The Catholic Church observes the 57th World Day of Social Communications on May 21, 2023. For India this day coincides with the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, which adds to the significance of the observance. Just before Jesus is taken up to heaven, he commissions his disciples, “to go out to the whole world to proclaim the good news,” which is in essence communicating the person and message of Jesus, for the values he stood for and died for! Though the mandate is given to every single disciple of Jesus, Catholic Communicators have a specific responsibility of doing so, because of the very nature of their ministry.
Since the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been highlighting the need and importance of catholic communications to read, understand and to effectively respond to the signs of the times. He has been speaking about this to the various communications fora he addresses and particularly through his annual messages for the day. Besides, the Holy Father himself is a very powerful and effective communicator – speaking unequivocally to the rich and the powerful of the world and taking up cudgels for the poor and the vulnerable, the excluded and the exploited. Like Jesus, Pope Francis never minces words when it comes to addressing critical issues of today, be it the war in Ukraine or the disastrous effects of climate change.
His message for this year’s Communications Day focuses on the theme ‘Speaking with the heart: The truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15). In his opening statements, he reminds us that in his previous annual day messages, he has reflected on the verbs ‘to go and see’ and ‘to listen’, observing that these are good conditions for communication. The 2023 theme, ‘Speaking with the heart’, naturally flows from this. “It is the heart that spurred us to go, to see and to listen, and it is the heart that moves us towards an open and welcoming way of communicating;” adding, “once we have practised listening, which demands waiting and patience, as well as foregoing the assertion of our point of view in a prejudicial way, we can enter into the dynamic of dialogue and sharing, which is precisely that of communicating in a cordial way.”
Pope Francis emphasises that, “Communicating in a cordial manner means that those who read or listen to us are led to welcome our participation in the joys, fears, hopes and suffering of the women and men of our time. Those who speak in this way love the other because they care and protect their freedom without violating it.” Expressing deep concern of the war and other hostilities in the world today he insists that we use the gift of communication as a ‘bridge’ and not as a wall, where kindness is not only a question of ‘etiquette’ but a “genuine antidote to cruelty”.
We need to foster peace and understanding. Acknowledging that we are “living in a dark hour in which humanity fears an escalation of war,” he says that “today more than ever, speaking with the heart is essential to foster a culture of peace in places where there is war; to open paths that allow for dialogue and reconciliation in places where hatred and enmity rage”…. “In the dramatic context of the global conflict we are experiencing, it is urgent to maintain a form of communication that is not hostile. It is necessary to overcome the tendency to ‘discredit and insult opponents from the outset rather than to open a respectful dialogue.”
Pope Francis categorically addresses hate speech which spawns division and even violence, as we experience in India today, “it is terrifying to hear how easily words calling for the destruction of people and territories are spoken. Words, unfortunately, that often turn into warlike actions of heinous violence. This is why all belligerent rhetoric must be rejected, as well as every form of propaganda that manipulates the truth, disfiguring it for ideological ends.” In view of this, he invites all those engaged in communications to Pope Francis’s call to “help create the conditions to resolve controversies between peoples”, urging all to listen to the other with a pure heart and to be courageous in speaking the truth, but to do so with charity -- with love.
In words which characterise his teaching, Pope Francis goes on to say, “This leads those who listen to attune themselves to the same wavelength, to the point of being able to hear within their heart also the heartbeat of the other. Then the miracle of encounter can take place, which makes us look at one another with compassion, welcoming our mutual frailties with respect rather than judging by hearsay and sowing discord and division.”… “Listening without prejudice, attentively and openly, gives rise to speaking according to God’s style, nurtured by closeness, compassion and tenderness. We have a pressing need in the Church for communication that kindles hearts, that is balm on wounds and that shines light on the journey of our brothers and sisters.”
