On 17 December 2014 the world woke up to quite unexpected glad news. Cuba and the US amicably resolved one of the world’s thorniest Cold War conflicts existed between them. However, the highlight of the news was Pope Francis who brokered the diplomatic talks between the countries. He played a crucial role in smoothing the path of negotiations between the two leaders over 18 months, facilitating constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both the parties. Pope Francis could successfully mediate between Barak Obama and Raul Castro, albeit the three personalities stand on poles apart by their ideologies.
Pope Francis is the best reference point when one considers mercy in connection with communication. Communication, for Pope Francis, is a moment of fruitful human encounter, which opens up a space for dialogue, mutual understanding and reconciliation. In many of his speeches Francis uses encounter and mercy interchangeably.
Mercy is intrinsically connected to human communication. Mercy is something that is communicated, though its form and formats may vary. Mercy is shown, received and experienced. The Lord says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and will show clemency on whom I will show clemency” (Ex. 33:19); I will keep my mercy for him forever (Ps 89: 28).
This chapter primarily thrives on the three World Communications Day (WCD) messages issued by Pope Francis with themes, Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter (2014); Communicating the Family: A Privileged Place of Encounter with the Gift of Love (2015); Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter (2016).
The mission of the Church is “to announce the mercy of God” (MV 12). The Holy Father is raising two issues here: a) the act of announcing, and b) the content of the announcement. The former relates to Church’s communication and the latter to being merciful. Both are effectively accomplished only through a culture of encounter. Mercy, communication and encounter are inherently connected in the life of Church.
Francis picks up the parable of the Good Samaritan in his first WCD message of 2014 to demonstrate how media can communicate mercy, facilitating a fruitful encounter. He thinks that the starting point of a genuine and ideal communication is in establishing “neighbourliness” with the other. Francis interprets the parable Good Samaritan, which he thinks is a parable about communication:
“The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God. I like seeing this power of communication as ‘neighbourliness’” (WCD Message 2014).
Communication is all about searching for common grounds, above all a neighbourly ground. Indeed as the etymology of communication suggests, exchange of ideas and emotions can occur only on common planes. Put in another way, positive exchange of ideas, emotions and resources make things common.
The common ground Francis could find for Obama and Castro, to bring them around a table for conversation, was their being responsible leaders serving the humanity. Francis could become a good neighbour to both Obama and Castro by facilitating a meaningful encounter between the two. In response Obama said that Pope Francis had led [them] by “moral example, showing the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” Now, which other mediator can the world name than the Catholic Church for bringing nations together and establishing peace? Mind that each of the trio hails from totally opposing ideologies – one, a religious pastor, another, a secular capitalist and, and the third, a communist atheist.
The mission of the Church consists then in being a good neighbour to the world. Similarly, Church’s communication involves various instances of encounters rather than mere technologized and mediated communication. Through various acts of mercy the Church encounters the world with the merciful face of Christ. These acts indeed provide human touch to Church’s mediated communication. The communicative style of Pope Francis serves to be excellent example of such a communication and can be emulated. Each of his simple acts was a silent sermon preached aloud. Such communication – one that stems from heart and spontaneous – can generate positive outcomes, as it facilitates true encounters.
Right from day one of his pontificate the world was witnessing to Francis’ communication and acts of tenderness. Some critics initially commented these were gimmicks, but today even the hardened reporters are realizing that, for Francis, homeless shelters, prisons and soup kitchens are not mere photo-ops. They are the places he prefers to be and they are the places in which he wishes to see the Church. These acts of mercy are real communicative moments as well as instants of true encounter.
Francis’ emphasis on the essence of communication as being good neighbour is significant in a global cultural context marred by socio economic disparity. Ours is a society that is divided and fighting on various planes such as economic, political, ideological, and even religious. We are confronted with many forms of exclusion, marginalization and poverty (WCD 2014). In such a context it is a herculean challenge to be communicating like a good neighbour; nevertheless, Francis proves that this is possible through a variety of little acts of kindness.
Mercy: The Content of Communication
The content of Christian witness and communication is none other than Jesus Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s Mercy (MV 8). Francis has made this very clear in Evangelii Gaudium. A missionary Church – which “goes forth” – needs to “take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast” (EG 24).
An authentic missionary community, which has experienced the power of the Father’s infinite mercy, possesses the indomitable desire to show mercy. Church’s communication, essentially understood as being good neighbour, is significant in a global cultural context marred by socio economic disparity. Our society is fragmented and fighting on various planes such as economic, political, ideological, and even religious. We are confronted with many forms of exclusion, marginalization and poverty (WCD Message 2104).
A very practical aspect of preaching and practicing the Gospel of Mercy is to say ‘no’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality, an economy that kills (EG 53-54); to reject the new idolatry of money (EG 55-56); to disown the financial system which rules rather than serves (EG 57-58); and to eradicate inequality which spawns violence (EG 59-60). The ‘balm of mercy’ we apply on humanity shall help it encounter the Kingdom of God already present in our midst! (MV 5).
However, much of today’s media and communication is aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others. This indeed aggravates social margins deterring us to recognise our real neighbour. This is where the communication channels of the Church can bring about a very positive impact. The Christian media channels shall uphold the unity and dignity of human life. The Christian media professionals need to work for promoting human life, ethical values and a just society. The best communication recipe Francis could offer the world is: “A bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just.”
Culture of Encounter
During his visit to Washington, D.C., on 23 Sept. 2015, towards the end of a long, eventful and exhausting day, Pope Francis walked in through the back door of the chapel of the Little Sisters of the Poor without any prior information! There, he casually met the community of the Sisters for about 15 minutes in an unscheduled meeting! Having listened to their suggestions, stories and assurances of prayers the Pope made it a point to meet also an elderly nun who was suffering from dementia. It didn’t matter much to the Holy Father that the sister was not able to speak! He leaned over her, took her hand in his and traced the sign of the cross on her forehead before moving on. The Pope’s readiness to meet and spend time for a sister who could hardly communicate with him proved that she is as valuable as any other sister in that community.
