Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Catholic communicators: more than a “looking glass”

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications brought together 204 delegates from 85 countries Oct. 4-7, 2010 to discuss Catholic print publications and the impact of the “new media” (the Internet and social networking sites) on their work.

While the Italians, French, Germans and Americans had some of the larger delegations, the diversity of the experiences of Catholic journalists in areas such as India, Africa and Latin America enriched the conversations. And, despite our diversity, several common themes emerged in the three and half days that we met. We were divided into small groups by languages and geographical regions for discussions following most plenary sessions. There were 11 small groups: four English, two each in Italian, Spanish and French, and one in German. It was obvious that English is becoming the global language, even in a Church that proclaims Latin as its preferred universal tongue. Interestingly, half the time the Germans reported out to the full assembly in English, since, as the reporter said, “it would be faster.”

The week began with a presentation by Amy Mitchell of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Mitchell explained what the Americans already knew: print publications are in serious trouble in the states, and, while the web and all its components didn’t begin the decline in readership for them, it seems to be accelerating it. Other presenters indicated that, while print publications may still be healthy in Europe and actually growing in developing nations, as literacy rises, the implications of an Internet-driven society is that it won’t last long.

Catholic journalists and communication professionals also noted, both in the formal presentations and in reports from the small group discussion, that they are fettered in their work by bosses who fail to understand the implications of not reporting both the good and the bad news. It was encouraging to hear the French Bishop Stanislas Lelanne tell us, while he expects us to deeply love our church, that does not mean that we become “the voice of our master.” He also said that he thought it was a good thing that readers don’t always agree with what they read in their Catholic publications. If there is no debate in a Christian community, it is not a true community, he said.

Other speakers repeated the need for the Church to use its media outlets as places for conversations and dialogue to occur, both among Catholics and with the larger community. We were reminded that in some parts of the world, especially in Asia and Africa, both the Church and the marginalized are still actively persecuted and oppressed. The Church has to serve as the voice for the voiceless, speakers said again and again. Sometimes this means giving voice to those who are oppressed by church leaders. One Polish editor explained that we have to help bishops understand that their Catholic publications are not to serve as “talking mirrors,” telling him that he is the fairest prince in all the land. (I am sure some of these quotes were better in their original language.) This concern, raised again and again, was even more remarkable, in my opinion, since all of the delegates were selected by their episcopal conference and therefore would be considered “loyal” church workers.

As Ludwig Ring Eifel, editor-in-chief of the German news agency Katholische Nachrichtenagentur Pressebild (counterpart to our own Catholic News Service) said, “Believing in the church does not mean that we do not report on conflicts within it. And writing about the tensions in the church does not mean that we abandon its Christian values.”

It seemed that a majority of the participants were also eager to use social media, such as interactive websites, Facebook, Twitter, etc., to engage their populations. Some noted that there, too, they experienced resistance from their bishop-publishers because of fear of criticism and dissent. But those who have been at work in the blogosphere and other social media networks see the potential good outweighing the risks. Across Europe, North America and Oceania readers of print publications are aging. Websites and social media, however, are attracting younger audiences. These younger Catholics are eager to explore their faith and embrace it, and the only way they know to do that is to discuss and challenge their own ideas and others’ opinions.

A presentation by a Dominican priest from Africa showed the rapid deployment of submarine fiber optic, which is giving the African continent as fast and reliable access to the Internet as the rest of the world. It highlighted the fact that the digital divide is rapidly turning into a digital bridge and that the Church in Africa needs to breach the gap and engage in social media as its younger members embrace it.

Finally, the third major theme I observed was a sense that Catholic media have a role that is unique among media. It might be best expressed by a quote from David Quinn, an Irish journalist: “We have to offer an ethic of self-sacrifice and commitment, as opposed to the ethic of individualism” that seems to permeate so many societies, including Western democracies.

This was expressed in several ways: calls for an emphasis on a message of Christian hope, challenging people to work for the common good, to give voice to the voiceless, to present the Gospel in a way that is accessible to today’s attention-deficit-ordered news consumers, to use the professional standards and ethics we learned in journalism school, to face off against the growing and cynical news-as-entertainment mindset, and to provide positive stories about people rising above great suffering and oppression, both in secular Western societies and in non-Christian developing nations.

Telling the Christian message of hope is challenging and necessary, Archbishop Claudio Celli said in his remarks that closed the formal session. But before we do that, he said, Catholic journalists need to challenge our personal vision of the Church. If the Church is going to serve humanity, he said, it must be a place for dialogue and respect, not an institution that attempts to dominate or to condemn. We have to be good listeners before we can be good communicators, he explained. Once we know what is in the heart of humanity, Catholic communicators can speak to that heart, allowing dreams and hopes to be realized. That, he said, is daring to be a prophetic voice for the world.

