World Communications Day – Silence and Word: Path of Evangelisation

18 May 2012

A word cloud of the Pope's message for World COmmunications Day 2012

World Communications Day: Silence and Word: Path of Evangelisation

To read Pope Benedict XVI’s message for World Communications Day, please click here.

Every year the Pope in his Message for World Communications Day offers a reflection on some aspect of communication with a view to both promoting public discussion and providing some guidelines for the Church’s own engagement in this constitutive dimension of its mission.  In recent years, Pope Benedict XVI has focused on the changes being effected in the culture of communications by the new digital technologies and by social media: The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation. This means of spreading information and knowledge is giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship (World Communications Day Message, 2011).

In this year’s message the Pope turns his attention to what might be seen as a more ‘classic’ element of communication: silence or, more precisely, the relationship between silence and word.  Some commentators have sought to characterise the choice of this theme as a shift away from his positive evaluation of new technologies and media – these technologies are truly a gift to humanity (World Communications Day Message, 2009) – but it is best understood as a powerful reminder that communication is essentially a human activity rather than a technological achievement.  The Pope is not proposing silence as an alternative to engagement in communication nor is he calling for us to switch off new media; he is, rather, insisting that silence is an integral element of human communication.  Our appreciation of the importance of silence must be recovered, and its practice fostered, if we are to safeguard the meaningfulness of the communication that is facilitated by new technologies.   His message is somewhat counter-cultural, as he stated during a recent public audience: silence … is particularly difficult for us.  In fact, ours is an era that does not encourage recollection; indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that people are frightened of being cut off, even for an instant, from the torrent of words and images that mark and fill the day (Audience, 7 March 2012).

In the opening paragraphs of the Message, Benedict XVI teases out the anthropological significance of silence.  There can be no meaningful communication without silence.  Silence speaks – at times our silence can be the most eloquent expression of our closeness to, our solidarity with and out attentiveness towards another person.  Our silence can express our respect and love for another person – in silence, we listen to them and we give priority to their word.  This is especially true when our interlocutors express themselves in questions, as is increasingly the case with social media.  The search-engines and the social networks have become the point of departure for much human communication as people look for information, advice, suggestions and recommendations.  These questions must be allowed their own integrity, if they are to receive a meaningful response.  The questions must be listened to, engaged with and clarified.  The one responding must be open to further questioning.  This process, often characterised as being inter-active, is fundamentally dialogical.  Dialogue requires a genuine and authentic listening to the other – a listening that is impossible without silence.

Engagement with the questions, and more importantly with the questioners, opens up the possibility of a more profound dialogue.  One can discern concerns about the ultimate questions of human existence: What can we know?  What ought we to do? What may we hope?  A careful listening, rooted in respect for the questions and the questioner, is required to allow these deeper concerns to emerge.  Silence, rather than a rush to provide answers, is often most effective in allowing a questioner to go deeper.  This search for truths, which ultimately expresses an inchoate search for the truth, itself requires silence if it is to reach its scope.  The necessity for silence has long been appreciated within the religious traditions which, as the Pope notes, consider solitude and silence as privileged states which help people to rediscover themselves and that Truth which gives meaning to all things.

In his concluding paragraphs Pope Benedict focuses on the place of silence in Christian spirituality.  He recalls that the God of biblical revelation communicates also in the mystery of his silence.  This is manifested especially in the mystery of the Cross of Christ: The eloquence of God’s love, lived to the point of the supreme gift, speaks in the silence of the Cross.  He insists that just as God can express himself to us in his silence, we in turn discover in silence the possibility of speaking with God and about God.  He encourages us to allow our silence to mature into contemplation.  He reminds us that we can never grasp the essence of God with our words and concepts and that space must be made for silent contemplation.  Recently the Pope has spoken of the transformative capacity of such contemplation: Silence can carve out an inner space in our very depths to enable God to dwell there, so that his word will remain within us and love for him take root in our minds and hearts and inspire our life (Audience, 7 March 2012).

The Message concludes with a succinct reminder that evangelization, our communication of the Good News, is not just about words:  Word and silence: learning to communicate is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak.  New media can be part of that learning.  The Pope acknowledges the existence of various types of websites, applications and social networks which can help people today to find time for reflection and authentic questioning, as well as making space for silence and occasions for prayer, meditation or sharing of the word of God.  In our times, however, silence is something of an acquired taste.  An essential dimension of the Church’s communicative activity must be to provide occasions and opportunities, both physical and digital, for people to learn the arts of silence and contemplation, to recover an appetite for solitude and interiority.  This would undoubtedly be a fruitful starting point for our proclamation of the Gospel but it would be invaluable also as a service to meaningful human communication.

Mons. Paul Tighe
Pontifical Council for Social Communications