A prelate, who was responsible for social communications in the Indian Church, was commenting about the “urgency” of Catholic communication in a video interview I was monitoring two years ago. This sense of urgency, he said, was a highlight of Inter Mirifica (IM), the Vatican II document that ignited the revolution of social communications within the Catholic Church half a century ago.
The Council Fathers truly desired that Catholic communications should take off with immediate effect, for which they even decided to set a commemorative day called World Communications Day (WCD), which is celebrated on the Ascension Sunday every year.
As this is the 50th WCD (Sunday 8th May), it would be worth stopping a while to reflect where we are heading. The following 10 observations might help the zealous and aspiring catholic communicators at the crossroads.
1. Did the Journey Start? CBCI and other ecclesial units have taken various initiatives to enter into the world of media and communications soon after the Vatican II. Unfortunately, the church could not keep the momentum which the pioneers in media ministry have laid. Many media centers were established, personnel were trained, and lot of money was spent. Yet, we regret its impact and efficacy on the Indian secular public. The Church has to reassess its vision and mission of media ministry and develop a rubric or strategy for purposeful and meaningful communication. A clear and achievable vision is necessary for us to move forward.
2. Learning The Language: The answer to our ineffective communication in spite of our best efforts in social communications in the last 50 years is that we have not learned the media language. The Catholic journalism and media work doesn’t demonstrate enough quality to dialogue with the modern secular culture (there are exceptions though). Catholic communication cannot compromise with professional quality (IM 14). More importantly it is necessary to integrate Christian message into the “new culture” which expresses itself with new ways of communicating, with new languages, new techniques and a new psychology (Redemptoris Missio RM 37). As each medium has its own ideology, syntax and language learning the language of media is very important.
3. Content Is The King. For every meaningful communication content (what is communicated) is the most significant aspect. Contrarily, many think that technology (how is communicated) is absolute. Content is to be designed in such as way that it educate, inform or entertain readers/viewers/users by creating attention or causing behavior that results in positive change or advocacy. It is foolish to think that a content prepared for a project would be suitable for news, or the website of the diocese. Content that best works today are infographics, interactive content, evocative content, image content and newsworthy content. The catholic media professionals shall focus more on a content strategy than technology.
4. It Is Always Cold There: In spite of many enthusiastic media professionals and media centres in our dioceses a good communicative climate does not exist in the Church. Lack of continuous encouragement – psychological, emotional, financial and social – destroys the enthusiasm, eventually defying the ministry itself. Media work is a collaborative work and a lot of co-operation from others is required. However, Church expects one person to handle all of those things and do them all well. It’s pretty much impossible. Communication is the responsibility of every member of the Church though the experts are entrusted with executive tasks. Perhaps, the authorities do not perceive media ministry as lucrative as other ministries.
5. Lack Of Organizational Clarity: Often communication is seen as independent ministry that is detached from all other ministries of the dioceses/congregation. Communication ministry should serve all other activities and apostolates of the whole of the ecclesial unit. This vision shall be clear to everyone who works in the ministry as well as the authorities and there shall be proper communication between them. Nonetheless, with regard to media there is a lot of bypassing and overtaking, which is crucial to development and growth of media. It is thoughtless to separate PR office from media ministry office. Similarly, it is very important to keep the continuity of office and ministry. When one is transferred an adequately competent person shall be replaced, else the ministry limps. The Church needs to accomplish its mission as one body in which media ministry plays a significant role.
6. Hello, Who Is There? Clarity about our audience is of primary importance. In general there are two types of audience: those who are inside the Church and those outside. Most of the successful publications, websites and TV channels of the Church indeed are addressing people within the Church. Yet, their packaging and marketing limits its subscriber base perhaps to groups of pious people. Their puritan approach does not invite to engage a large section of people who otherwise would appreciate to know what is happening within Church. People are looking for authentic news and information from the official media of the church on a range of social, moral, political issues.
More importantly, our efforts over several decades have found no success in creating a substantial audience outside the Church, primarily because our communication is inconspicuous and disengaging. Effective communication should invite people of other affinities to deeper engagement with the mission of the Church and a profound encounter with Jesus. Such engagement can be created only if a) our communication is purposeful, b) we use the appropriate media language, and c) we know the audience.
7. Multiplication, Duplication and Reduction: A general tendency seen in church circles is to imitate the success formula. If a diocese or congregation is running a good media channel – print, AV or interactive – others get inspired to repeat the same. This results in multiplication of channels which may not have a specified target audience. Fascinatingly, similar content is repeated and even same writers/speakers are appearing across different media platforms. This duplication not only affects the quality but also ultimately fragments the audience. Thus media ministry becomes a liability and then extinct. It is inevitable to rear a fresh herd of media practitioners while revering the old monks. We need to learn to collaborate and co-operate with media houses of other dioceses and congregations. Mutual promotion is the need of the hour and key to survival.
8. Catch Up With The Pace: Media technologies grow in exhilarating speed. Speed is the mantra of the modern world. If we miss a single span of advancement in media technology it is difficult to catch up with the latest one. A glitch in Catholic communications is that it pursues conventional patterns. The old generation media professionals often want to go with print and start new magazines. Visual media experts due to creative poverty have made scant contributions. With regard to interactive or online media the Church is nowhere! Media convergence, it seems, is a strange idea for us, though that is the key aspect upon which the secular media thrives. There have been ideological developments in the field of media strategy, packaging and marketing such as ‘remix,’ ‘knowledge communities,’ ‘collective intelligence,’ and ‘social media intelligence.’ These have not yet influenced our media thinking and practice. It is a bane that we still pick up the old problems in our critical media discussions, as does this essay without making an exception. If only we depart from present media inertia and start catching the pace we could think of integrating such developments within our ministry.
9. Never Say “Click Here”: We are in the interactive and online phase of communication revolution. Social media, having totally different dynamics and ideology, pervades us. It is extremely participatory and democratic. In social media one can’t simply be a mediocre passive consumer, as did one during the visual era; instead one needs to be active participant in the communication process. The interactive media takes you to the huge market place of cultures. In order to be meaningfully present there we need different set of skills, orientations and aptitudes. Church has a long way to go to catch up with the New Media, which opens a world of interactive social media, Apps and much more. Ironically, the Church is still happy with its oral culture and paper based communication. A shift from paper to digital and offline to online communication is to be thought of urgently which would also become strategic part of stewarding our funds and reducing carbon footprint.
10. Type Amen!: Congregations and dioceses who seek me for media consultancy often say they want to do ‘media evangelization,’ that is spreading the word of God through media. We see barrage of Christian message in social media – as images and videos. Pope Francis reminds us “effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages” (WCD Message 2014). There are numerous ways of taking the light of Christ to the secular world even through secular media. There is increased need for Christian participation in the public sphere. We need to explore those possibilities of proficiently presenting Christ and Church than peeving a pluralistic society.
In spite of these hiccups the Church can and should bring about miracles in the marvelous world of media. The media involvement of some individual Christian lay-persons is admirable. The Indian society beckons for a constructive and creative media presence from the Catholic community. However, a Church that does not make its voice heard and presence felt in the national public sphere cannot claim any media contribution. A Church that does not communicate is in depression. Can a Church that sleeps wake up the world?