Pope Francis has once again thrown a challenge to Catholic Communicators in his annual message for ‘World Communications Day’ which this year falls on Sunday, May 16. In his typically direct yet profound way, he focuses his message on the theme ‘“Come and See” (Jn 1:46). Communicating by Encountering People Where and as They Are. In doing so, he makes it amply clear that, “in order to tell the truth of life that becomes history, it is necessary to move beyond the complacent attitude that we ‘already know’ certain things. Instead, we need to go and see them for ourselves, to spend time with people, to listen to their stories and to confront reality, which always in some way surprises us”.
In his introductory paragraph, Pope Francis sets the tone of what Christian Communication is and should be: “This year, then, I would like to devote this Message to the invitation to “come and see”, which can serve as an inspiration for all communication that strives to be clear and honest, in the press, on the internet, in the Church’s daily preaching and in political or social communication. “Come and see!” This has always been the way that the Christian faith has been communicated, from the time of those first encounters on the banks of the river Jordan and on the Sea of Galilee”. In sum and substance, it means to ‘Come and See’ is to ‘be and do’.
In the subsections that follow, Pope Francis highlights three inter-related dimensions in order to drive home his point: to hit the streets, to live the communication of the Gospels and to have the courage of one’s conviction. All these three resonate very strongly with what he says in his Apostolic Exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (The Joy of the Gospels’): “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life”.
He sees the need and importance of “hitting the streets” in order to grasp the truth of things and the concrete lives of people, and more important the serious social phenomena or positive movements at the grass roots level. He laments how the original investigative reporting in newspapers and television, radio and web newscasts which involved sticking one’s neck out is today replaced by ‘tendentious narrative’. For Pope Francis “hitting the streets” essentially means meeting people face to face to research stories or to verify certain situations first hand; he emphatically states that, “unless we open ourselves to this kind of encounter, we remain mere spectators.”
“Come and See”, says Pope Francis, “were the first words that Jesus spoke to the disciples who were curious about him following his baptism in the Jordan river (Jn 1:39). He invited them to enter into a relationship with him”. For Jesus, as seen throughout the Gospel, this ‘come and see’ is meant to be a transformative experience. Several religious congregations today have this ‘come and see’ period, often called a prenovitiate or aspirancy. Basically, it is a time of orientation, a probation, an internship, when one begins internalising a particular value system but also has an opportunity for involvement.
Pope Francis gives us the examples of Nathanael and the Samaritan woman saying, “That is how Christian faith begins, and how it is communicated: as direct knowledge, born of experience, and not of hearsay.” The change in attitude which evolves when theory moves into practise. That ability to reach out to others. “Come and see” is the simplest method to get to know a situation. It is the most honest test of every message, because, in order to know, we need to encounter, to let the person in front of me speak, to let his or her testimony reach me.”
He then talks about the ‘courage of many journalists’; he thanks them for their stand and heaps praise on them. He says, “Journalism too, as an account of reality, calls for an ability to go where no one else thinks of going: a readiness to set out and a desire to see. Curiosity, openness, passion. We owe a word of gratitude for the courage and commitment of all those professionals – journalists, camera operators, editors, directors – who often risk their lives in carrying out their work. Thanks to their efforts, we now know, for example, about the hardships endured by persecuted minorities in various parts of the world, numerous cases of oppression and injustice inflicted on the poor and on the environment, and many wars that otherwise would be overlooked. It would be a loss not only for news reporting, but for society and for democracy as a whole, were those voices to fade away. Our entire human family would be impoverished”.
Here Pope Francis gives us plenty of food-for-thought on the current pandemic. His message was made public on January 23, but with some extraordinary foresight he was already writing about the pandemic which grips India today when he says, “many situations in our world, even more so in this time of pandemic, are inviting the communications media to “come and see”. We can risk reporting the pandemic, and indeed every crisis, only through the lens of the richer nations, of “keeping two sets of books”. For example, there is the question of vaccines, and medical care in general, which risks excluding the poorer peoples. Who would keep us informed about the long wait for treatment in the poverty-stricken villages of Asia, Latin America and Africa? Social and economic differences on the global level risk dictating the order of distribution of anti-Covid vaccines, with the poor always at the end of the line and the right to universal health care affirmed in principle, but stripped of real effect. Yet even in the world of the more fortunate, the social tragedy of families rapidly slipping into poverty remains largely hidden; people who are no longer ashamed to wait in line before charitable organizations in order to receive a package of provisions do not tend to make news”.
