aggressive tone and language are often considered an asset or advantage. I have always been radically opposed to this and I have always invited my collaborators to take as their motto: "Communicating to unite, communication to build communion." War propaganda has always fueled the hatred that leads peoples to kill; the genocide of Rwanda was systematically encouraged by the "radio of a thousand hills," a sower of hatred. Finally, we now begin to recognize the seriousness of the spread of hate speech on the internet and how it can be used as a way to catalyze and channel hatred towards ever-changing new, harmful targets against peace in society and the world. Therefore, communicate to unite, always and only to unite and never to divide. In our history we still experience the divisions of Babel, but we must let the Spirit of Pentecost guide us, from Babel to Pentecost, from division and confusion to universal understanding and communion.
To communicate for the truth. This too may seem an abstract principle, but it is not at all. We first remembered the tragedy of a culture guided by the principle of the cover up and the primacy of a good but false image of ourselves and our communities and institutions. But there are many other ways of violating the truth: even that of a partial truth, which because it is not complete or balanced leads to the wrong path. This is often the case for deliberate and manipulative design, which arises from the interests of people or groups seeking power or economic advantage. Good information is the basis for living responsibly in society and exercising democratic participation in the community. Bad information wants to exploit others for their own interests, denying their freedom and dignity. Even worse is the spread of falsehood to deceive. Today, more and more frequently, the problem of falsehoods on the internet is being discussed, “fake news,” which spreads very rapidly, which does not identify the source and which cannot be controlled and contradicted. Sometimes spreading unfounded news could sound like a game. But eventually it becomes a tragic game. It is a very serious problem that undermines the climate of trust that is necessary for the life of a healthy society, for a peaceful dialogue in seeking solutions to common problems. Communication is made for the truth, not for falsehood and deceit. For us communicators on this point there can be no compromises of any kind.
To communicate for good and goodness. The presence of evil in the world is a terrible, pervasive and powerful reality. The violence of armed conflicts, massacres, homicidal attacks, forms of oppression, exploitation and trafficking of people, corruption that invades institutions and political and economic life in large regions of the world... arrive continuously to us and enter our lives through the media with increasingly shocking news and images. Even though we manifest our horror and our condemnation, we often feel more and more a sense of helplessness in the face of the evil that creates passivity and discouragement in us, and in the end, despair. Pope Benedict rightly said several times, (for example in his encyclical Spe Salvi), that the power of evil in the world is the most difficult test for our faith: Where is God? Where is justice? As we know, the dynamics of communication generally give particular weight to the worst news, disasters, conflicts and scandals, and so the darkness of the evil grows thicker and thicker on our daily horizons. Unfortunately, these things are true, but they are not the whole truth. Good is also at work in the world. It is more discreet than evil, it is generally less obvious, it is there. You have to open your eyes to see it, your ears to learn how to hear it, and if we are communicators we must also help others to see it and hear it. We all remember that September 11 was not just the most awesome and horrible attack of the beginning of the third millennium, but it was also the day when tens of thousands of firefighters and rescuers exposed and heroically gave their lives to save the victims. So much hate, and so much love. When in Italy recent earthquakes destroyed many villages like many other times in the past, there has been a great volunteer and free solidarity movement that lasted for months. Suffering arouses and calls forth generous love, rich in creativity, far beyond our expectations! How many beautiful surprises we will see if we open our eyes! And this is true of many problems of our society.
During the Great Jubilee of 2000 in our Vatican Radio broadcasts, we started a daily program called "From Jerusalem to Jericho," inspired by the Parable of the Good Samaritan, to speak each day of a concrete experience, of an initiative or of an institution of solidarity and charity. We told ourselves: let’s begin, and when we finish in a few weeks, we will change the program. We continued for 365 days and the chain never ended and the field always widened: one good experience led infinitely to other such experiences – so much so that the Associations of Italian Catholic journalists increasingly organize journalistic prizes that are called “Good News" to promote and encourage the discovery and dissemination of knowledge of goodness. In doing so, this responds to despair and discouragement, it feeds hope and encourages the desire to commit oneself to doing good. Speak of peace, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness, human and spiritual growth, solidarity, charity, gratuity, tenderness, always and as often as possible. This was the true privilege of my life: to serve the Popes, who are the greatest messengers of all these qualities for humanity and they are constantly speaking about these things. What can be more beautiful than announcing the good for our brothers and sisters? Or that we invite our colleagues in communications to join us and participate in the mission of speaking of love, of goodness, of peace, joy and hope of the world?
