I was thrilled rather than stunned to see Pope Francis posing for a ‘selfie’ photo with a youth at an Asian youth meeting in South Korea a couple of weeks ago. The readiness of the Pope to pose with cheerful smile on his face proves that Pope Francis wants to image the Church as being friendly with dynamic young people and as not estranged from media. Francis is both youth-friendly and media-friendly.
The Vatican is insisting its children to enter into the digital media with its Gospel. The recent Popes are very keen to address the netizens of the Digital Continent. Pope Francis one of the most popular celebrity among Twitter followers prompting the Forbes magazine to call him the ‘Social Media Star’! Church’s appreciation of modern media started 50 years ago with the release of much celebrated Vatican II document on media and communications, Inter Mirifica (IM). This document inaugurated the era of modern communications for the Church, as well as unleashed a fresh approach to media.
Media and communications are not strange words to the Indian Catholics. Many dioceses and congregations have printing presses, publishing houses, published periodicals, studios, audio-visual releases, drama theatres, as well as websites. They also have trained their priests and sisters to professionally handle media. Seminaries have started offering media courses to their students. The impetus for all these initiatives was provided by the IM.
If you see a religious sister photographing in a public place with a camera, or a priest found in the discussion panel of a secular TV channel in India today, it is thanks to IM! However, the significant contribution of IM was that it opened a broad way to appreciate and embrace the possibilities offered by the media of social communications by presenting a new perspective of approaching them. The Document not only recognised that media “can be of great service to mankind” (IM 2) but also made it mandatory for “all the children of the Church” to “join, without delay and with the greatest effort in a common work to make effective use of the media of social communication in various apostolic endeavours” (IM 13).
The post IM Church witnessed not only the Catholics appreciating various media especially the moving visuals, but also the Church leadership thinking creatively to incorporate aspects of media in various ministries of the Church. Most importantly, IM flagged a new trend of including media as an important aspect of Church’s life. This is evident from the more solid document “Aetatis Novae” (AN) and the prominence given to media in various documents such as “Redemptoris Missio” (RM) or “Vita Consecrata” (VC) which are not directly related to media.
Miles to Go
It is quite surprising that in spite of strong papal exhortations emphasising the importance of media and communications, as well as defining various approaches to it, the Church in India still lags behind in the media ministry! True, many dioceses in India were keen in establishing infrastructure for the ministry. The Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) took the trouble to establish a Professional media training Institute – NISCORT, spending lot of money and manpower. Yet, the qualitative outcome from all these initiatives and institutions is meagre and nominal. The 50th anniversary of IM is a time to ask the big inevitable question: Why?
Persons, passionate for media ministry of the Church, have reflected and deliberated on this enigmatic question but could hardly find convincing answers yet. Nonetheless, one may find the specific answer to this question in an interview the recently assumed Chairman for Social Communications for the CBCI gave to “Companion” (Aug. 2014). He said that if there is some good to come out of the media ministry first and foremost “the Church in India, especially the CBCI, should own up” media ministry as well as its training institute NISCORT. The disowning or disinterested attitude is not only seen at the national level but also at the regional, diocesan and congregation levels.
In its positive connotation, ‘owning up’ involves the concerned people doing everything possible to produce the best out of it. But as of now, the Church’s concerns for media at the national level is reduced merely to the annual posters printed for the World Communications Day, and a few seminars or workshops at the regional or local levels organised by interested parties. It is then not at all surprising that hardly anything exceptional comes out of the Church to make an impact on the world through social media. In order to be effective in the world, the Church needs to support those engaged in the media ministry – a united and wholehearted support. Similarly, church media professionals in turn should be open and receptive to welcome productive collaboration from other parties. Otherwise, the Church would continue to limp and lag in a world dominated and driven by media technologies.
At this juncture, if the Church genuinely wishes to make its presence felt in the world through media, meaningfully and creatively, it has to adapt to some new orientations.
- Communication shall be considered the primary activity of the Church.
It is fascinating that “Redemptoris Missio” employs the words communication, mission and evangelisation interchangeably (Eg. Nos: 11, 31, 37, 83). Church originates from the communication of the Gospels and exists to communicate the Gospel. Church’s mission is Communication! Therefore, communication has to become core to Church’s life and mission. As such, every activity of the Church is to be seen and planned as a communicative activity. Every member of the Church has to become a good communicator. Efforts shall be taken to train them to be good communicators of the Gospel. However, our present approach to communication regrettably makes it one of the activities of the Church, like health ministry, prison ministry etc.