Pope Francis speaks a bit about the ‘Opportunities and hidden dangers on the web’. We are all aware of how the web/internet has radically transformed our lives. For more than fourteen months now, ever since the pandemic has forced millions to ‘stay at home’, the internet has been a significant means of keeping many sane: some were privileged to ‘work from home’, millions of students could avail of online classes, social media was on a song with almost anything and everything finding some space on facebook, twitter, instagram and the like. One could be ‘in touch’ constantly with distant relatives and friends and with what was happening all around.
Sadly there are also the hidden dangers when we tend to get overwhelmed with all that we received. One clear example is all the ‘fundas’ being dished out as a cure or a preventive to COVID-19; quick-fixes, good grandmothers’ decoctions that are certainly helpful in boosting one’s immunity level – now flaunted as a cure! Then there is the infamous ‘whatsapp university’ to which one is so easily hooked to. The point is that there is so much of ‘fake’ news being forwarded. Pope Francis rightly warns us, “All of us are responsible for the communications we make, for the information we share, for the control that we can exert over fake news by exposing it. All of us are to be witnesses of the truth: to go, to see and to share”.
On World Communications Day, Pope Francis gives Catholic communicators some key words as directions, to what catholic communication is all about. The base words are obviously ‘Come’ and ‘See’: the implications are clear -- unless one gets out of one’s comfort zone, nothing will change. He reminds us that in the Gospel only when goes out to see, to seek does a change, a metamorphosis, a metanoia takes place. Then right through he uses words like ‘encounter’, ‘clear’, ‘honest’, ‘courage’, ‘authentic’, ‘truth’, ‘reality’, ‘curiosity’, ‘openness’, and ‘passion’ which are not merely a haphazard collection but non-negotiable essentials of what a communicator should be internalising in order to be truly a witness of Jesus in our world today. It is a call ‘to be’ and ‘to do’: to be visible and vocal, to stick one’s neck out, to take a stand for truth and justice.
On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the annual ‘World Press Freedom Index-2021’ placed India at a lowly 142 out of 180 countries which were evaluated. It is a sad commentary on the way media is throttled in India (the last few weeks, however, we must admit that there is a sea-change at least in some of the mainstream media). In the light of the challenges which Pope Francis throws to Catholic communicators and in the context of the reality which grips the country today, it is imperative that Catholic communicators do some serious soul-searching, ask themselves some uncomfortable questions, have the courage to answer them truthfully and act urgently on these responses. The questions are several; some of them are:
• Are Catholic Communicators visible and vocal to what is happening in the country today? How many are taking a stand for justice and truth? Sticking one’s neck out?
• How many Catholic Communicators have taken a stand against callousness, corruption and complacency of the Central Government during this pandemic? How many have written about it, done video presentations, preached about it?
• How many editorials have taken a stand against the ‘love jihad’ laws of certain Governments? The wanton destruction of the environment? Or for that matter against the Central Vista Project?
An honest evaluation of what most Catholic Communicators are ‘doing’ will easily reveal the painful truth. Communications today is not about fancy gizmos or sophisticated studios or for that matter even of so-called ‘productions’. Many of these we know become obsolete, irrelevant and outdated in a matter of time. Communications is also not about couch potatoes who are afraid to hit the streets. Today several communicators are more interested in relegating communications to ‘toeing the line’, ‘licking the boots of the powerful’, maintaining the ‘status quo’, and ‘protecting possessions and privileges’. All these are certainly a betrayal of Christ and His message of what Catholic communications should be. One should take a cue from the latest issue of the OUTLOOK magazine (May 24, 2021) with a creative cover page with emboldened letters in red -- just one word ‘MISSING ‘ and just below NAME: Government of India; AGE 7 years; INFORM: Citizens of India. What a powerful image of the Indian reality today! Catholic communicators are called to do likewise.
Pope Francis’s message does not only have to be read in toto but also needs to be internalised. In a final salvo he says, “The challenge that awaits us, then, is to communicate by encountering people, where they are and as they are”. To this he adds a powerful prayer:
“Lord, teach us to move beyond ourselves,
and to set out in search of truth.
Teach us to go out and see,
teach us to listen,
not to entertain prejudices
or draw hasty conclusions.
Teach us to go where no one else will go,
to take the time needed to understand,
to pay attention to the essentials,
not to be distracted by the superfluous,
to distinguish deceptive appearances from the truth.
Grant us the grace to recognize your dwelling places in our world
and the honesty needed to tell others what we have seen”.
To ‘Come and See’ then is to ‘Be and Do’ – the ball is now in the court of Catholic communicators. It is left to be seen if one has the courage to accept the challenge.
(Fr Cedric Prakash (GUJ) is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org