Challenge to Catholic Communicators

Cedric Prakash Cedric Prakash
23 May 2022
Pope canonizes Dutch priest, professor Titus Brandsma

On 15 May 2022, Pope Francis proclaimed 10 outstanding women and men as Saints of the Catholic Church. Among them was Blessed Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite priest and journalist. Fr. Brandsma was named spiritual adviser to the Dutch Association of Catholic Journalists in 1935 and became its president after the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. He worked with the Dutch bishops in crafting their message opposing Nazi ideology and the forced publication of propaganda in Catholic newspapers.

Following Germany’s invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, Brandsma defended the freedom of Catholic education and the Catholic press against Nazi pressure. In the face of great risk, he visited the offices of Catholic media outlets around the country over the course of 10 days, encouraging editors to resist pressure to publish Nazi propaganda. His actions drew the ire of the Nazi regime who arrested him in 1942. Several months later, he was transported to the Dachau concentration camp where he was killed by a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He had to pay the ultimate price for his visible and vocal stand against Nazim. St. John Paul II, who beatified the Dutch priest on 3 November 1985, regarded him as a “valiant journalist” and a “martyr of freedom of expression against the tyranny of the dictatorship.”

A few days before the canonization of Brandsma, hundreds of journalists from all over the world, wrote an open letter requesting the Holy Father to name the Dutch Carmelite as the patron saint of journalists. The letter is significant on several counts; the key aspects, relevant for all Catholic communicators today, include: “In 2018 you asked us, journalists, loud and clear, ‘to promote a journalism of peace’, a ‘journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all… a journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence’ (‘The truth will set you free’ (Jn. 8:32), fake news and journalism for peace. Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for World Communications Day, 24 Jan 2018).

“We wholeheartedly endorse your call to action and in it we recognize a mission statement for the whole of the journalistic enterprise: for old and new media, for editors of newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, and internet platforms -- and not only for journalists of Catholic origin, but for all journalists of good will.

“On 15 May, in Rome, you will canonize a man who embodied these crucial journalistic values until his dying day: the Dutch Carmelite Father Titus Brandsma (1881 - 1942). 

“Titus Brandsma has meant a lot to the Catholic community in the Low Countries, but his journalistic work stands out among all his other activities. He was editor-in-chief of a newspaper, devoted himself to the modernization and professionalization of the Catholic daily press in the Netherlands, and strove for better working conditions and the establishment of a professional training for journalists.

“Father Brandsma did his work in the context of the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe. In word and deed, he opposed the language of hatred and division that was becoming common at the time. In his view, what we now describe as ‘fake news’ was not to be tolerated in the Catholic press; he successfully argued for an episcopal ban on the printing of National Socialist propaganda in Catholic newspapers. 

“He paid with his life for his courageous actions: in early 1942 Father Titus was arrested by the occupying forces and consequently sent to the Dachau concentration camp. There, on July 26 of the same year, he was killed by an injection, on the Sunday that the Dutch bishops had their courageous protest against the deportations of Jews read out in all the churches.

“We, Catholic journalists, recognize in Titus Brandsma a professional peer and fellow believer of considerable standing. Someone who shared the deeper mission that should drive journalism in modern times: a search for truth and veracity, the promotion of peace and dialogue between people.

“We therefore see him as a friend and advocate for our entire profession, indeed a patron saint of journalism. We would therefore like to boldly ask you to make this patron saint’s office official. 

“The current patron saint of journalism is Francis de Sales. He is undoubtedly a holy man of faith and of great merit, but he was not a journalist in the modern sense of the word. Titus Brandsma was.

“And as we said, he gave his life for it. In our view, this makes him particularly suitable for this patronage. According to UNESCO, in 2021, no less than 55 journalists died worldwide while carrying out their work. Many more had to deal with violence, threats, repression, censorship and persecution. The commitment to truth and humanity is extremely dangerous in these times of disinformation and polarization. This urgently requires a holy intercessor who has experienced this personally - and passed the ordeal with flying colours.”

The letter says it all: what Catholic Communications should be today; the fact that St. Brandsma courageously embodied its totality. It was certainly not easy for him; he had to face much hostility from the all-powerful fascists; he did not relent and had to pay with his life for his prophetic stand. There is plenty that Catholic Communicators all over – and particularly in India -- need to learn from St Brandsma and also from the letter written by some renowned Catholic journalists to the Pope.

More so, because on 29 May 2022, the Church all over the globe observes the 56th World Day of Social Communications (In India, it coincides with the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord). The theme of Pope Francis’ powerful message is ‘Listening with the Ear of the Heart’. The theme is rooted in the Gospel of St. Luke ‘Take care, then, how you listen.’ (Lk8:18). The theme complements the 2021 message ‘Come and See’. Pope Francis in his opening statement says, “Last year we reflected on the need to “Come and See” in order to discover reality and be able to recount it beginning with experiencing events and meeting people. Continuing in this vein, I would now like to draw attention to another word, “listen”, which is decisive in the grammar of communication and a condition for genuine dialogue.”

For Pope Francis, ‘listen’ is not something theoretical; it is the sine qua non for any catholic communicator who is interested in authentic communications, through searching and arriving at nothing but the truth, just like the Master Communicator Jesus. One hears a common complaint today “nobody is listening!” Many experience this feeling – there is a painful story to share, a cry that needs to be heard – but nobody cares! That story, that cry, becomes a voice crying in the wilderness! Is there someone listening? Does anybody care? In his message, Pope Francis throws a direct challenge to communicators: to listen and when you listen, to do so with the ear of your heart.

