Analyzing Pope Francis’ first World Communications Day speech.
The Holy Father’s World Communications Day message for 2014, which is annually released on January 24, the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales, the patron of shopping, wait, no, I mean the patron of journalists and writers is out now and is titled “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.” It’s an elegantly simple message, but one that can also shock an audience today. I can’t wait to unpack it with you! Ten short paragraphs; ten short explications:
Ok, he begins with what we already know: we’re living in a connected world. That should bring us closer together right? The unfortunate answer is a big no, media communication technologies don’t solve our human problems. Just because I can so easily Skype with others who aren’t physically close by doesn’t automatically mean that I’m at peace with them. Media isn’t magic. I like the visual language our Holy Father uses: “Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows”. Aren’t we unsettled by such a scene anymore? Do we think that they ought to find a job and feed themselves like the rest of us, or have we grown so accustomed to such scenes that we no longer care? We tell ourselves: I’m so busy I don’t have time to care. It’s not my problem. Maybe it’s the State’s problem. And then if perhaps a modicum of concern lingers, we console ourselves with the thought: I can’t do much for them anyhow so why waste time dwelling on it?
But the Holy Father reminds us that media can help: it can “inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure” human dignity is upheld if – and this is a big IF – “we are prepared to listen and learn from one another.” There’s the rub, isn’t it? Communication is not only about speaking, about transmitting messages. Just as importantly, if not more so, it is also about active silence – listening attentively. Too often when we are in conversations, instead of listening to the other person, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next even while the other person is speaking! The Holy Father affirms that the connectivity of the online world is not the problem. Far from it, he says it is “gift from God”! This is not some new sentiment. No, the Catholic Church has been implicitly and explicitly saying that media is “gift of God” since its first official media document released in 1936!
But like any gift, it can be misused. “The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression.” The irony is that with so much information at our fingertips, we can lose ourselves, drowning in the digital ocean and unable to find our way. The experience is familiar: if we’re not careful, our day can be spent meandering the places that the links we click take us to, and before we know it, the whole day’s gone. Just like that. The irony doesn’t stop there: our connectivity with those faraway can isolate us from those closest to us!
Now, after highlighting some the problems in our media culture, our Holy Father quickly adds: but don’t reject social media! It’s not a technological problem, but a human one. The solution (though a challenge to practice daily) is simple: balance in the form of “deliberateness and calm” and upholding human dignity in the form of “the ability to be silent and to listen.” The “deliberateness and calm” allows us to move forward with clear intent and firm faith in God’s plan, while “ability to be silent and to listen” allows us both to discover God’s plan and our connection with those we encounter. He’s talking about living as God’s children and seeing the whole sphere of human activities with a joy-filled and hope-filled vision. This isn’t some wishy-washy, pie-in-the-sky idealism, but a very down-to-earth and anchored hope in Jesus Christ who is our triumphant God!
Our Holy Father puts on the hat of teacher now. He poses the question that connects his preceding thoughts: “How can we be “neighbourly” in our use of the communications media and in the new environment created by digital technology?” His answer? Look to the well-known parable of the The Good Samaritan. At this point, I want to simply point you to our Holy Father’s own words in making the parable relevant for our media day and age:
“It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness. Media strategies do not ensure beauty, goodness and truth in communication. The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness. The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people. The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others. Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator. Christian witness, thanks to the internet, can thereby reach the peripheries of human existence.”
Did you hear that? A network not of wires but of people. The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others. What does that mean? Our Holy Father answers in the next line: personal engagement. Personal engagement – that sincere concern for another together with being honest with myself , being the real me – makes my communication trustworthy. This is how we must and can proclaim the Gospel, the Good News.