For Francis, who is a ‘spirit filled evangeliser,’ each of his communication is an occasion of encounter with people and hence a moment of mercy. Such encounters are possible only for those people who have personally encountered Jesus, just as saint Paul had on the road to Damascus, and Pope Francis, at a confessional when he was a youth of seventeen. The stories of these encounters in fact invite others to encounter Christ and Church with fresh spectacles. We witness to Pope Francis inaugurating the culture of encounter.
The culture of encounter has deeper spiritual and social significance. The culture of encounter is a covenant culture. Covenant implies solidarity and it creates solidarity, both social and ecclesial solidarity. Though, today’s culture is markedly a culture of temporariness and exclusion, the culture of encounter we foster would create bonds rather than destroying it.
Communication: A Human Achievement
Communicating mercy in order to create the culture of encounter is not an easy task. It has to be learned through training and the best context for this learning, according to Francis, is one’s own family. It is there that we learn and experience the joy of social interaction, listening to others, speaking respectfully, mutual encouragement, unconditional forgiving and expressing our views without negating that of others (WCD Message 2015). Family is the avenue that offers possibility for little encounters that make richer bonds and meaning.
Only those who go out of themselves in communication can become a true point of reference for others. Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator (WCD Message 2014). The examples of communicative and merciful encounters from Francis’ life should help us deconstruct one of our rudimentary notions that best communication has always to be mediated through technologies. No, communication is a human achievement (WCD Message 2014).
Language of Communication
In the great Jubilee year of Mercy, Francis aims at transforming Church’s very language of communication. The language and gestures of the Church “must transmit mercy, so as to touch the hearts of all people and inspire them once more to find the road that leads to the Father” (WCD Message 2016). While every member of the Church has to get accustomed to this merciful language, its pastoral application has greater implications. Some reforms initiated by Pope Francis would elucidate what sort of communication language and gestures he expects the pastors to have.
Cancer of Clericalism
Clericalism uses a language of arrogance and self-satisfaction. It generates a multi-tiered, class-conscious society of the rulers and the ruled. It creates ambition for ecclesiastical status and power. Francis purified the curia and ousted bishops who were extravagant and luxurious. He cautioned pastors not to “act like ambitious corporate executives, but humble evangelists and men of prayer, willing to sacrifice everything for their flocks.”
In one of his addresses at a Conference for New Bishops, he further explained the details of this language. Pastors need to take care of the flock by welcoming fellow priests with magnanimity, journeying with the flock, and remaining with the flock. Bishops must have affection for their priests, and be present in the diocese to reach out to the ‘existential peripheries’ where there is suffering, solitude, loss of human dignity. Bishops are to serve with humility. He condemned the “spirit of careerism,” and called it “a cancer.”
Temptation of Triumphalism
The clerical language often assumes the tone of triumphalism. A triumphalist Church according to Francis “is a halfway Church.” It impedes Christians. With regard to pastor’s body language and verbal language, the Pope suggested not having ‘stiff neck’ and ‘lugubrious face.’ Christian language must be devoid of curse, foul language, grumbling and back-biting, discord and gossip. Instead our words must be turned into a blessing (WCD Message 2015).
Not only our language devoice of triumphalist expressions, but our life as well; because it would be reflected in all aspects of pastoral life. In what was supposed to be a Christmas greeting to the Roman curia, the Pope listed 15 ailments of the Church, much of which pertained to refine the communicative language and gestures of the pastors and bishops. Some items included: being extremely busy and indifferent to ordinary people, not being sensitive to suffering people in the society, having spiritual dementia, rivalry and vainglory, hypocritical life and existential schizophrenia, not making self evaluation and introspection, and the desire for hoarding and material profit. Finally, we shall be reminded that the Catholic pastors must have “the odour of the sheep” (EG 24).
Homily: The Vital Communication of Priest
Sharing the Word of God in a homily is a fundamental responsibility and reserved right of a priest. Priests cannot excuse themselves for not having communicative skill; instead they take all efforts to train themselves in providing a rich homily that is digestible to all. However, many priests use the pulpit as a secure place to abuse, and scold people. Providing a prepared, well studied and first hand homily would be a great act of mercy a priest can give his people. An effective homily requires prayer, preparation, awareness about the congregation, contextual reflection on local and global community as well as an invitation to the Holy Spirit.
Church: A Home for All
Various examples of Francis’s communicative style described in this chapter proves that sincere and effective communication has reconciling effects. His communication is honest and devoid of ‘diplomatic play.’ He did not fear his mediation between Obama and Castro would derail when he provoked some conservative Republicans in the US by castigating financial speculators and called their greed “the devil’s dung.”
By example he leads all the pastors as well as the media professionals to see the world as one, and every human being as a neighbour. Francis hopes that even the digital technological media can create an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people. Francis is positive about Christian witness reaching the peripheries of human existence as well as “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), through the use of technologies such as the Internet and social media. At the same time he believes that such witnessing does not cconsists in bombarding people with religious messages (WCD Message 2014).
Church has to keep its doors open to all people including those in the digital environments so that they can enter and receive the Gospel. Then our communication becomes successful. It is in our willingness to be available to others, listening to them and in recognising them as our neighbours that our communications becomes truly Christian.
MV = Misericordiae Vultus. Bull of Indiction of the Year of Mercy.
EG = Evangelii Gaudium.
WCD = World Communications Day Message