In order to comply with the above-mentioned orientation, the Church in India has to be humble enough to make a paradigm shift in its way of thinking and being, in two aspects. First, media and communication is not an activity of some specialised people in the Church. Media ministry is to be envisioned, planned and executed as the concerted effort and work of all the members of the Church, though the experts can provide the leadership needed. So, learning the language of media and participating in Church’s communication activities is the duty of every member of the Church (IM.13; AN. 8; VC 99). Media and communication activities of the Church are everyone’s responsibility.
The second aspect of the proposed shift is: media and communication not to be equated with technologically mediated communication. A contrary approach to this has happened in the media scenario of the Indian Catholic Church. The thrust and focus was to establish media infrastructure as well as duplicate them disproportionately, accumulating technological gadgets and equipment in the pretext of upgrading. Consequently, the quality and volume of the content was ignored. This resulted in relatively inadequate production of good quality Christian media. The great rule of communication came to be undermined: human communication is fundamental to every mediated communication. It is the skills of intra personal communication and interpersonal communication that gives beauty and quality to all mediated communication. A Christian communicator who is weak in former cannot excel in the latter, neither would s/he produce good media.
Added to that, the aesthetic side of communication was discounted with an overemphasis of technology. While the secular world makes unimaginable leaps in the aesthetic aspects of communication, design and media production in accelerating speed, the Church presents its invaluable content of truth in shabby and clumsy ways through its channels. These channels include printed materials, audio visual media, music productions, merchandising and online communications. (I do not undermine a few genuine efforts from individuals and institutions that have demonstrated quality and passion in their work and media production. But considering the enormity, urgency and beauty of the Christian message, this is extremely insufficient).
- Shift from hierarchical model to network model
If the Church has to be meaningfully present and relevantly communicative in the modern world, it needs to shift the model of communication followed – a shift from hierarchical model to network model. The Indian Church prominently follows the transactional or authoritarian model, which holds: “I have something to tell you and you listen to it.” Though the model may not be perceivable aggressively it is softly being practiced. It not only shuts the rooms for all subsequent communication but also adds lethargy to creative communication. The Church needs to embrace the modern communication model, which is very much participatory, interrelated and complementary. In the network model everyone is a nod in the huge communication network and contributes each one’s share. Imagine every diocese, congregation, organisation and parish in the Indian Church has a website with an opinion column for the public. Visualise every parish having a suggestion box where people can post feedback. How nice it would be to listen to vox populi before the Church makes a new policy!
- Conversion from oral culture to interactive culture
The dominant communication pattern in Church is primarily oral. Though we claim to be literate, our instinctual behaviours resemble more with the oral communities, which were unknown to literacies. In spite of having the skills of reading or writing, a vast number of people do not read or write substantially. Many people do not demonstrate a reasonable quality of critical thinking, which is a hallmark of literate communities! Church grows weaker in documentation. We are incompetent in articulated communication through systematic presentation. Nevertheless, we are good at gossiping, a characteristic of oral cultures! We fail to make mind-maps as well as visual ideas. We increasingly turn to be failures when participating in shared and interactive communication.
Of course the Church uses printed text for its formal communication. Yet, we should be ashamed of fettering the Church to the margins of print era when the world is flying high in the sky of visual and interactive communication.Old style of text-based communication presents stories in more critical and analytical way but often tend to be longer, unappealing and monotonous. Today’s generation wants to read small stories and to watch shorter videos. The philosophy of post-modern communication is to tell a story in less than 149 characters (Twitter) or to show it in less than 10 minutes (Youtube).
To be efficient communicators in the Church today we have to adapt painstakingly to this style if we want to be relevant and to make the Church meaningful and appealing. In this cultural milieu of fast paced and captivating ways of telling stories the Church should be rolling faster than the printing machines to send digital packets of pearly visual stories, lest we would be placing the Church under a bushel. Yet, I believe the print culture would serve as a solid foundation upon which the digital Church can be built. Unless and until we are courageous to learn the skills in using the new languages of communication, and open to enter into conversation with people of different ideologies, we would not be leading the Church to an estimable place in this world. This is what Jesus did in His time. The same is done by Pope Francis in our time.
It is high time for the ecclesiastical leadership to wake up from communication slumber and own up the mission of communicating the Good News. In a nutshell, (1) communication is envisioned as the primary activity of the Church in various documents subsequent to Inter Mirifica; (2) in a media saturated world if the Church has to have a place, it has to learn and be ready to communicate in the new language of communication and media; (3) don’t push the Church to perish when marvellous possibilities are at our reach, to make it the most treasured!
Pubilished in Smart Companion: September, 2014