Pope Francis has just released his third World Communications Day Message on 24th January. The theme of the day – Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter obviously, has been chosen to locate the significance of communication within the larger gamut of the celebration of the Year of Mercy. Pope Francis has positively geared the global perception about Catholic Church thanks to his unique communication style. This challenges every Catholic pastor in general and communicators in particular to make substantial shifts in the ways the Church plans and executes its communication.

Emphasis on Communication over Media

From the times of Vatican II the Church has sensed the increasing influence of media in the social and cultural life of people. The Church recognised the responsibility of creatively guiding her children in receiving and using media. Consequently, starting from Inter Mirifica, the Church has issued a number of directions specifically on the power and potentials of social communications for creating better understanding among peoples, for establishing truth, justice and peace. These teachings have encouraged the children of the Church to employ media for the proclamation of the Kingdom of God as well as provided appropriate directions for proper consumption of media. Nonetheless, what were envisaged as ‘social communications’ in the magisterial teachings were mass media and social media.

The three WCD messages of the present pope however, demonstrate that Pope Francis puts greater emphasis on personal communication than mediated communication. In his first WCD message pope Francis emphasised communication as “neighbourliness” (WCD 2014). In that message the pope underlined that human communication shall result in greater mutual understanding and means of communications including media shall foster an authentic culture of encounters. The WCD message in the following year (2015) focussed on a deeper reality of communication, which is family where one learns the fundamental lessons of communication. The Pope urged to make our communication more authentic and compassionate by making it a ‘dialogue intertwined with the language of the body.’ He presented mother’s womb as a simile for family where one learns inter-personal and social communications.

The third and the latest of Francis’ WCD messages (2016), though has mercy as central theme, fundamentally talks about communication as expressing ‘compassion, tenderness and forgiveness’ through one’s ‘words and actions.’ Above all, Francis who is the most humane and tender face of the Church stated, “Love, by its nature, is communication.” The path of Francis is a perfect model for the Church to re-vision its communication as a personal act, which is aimed at building relationships through encounters. This shows us a way “to integrate [Christian] message into the “new culture” which originates from the “very fact that there exist new ways of communicating, with new languages, new techniques and a new psychology” (Redemptoris Missio 37).

Emphasis on Human Involvement over Technology

The Church in India seems to perceive communications primarily as media communications. Many dioceses and other church organisations have a number of printed publications. Some run community radio as well as religious televisions channels. But their penetration is minimal; forget their reach to the non-Christian communities. The studios and electronic production facilities established by the dioceses are mostly availed by secular parties for their productions.

In the area of social media the Church does not have anything to claim an impact. The websites of dioceses, congregations and other church organisations does not communicate anything other than the static history, statistical data and obituary. These sites fail to convey what they do, how they accomplish the vision and mission, and what have they achieved especially in social and spiritual transformation of individuals and society. Facebook or Whatsapp, which can be wonderful space for proclamation and reach out, are used for ‘self-promotion’ of individual priests or sisters. They neither have an intended content nor an audience.

The fundamental shift Pope Francis has brought about in the Church during this era of digital and social communications is that his communication style is very personal. The world is aware of pope’s charismatic communication through his simple acts of charity and mercy, thanks to the proliferating social media messages. Pope believes that effective communication lies in ‘building bridges, enabling encounter and inclusion, and enriching society.’ In his WCD messages he reminded that good communication “helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity” (2014; also Cfr. Evangelii Gaudium 35).

The greatest insight we should receive from Francis is that “communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement” (WCD 2014). It is not technology, which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal (WCD 2016). Through his own worlds and actions Francis has demonstrated how powerful his personal communications are (Cfr. Evangelii Gaudium 127). He appears simple and approachable, avoids protocols and pretences. He is transparent. He invited people from various walks – rich and poor, affluent and oppressed, ordinary and political figures – to have personal encounters. Their encounters with Francis have turned out to be encounters with the merciful face of Christ for them. Thus every action of Francis becomes powerful Christian witness to the world. In this era when social media draws much share of human communication, Catholics should discern that their vocation is one that makes personal encounters with others by fostering dialogue and mutual respect between individuals and communities.

Family is the best context for learning and practicing this inter personal communication. In the family, one learns social interaction and body language. One learns the meaning of silence, as well as to express their genuine and most authentic emotions such as joy and sorrows. One learns that the meaning of communication is recognizing and creating closeness (WCD 2015). It is unprecedented that a pontiff is talking such simple language as well as taking examples from familial situations to elucidate on Church’s communication. Francis’ communication is very much person to person, heart to heart and above all core to core.

Personalised Communication Through Media

Pope Francis does not rule out the importance and significance of media. The digital “streets” and “highways” are places where people especially the youth stand in search of meaning, salvation and hope. The Internet, which Francis qualified as “truly good, and a gift from God,” offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. The Church should not reduce herself as “passers by on the digital highways [or simply being] “connected”; but these “connections need to grow into true encounters” (WCD 2014).

Francis inspires us to use the media cannels to build a society that feels closer to one another, and united as a human family. The reason for the failure of our initiatives in the mass media lies in the fact that we perceive media as soulless technology. We fail to give it a soul through our very physical and personal involvement. The Christian witness has to find fresh strategies, which are not limited to bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others and patiently listening to them (WCD 2014), sympathising with them in their anguishes and anxieties.

In the Francis Age, the Church in India needs a thorough change in the way it is communicating. The ecclesiastical and pastoral leadership need to be courageous enough to change from its obsession to the technologized and mediated communications to personalised communication. It needs to focus more on content than technology. It needs to learn to communicate through the greatest God given medium for every person – the human body, which can personally experience and communicate joys and sorrows, pains and anxieties, hopes and worries. This is a moment of Kairos, the chosen time when Gospel story is unfolding before the world with renewed freshness through the words and actions of Pope Francis. It is up to each one of us to be part of that story telling.

This article was published in Indian Currents 8th February 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 6.