Finally, communicating for beauty. Around us there is not only violent and murderous evil. There are also many more subtle and insidious forms of pollution of the spirit. There is a widespread vulgarity in language and images that enter our eyes and corrupt our gaze. There is a heavy materialism, a morbid curiosity that pervades perversions and scandals. And even if we try to defend ourselves and to react we feel like we have been invaded by this dirt, especially through the images and pervasiveness of the internet. We find it increasingly difficult to have a clear look and a pure heart, even though we desire to have these qualities. Pope Francis used violent words, which I am embarrassed to repeat, but I think it is fair to remember them. He talked about "coprophilia" and "coprophagia," that is, of the perverse tendency to enjoy the most unclean excrement and even end up eating it. He warned media and media practitioners to resist the temptation of coprophilia: to look for and constantly present the worst things to attract attention and sell. He warned us all to flee from the morbid temptation to enjoy and entertain ourselves in the curiosity of the perverse and vulgar in its most varied forms. I'm not talking about theoretical or abstract problems. Pornography, exhibitionism, today sexting and sextortion are getting deeper into the daily lives of innumerable people, increasingly younger. What images and thoughts inhabit our minds and then dwell on them throughout our lives? We must learn to raise our gaze, help others to raise their gaze in order to be able to seek and love the light and breathe spiritually.
When I speak about communicating beauty, communicating for beauty, I do not think of aesthetics as an end in themselves, as some kind of luxury for privileged artists or estheticians, but I think of respect for the beauty of the dignity of every human person, a true longing for what is precious, for the mystery of interiority which can be seen in one’s eyes and in the depths of one’s feelings. This of course can also be the communication of art and music which in fact is the manifestation of the spirit. Joseph Ratzinger said that sometimes beauty strikes our hearts as a dart, an arrow that opens our eyes to the world of the spirit and to God. But for us, the greatest beauty is ultimately the beauty of holiness, in which the truth of the faith is demonstrated through the capacity of love to transform and elevate human life to a higher level of harmony and fascination, of powerful attraction to the good. The saints are those bright lights that illuminate and guide our path in the darkness of our time. The saints are the Gospel artists who lived in the past and yet are still very close to us. They help us to lift our gaze upwards from the abyss of evil. Rightly, Salt + Light Television has and continues to make better known the wonderful figures of the saints of our history and our time – true Gospel artists. This is what communicating for beauty is all about: helping to bring our world and our Church – often choked by nostalgia, darkness, evil and sadness – the light, purity and goodness that comes from God.
Pope Benedict once reminded us of a beautiful homily of St. Bonaventure, who compares the movement of hope ‘to the flight of a bird, who spreads his wings as widely as possible, and uses all of his strength to move them. His whole being, in a certain sense, becomes movement in order to rise up and fly.’ ‘To hope is to fly’, St. Bonaventure tells us. “But hope demands that all parts of our being become movement and turn toward the true depth of our being, toward the promises of God. He who hopes, Bonaventure affirms, ‘must lift his head, turning his thoughts toward what is high, that is, toward God.’” (St. Bonaventure, Homily for First Sunday of Advent, quoted by Benedict XVI, September 6, 2009).
Dear friends of Salt + Light Television, may you always be authentic and transparent communicators, spontaneous and close to people, and put your enthusiasm in the service of unity, truth, goodness, and beauty, and thus help your sisters and your brothers find in hope meaning for their lives. Then perhaps many people will also be able to exclaim to the world: "Blessed TV! Blessed Salt + Light Television! "
Thank you.