Pope Francis has been consistent in his stand on catholic communications. In a message to the SIGNIS World Congress which was held in Seoul, South Korea, (15-18 August 2022), he said, “At the same time, the use of digital media, especially social media, has raised a number of serious ethical issues that call for wise and discerning judgment on the part of communicators and all those concerned with the authenticity and quality of human relationships. Sometimes and in some places, media sites have become places of toxicity, hate speech and fake news. In meeting this challenge, SIGNIS can play an important role through media education, networking Catholic media and countering lies and misinformation.”
Later in November 2022, addressing the Vatican employees and participants in the Dicastery for Communication’s Plenary Assembly, he provided a road map of what Catholic Communications should be today! The Pope said that the Church needs prophetic communicators today! Communicators who are free, frank and fearless grounded in the person and message of Jesus! He spoke about three cornerstones of communication: ‘making people less lonely’, ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ and ‘educating oneself to communicate truthfully.’
He said that communications should not be mere entertainment; it should “diminish the feeling of loneliness that so many men and women feel entrapped in…The first task of communication should be, he said, “is to make people less lonely” as it should be a craft that creates bonds that tie people or communities together…It should “foster closeness, give voice to the excluded, draw attention to what we normally discard and ignore” so that from these relationships and dialogue, “God’s voice resonates and is heard.”
For Pope Francis, “only a Church that is immersed in reality, really knows what is in the heart of contemporary man; …true communication stems from listening, from encounter, from telling the stories of people”. His prepared text emphatically stated, “Communications also must make possible a diversity of views, while always seeking to preserve unity and truth, fighting slander, verbal violence, personalism (cult of personality) and fundamentalism that, under the guise of being faithful to the truth, only spread division and discord…. If it succumbs to these degenerations, communication, instead of doing much good, ends up doing much harm.”
If one pays close attention to what Pope Francis is saying, then a very sizeable section of catholic communicators in India have a long way to go. And very sadly so! Communication, the world over, has made a paradigm shift in the last decade or so. Today communication tools are available to one and all -- neither structures nor sophisticated gadgets are essential to communicate effectively.
Catholic communicators in India therefore need to do a reality check on the type of communications that one does today, does the content deal with truth, justice and other critical issues that plague the country and church today? In order to get its act together certain things must be undertaken on a war-footing and urgently; these include:
• A serious and professional evaluation on every form of catholic communications (print, electronic and other); of the resources invested; and of course impact assessment;
• Almost twenty years ago, in January 2004, the General Assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) which met in Thrissur, Kerala, produced a path-breaking statement, ‘Called to be a Communicating Church’ in which they highlighted “that media have a prophetic role, indeed a vocation: to speak out against the false gods and ideals of the day -- materialism, hedonism, consumerism and narrow nationalism”. The statement called for a Pastoral Plan for Communications which was meant to be implemented in every Diocese in India. It would be an opportune moment to see how many of our Dioceses are actually implementing this plan (if any) with empowered Communications Commissions (with lay members) to monitor them.
• In the midst of growing fascism, fundamentalism and fanaticism and plenty of anti-Constitutional and hate rhetoric against the democratic fabric of the country, what percentage of catholic communicators have stood up for truth and justice and values enshrined in the Gospel of Jesus (always with love). It would also be interesting to see how many took a stand against ‘The Kerala Story’ which is replete with lies and denigration or have come out in open support to the Women Wrestlers of India.
There are indeed several more parameters that one should look into; but if we start with just the above, we would have gone a long way in making catholic communications in India more responsive to the signs of the times and in conformity with the teachings of Jesus and the Church today! World Communications Day will be a good day to go beyond tokenism and platitudes and to ensure actualising the tremendous responsibility placed on all. In the meantime, we pray in the words of Pope Francis, given at the conclusion of his message:
May the Lord Jesus, the pure Word poured out from the heart of the Father, help us to make our communication clear, open and heartfelt.
May the Lord Jesus, the Word made flesh, help us listen to the beating of hearts, to rediscover ourselves as brothers and sisters, and to disarm the hostility that divides.
May the Lord Jesus, the Word of truth and love, help us speak the truth in charity, so that we may feel like protectors of one another.
(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)