If you're interested in more information, Catholic News Service carried several stories on the Congress.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bishops Lend Their Voice to 'Defiant Requiem'

Tonight at the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Catholic and Jewish faiths will intermingle with history as well as art during a performance of Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín, the story of the Jewish prisoners in the Theresienstadt concentration camp -- a camp used as a model by the Nazis during visits by the Red Cross and others -- during World War II who performed the Verdi Requiem as a sign of resistance against their Nazi captors.

Under the direction of conductor Murry Sidlin of The Catholic University of America, the Kennedy Center concert combines Verdi's music with testimony from survivors of the original chorus, a propaganda film about the camp, and actors speaking the words of imprisoned conductor Rafael Schaëchter and other prisoners.

One of the co-sponsors of the event is the United States Conference of Catholic, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the bishops' moderator of Jewish affairs, will attend the eventand speak at a reception following the performance. A message from Archbishop Dolan also appears in the program:

“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon them.” I am deeply moved tonight thinking how this prayer, so often on my lips as a Catholic priest and bishop presiding at the rites of burial, became a song of defiant hope on the lips of Jews who were facing their darkest hour. These are the words that begin and end this evening’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, sung by the prisoners of the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp sixty-six years ago. The prayer belongs to the living liturgy of the Church, from which generations of Catholic believers have drawn spiritual strength. As a Catholic who daily prays the Psalms as an echo of the prayer of Jesus, I am aware that these sacred texts are both recited and heard differently between our two communities. Tonight Catholics are invited to hear these familiar prayers of the Requiem liturgy in the voices of our elder brothers and sisters in the faith as an expression of unquenchable hope.

Conductor Rafael Schächter told the choir: “We will sing to the Nazis what we cannot say to them.” The text of the Requiem assures that God’s justice will right all wrongs and that the King of Glory will deliver “the souls of all the faithful from the pains of hell.” Surely for many of the Jews living in the “antechamber of hell”—which was how Theresienstadt was described by one of the survivors—the final sequence, Libera me (“Deliver me”), was both a cry to the God of Abraham who had preserved His people many times from the forces of annihilation and a witness of the Jewish people to their collective will to survive.

The Second Vatican Council’s decree Nostra aetate (1965) may be heard as a response to the Requiem prayer sung by the Theresienstadt prisoners in its unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism and in its desire to renew the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people. Inspired by Pope John Paul II (d. 2005), who held out the promise that Christians and Jews might truly be “a blessing to one another,” may our listening together to the Defiant Requiem become a fruit of that blessing and a sign of hope to the people of our age.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Stories from Sudan

Jill Rauh, outreach coordinator for the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development (JPHD,) was part of a Catholic Relief Services delegation to Juba, Sudan, for the Sudanese Catholic bishops’ launch of the 101 Days of Prayer for a Peaceful Referendum in Sudan. She recounts some of her experiences below.

Last week, all over Sudan, the Catholic Church celebrated the launch of 101 Days of Prayer for a Peaceful Referendum in Sudan. Parades, masses and interfaith prayer services in dioceses across the country were attended by thousands of people. With a delegation from Catholic Relief Services, I was blessed to witness the lively and hopeful celebrations in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan.

But what left the most lasting impression were the stories of the people with whom I spoke—stories filled with longing for peace after decades of civil war.

Hannah, a young woman working her way through college, shared about her father’s death at the hands of rebels in a rural area of Sudan.

Willy, a father with young children, described the pain of being separated from his family, who are across the border in Uganda. He fears a return to war and will not bring them home to Sudan until he is certain of peace.

Priscilla described her life growing up in a refugee camp after her family fled from violence. The camp provided safety, but Priscilla mourns the loss of years of social development, especially lost educational opportunities.

Taban expressed the sentiments of so many Sudanese: “If you ask me what peace is, I cannot answer. I do not know what peace is like. But I long to know it.”

The Church in Southern Sudan has been one of the only stable institutions during decades of civil war in Sudan, and the Catholic bishops there are leading the efforts for peace. Many fear that war will return if the January 9, 2011 referendum on independence for southern Sudan goes badly.

The USCCB has urged our government to help Sudan find peace. In partnership with Catholic Relief Services, USCCB has pledged to support the Church’s efforts for peace in Sudan. Catholics in the U.S. are invited to Pray, Learn, Advocate, and Give in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Sudan. College students are being trained to serve as ambassadors to educate and involve fellow students on campus in efforts for peace. All Catholics can send a message to the President urging him to do everything he can to guarantee a peaceful and stable Sudan.