In October 2021, Pope Francis launched the Synodal process with the theme “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.” The process will culminate with the 2023 Synod in Rome. The Pope has been insisting that the synodal journey is about listening, learning and loving. His Communications Day message reiterates this when he says, “A synodal process has just been launched. Let us pray that it will be a great opportunity to listen to one another. Communion, in fact, is not the result of strategies and programmes, but is built in mutual listening between brothers and sisters.” The question one needs to ask oneself: Is there serious listening? Or is it lip-service: A tiresome formality without change? The painful reality is that, in several Dioceses the first phase has been sheer tokenism: An attitude of ‘it is a process which ‘had to be done’ – so let’s get over it as soon as possible.’

Are we listening to the cries of the poor and the vulnerable, the excluded and the exploited, the minorities and the other marginalised? When we listen with the heart, we are called to do something about it – we need to make a paradigm shift, to change; to ensure a better quality of life for all. Pope Francis says it rather strongly: “Human beings tend to flee the relationship, to turn their back and ‘close their ears’ so they do not have to listen. The refusal to listen often ends up turning into aggression towards the other, as happened to those listening to the deacon Stephen who, covering their ears, all turned on him at once.”

In this context, he once again highlights the plight of the migrants and their cries. We often treat them as outsiders: They are not like us, they do not ‘belong’ here! These suffer because of man’s inhumanity to man. They are the ‘other’! To this Pope Francis says, “The reality of forced migration is also a complex issue, and no one has a ready-made prescription for solving it. I repeat that, in order to overcome prejudices about migrants and to melt the hardness of our hearts, we should try to listen to their stories. Give each of them a name and a story. Many good journalists already do this. And many others would like to do it, if only they could. Let us encourage them! Let us listen to these stories! Everyone would then be free to support the migration policies they deem most appropriate for their own country. But in any case, we would have before our eyes not numbers, not dangerous invaders, but the faces and stories, gazes, expectations and sufferings of real men and women to listen to”. The reality of forced migrants is a key concern of Pope Francis’ papacy. Once again, we need to ask ourselves: Are we listening to them with our hearts?

In his message, Pope Francis does not spare Church. He calls for a Church that has the heart to listen. He says, “It is sad when, even in the Church, ideological alignments are formed and listening disappears, leaving sterile opposition in its wake.” In the final segment of his message, he emphasises the need and importance of ‘Listening to one another in the Church.’

He says, “In the Church, too, there is a great need to listen to and to hear one another. It is the most precious and life-giving gift we can offer each other. Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the word of God.” He reserves his choicest words to so-called Catholic communicators, many of whom are frightened to be visible and vocal in standing up for truth and justice. 

Pope Francis urges them to develop their listening capacities. “Communication does not take place if listening has not taken place, and there is no good journalism without the ability to listen…. In order to provide solid, balanced, and complete information, it is necessary to listen for a long time. To recount an event or describe an experience in news reporting, it is essential to know how to listen, to be ready to change one’s mind, to modify one’s initial assumptions.”

He quotes the German Lutheran theologian Bonhoeffer, who, like St Brandsma, was executed by the Nazis in 1945: “Thus, the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the first service we owe to others in communion consists in listening to them. Whoever does not know how to listen to his brother or sister will soon no longer be able to listen to God either”. Strong words indeed if we have the courage to listen with the heart. On 1 May, Pope Francis paid tribute to journalists who have died or been jailed in the line of duty, defending a free press and praising those in the media “who courageously report on humanity’s wounds…I render homage to journalists who pay in person for this right.” 

It is important then, for all Catholic communicators to do an honest and objective evaluation of their writings, productions and other forms of communications. How many of these have genuinely responded to the cries of the poor and the vulnerable, the excluded and exploited, the marginalised and the minorities of the country?  How many have written/done productions against the sedition, the UAPA and other draconian laws? The illegal incarceration of human rights defenders? The demonising of the Muslims? The anti-conversion laws? The three farm bills and the labour codes? The monstrous and extravagant Central Vista project? The denial of the legitimate rights of the Adivasis, Dalits, LGBT? Growing unemployment and spiralling prices? And much more. Do Catholic Communicators have the prophetic courage to take on the fascist and fundamentalist forces which are working overtime to destroy the sanctity of the Constitution and the secular, pluralistic fabric of our beloved nation? It is time then for introspection! It is time to change!

Meaningful communication is not about sophisticated centres, glossy publications or ‘projects’ to be run – but the ability to stand for and communicate the truth with prophetic courage. Pope Francis has been consistently challenging catholic communicators to live up to this call. His message this year is all about that. Besides, from this year, one has a saint in Titus Brandsma who lived his vocation to the fullest. Will catholic communicators in India then have the audacity to listen with ear of the heart, to stand up and be counted, to be witnesses for justice and truth today?  

A tough challenge indeed, but which must be responded to, because World Social Communications Day is also the Feast of the Ascension, when one is sent out to be his disciples, to witness to the good news, in the world today.       

(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com )

Pope Francis Catholic Church Titus Brandsma Fr. Bransma Nazi St. John Paul II Valiant Journalist Canonization of Brandsma Holy Father Journalism Canonization in Rome Deportations of Jews Catholic journalists Saint of journalism 56th World Day of Social Communications Synod in Rome UAPA Adivasis Dalits LGBT World Social Communications Day Issue 22 Indian Currents Indian Currents Magazine

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