Renehan Hall, Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth – 5 November 2015
Last weekend my brother, who works in IT, introduced me to the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’. He explained to me that there is a huge drive on at the moment to connect everything you can think of to the internet – from your home heating and lighting, your washing machine, fridge and coffee maker, your car and all your new ‘wearable devices’. Essentially the ‘Internet of Things’ is a giant network connecting not just people to people and people to things, but now things to things! So this morning your wearable smartwatch, which knows when you’ve had just about enough quality sleep, could have instructed your alarm clock to wake you up, having told your coffee maker and toaster to make your breakfast, turned on your car engine because it’s frosty, worked out from the traffic reports what’s your best way to Maynooth, checked your calendar and notified Martin Long that you might be a little late, and possibly emailed you a copy of my talk so that you could decide whether or not it was worth your while coming here in the first place!
It’s all a long way from 1975 when the Catholic Communications Office was established with the most ‘state of the art’ technology – a word processor with floppy disc drive and dot matrix printer. Recordings could be made on videocassettes for the super-modern new VCRs. Windows technology and digital cell phones were still ten years into the future; the world wide web was fifteen years away!
Whenever the Second Vatican Council in 1963 issued its decree, Inter Mirifica on the media of social communications, it spoke very positively about advances in technology and the opportunities that these might provide for the spread of the Gospel.
“Among the wonderful technological discoveries which men of talent, especially in the present era, have made with God’s help, the Church welcomes and promotes with special interest those which have … uncovered new avenues of communicating… news, views and teachings of every sort”.
The Council Fathers could never have anticipated the transformations in technology that we have witnessed over the last five decades, but they did point out prophetically that communication cannot simply be about the exchange of information; more importantly communication is always ‘social’ – it is about the development of good human relations. The mind boggles to contemplate the future impact that the ‘Internet of Things’ will have on the social dimension of communications.
The Church has always been conscious that the most effective way to get our message across is through personal witness, one-to-one communication. And that is why much of our activity in the Church is about creating quiet moments for people amidst the rush and tumble of everyday life – sacred spaces where God speaks in the silence. But the mission of the Church impels us to harness the best of new communications platforms as springboards for proclaiming the Good News in interaction with the world and society. In all our communications our essential aim is to promote the truth of the Gospel, to multiply goodness, to enhance beauty in the world and to serve the common good.
When it comes to communications strategies, Pope Francis has echoed, by word and example, the positivity of the Inter Mirifica Decree and he has responded to its challenges. He says: “The Church needs to be concerned for, and present in, the world of communication, in order to dialogue with people today and to help them encounter Christ. She needs to be a Church at the side of others, capable of accompanying everyone along the way. The revolution taking place in communications media and in information technologies represents a great and thrilling challenge; may we respond to that challenge with fresh energy and imagination as we seek to share with others the beauty of God.”
I am delighted to welcome you to Maynooth as we mark the fortieth anniversary of the Catholic Communications office. On behalf of the Episcopal Conference I would like to thank you for your contribution – past, present or future – to the work of our Communications office. One thing is certain – should the Catholic Communications Office be in existence in forty years’ time, the challenges and opportunities then will be just as different from today as ours are from 1975. But the mission will be the same – because it is a mission which has its roots in the mandate given by Jesus himself at the dawn of Christianity, when he said to his apostles: ‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News!’
Over the past few weeks at the Synod on the Family I witnessed many of the ways in which the world of mass communications intersects with the life and mission of the Church. Of course, what we might call the ‘traditional media’ were all present – journalists and reporters from all over the world with notebooks, recorders and cameras seeking to nab an interview, capture the best photo of the day or stir the intrigue and conspiracy which, as they say themselves, ‘sells papers’.
At every break in the Synod, microphones and cameras were everywhere to be seen. EWTN had taken over a rooftop studio on Via della Conciliazione; Vatican Radio issued regular bulletins and Fr Lombardi organised a daily press briefing to keep everyone up to date with the Synod proceedings. Then there was the social media – bloggers and twitterers speculating, commenting, eager to interpret and counter-interpret what was going on inside the Synod Hall or in the discussion groups. There were even blogging bishops, prelates on Facebook, cardinals on Twitter and u-tube, all doing their best to respond to the voracious appetite for 24-7 news – despite the fact that the Synod’s deliberations were much too ploddy to provide the kind of variety and spice that the hungry communications world needs to survive. From Ireland, I saw Patsy and Paddy Agnew from the Irish Times, Michael and Cathal from the Irish Catholic, Fr Bill and Wendy from iCatholic; John Cooney was there; Helen Grady from BBC World Service wanted an interview with me, as did EWTN, a French Catholic station, Associated Press and Catholic News Service.
My experience at the Synod inspires me to reflect with you on two key facets of Church communications – one is how we communicate ‘ad intra’ with each other and the faithful in the Church; the other is ‘ad extra’ – how we get our message out to others in the ‘secular’ media world, including those who already have their mind made up and their story more or less written.
Over the past forty years, much of the work of the Catholic Communications Office has been in supporting ‘ad intra’ communications – building and supporting the network of Diocesan Communications Officers; issuing press releases and bulletins from the Episcopal Conference meetings; supporting the communications needs of the various commissions and agencies of the Conference, and, at times, assisting bishops in their individual dioceses with responding to media queries and events. Key aspects of the life of the Conference were highlighted down through the years in Intercom magazine, the Bishops Conference Liturgical and Pastoral Resource. I am delighted to draw your attention today to a new dedicated website for Intercom. The website, www.intercommagazine.ie, will allow subscribers to digitally access Intercom magazine online on all mobile devices. Eventually it will include a searchable digital archive for all historical copies of Intercom from 1974. No doubt it will be a veritable treasure trove for the recent history of the Church in Ireland.
Of course Church communications is not reserved to the bishops’ conference or to individual bishops. Last year when we organised a get-together of those involved in “Catholic” media – we had a whole range people representing print, radio, digital and visual media initiatives. It is good to see so many of you here today. The event brought home to me the possibilities and added value that might be available in Ireland were we to network our people more effectively and build on the strengths, gifts and creativity of so many committed women and men who have found a vocation to serve God in Catholic social communications. This is not to mention the many local initiatives at parish, diocesan and congregational level which harness the power of online technologies to bring the liturgy and the joy of the Gospel to people at home and abroad.
Recognising that there are many who prefer to present bad news about the Church, it is uplifting to increasingly come across examples in media of the beautiful, edifying and spiritually inspiring aspects of the Church, its inspiring contribution to peace, reconciliation, charity and justice – all of which reflect the beauty and goodness of God. I am greatly encouraged that more and more committed Catholics are choosing to develop their particular charisms in communications as presenters, commentators, writers and digital missionaries for the sake of the Gospel and the good of the Church. We need to be able to affirm one another, nourish these initiatives, not be afraid or too controlling or possessive of the task of proclaiming the Good News – the Spirit is doing new things and we should not stifle the Spirit’s work.
Thinking of the ‘ad extra’ dimension of our work in communications, I was also pleased last year to meet with religious affairs reporters and commentators from the secular press who regularly engage with us in their work for various papers and other media outlets in Ireland. I welcome you here this morning and I want to thank you and encourage you in your work. In many ways I believe we have a shared task and vocation: to promote truth; multiply goodness, enhance beauty so as to serve the common good.
In recent years I have come to recognise the pressures of your work, the unsociable hours, the impact that tough deadlines and competing for space can have on your personal lives, family and loved ones. The era of digital media and instant news and has shifted the ground from under you, transformed your world and radically changed the way that people, particularly young people, relate to news and media. I imagine it cannot be easy for you to keep up.
I was impressed at the Synod last month by the depth and breadth of theological understanding of several of the religious affairs reporters and commentators who were in attendance. This is precisely the time when we need our journalists to have a well informed and comprehensive an understanding of religion as much as we might expect from those who write about politics, education, literature or science. Would it be too bold of me to suggest that an institution like St Patrick’s College Maynooth might develop a quality course or elective in Theology specifically tailored for those working in the Church communications and Religious Affairs?
I am conscious that the relationship between the Church and the media has changed considerably over the past forty years and has sometimes been fraught. At times we in the Church have reacted defensively, complaining of being unfairly targeted or singled out. Gradually we have come to accept that the media has played a vitally important role in lifting the lid on a terrible and shameful chapter in our history, giving a voice to many who had been carrying a lonely trauma for years, driving the development and implementation of better practice not only in the Church but throughout society. Days like this are important in helping us continue to build trust, a deeper understanding of one another and respectful relationships.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church reminds us that it is not only those in the media who have responsibilities but those who make use of the media also have obligations. “Media operators who try to meet their responsibilities deserve audiences who are aware of their own responsibilities.”
I look forward to hearing our speakers reflecting later on the “Power of words”, and the “Church in the digital world”. Sadly more and more journalists, members of the Church and other people with a public profile, have had to stop using social media as they have become victims of vitriol and abuse. Regardless of the age of the victim, it is a shame that aggressive behaviour and offensive language have contributed towards social media becoming a harsh and dehumanising environment for some. The sins of bearing false witness, defamation, detraction and calumny are no less grave just because they are committed behind the anonymity of a computer screen. They still destroy the dignity of another human person. When such negative communications emanate from sources purporting to be Catholic or Christian they are particularly reprehensible.
Effective and responsible communications begins with each of us as individuals and then extends to our relationships with our families, friends, between colleagues and within our communities. I found it alarming to read in the latest report from Accord, the Catholic Marriage Care Service, that in 2014 the two most prevalent issues in marriage and relationships counselling were related to poor personal communications: firstly, insulting behaviour and criticism; and, secondly, failure to listen or ignoring another.
Returning to the concept of ‘The Internet of Things’, I’d like to conclude by sharing with you what is for me, one of the most moving passages in Pope Francis’ powerful encyclical, Laudato Si where he reflects ( par 47) on the challenges of the media and digital world. He remarks that “alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise”.
Pope Francis says: “True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature. Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences”.
His words convince me of how important it is for the Church to remain as a participant and a driver in the world of communications, transforming it from within with the love, hope and the joy of the Gospel. Thank you for being part of that challenge and adventure. I hope you enjoy today’s Conference and thanks to Martin, Brenda, Francis and Katie, for arranging this event and for their on-going commitment to the work of the Catholic Communications Office.