“Crazy Birds & Catholics,” Ideas & Concerns for Communication & Ministry; remarks at “Full, Conscious & Active: Lay Participation in the Church’s Dialogue with the World,” July 6-9, 2016, Lay Centre, Rome, Italy
Let me start where many of us begin, namely with our own parish community, and conclude there as well with a series of recommendations.
I’ll take the temperature and size up the omnipresent and complex media environment, and then provide a guided tour through Pope Francis’s 2015 visit to the United States. I’ll give particular emphasis to the team of laywomen and men who prepared for and then provided press/T.V./radio and social media coverage.
On the feast of Corpus Christi, back on May 29, I celebrated the 7:30 AM Mass at San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey, the oldest continuing parish church in California. This cathedral is counted among the churches established by Saint Junipero Serra. I have served this parish for the past six years, and that day was also my anniversary of the 45th year of priestly service.
With an early morning Mass, my brief homily included a reference to Pope Francis’s idea that the body of Christ in communion, instead of a reward for good behavior, is better understood as affecting mercy, tenderness, and food for the journey of life.
In the course of the homily, I mentioned President Obama and his recent visit to Hiroshima that week and how, in my opinion, spoke most eloquently about healing and the peace. I said my anniversary, and those Masses celebrated as a priest that had left a lasting impression on me, including a recent First Holy Communion with Second Graders.
On the Corpus Christi feast, the idea that no matter what sort of Catholic – conservative, traditional, charismatic, liberal, social activist, devotional — most Catholics regard the Eucharistic celebration as safe ground. It is the sacramental center of our belief, and with little regard for the differences that may be present in the congregation. At least that’s what I’ve believed these many years. Well, that’s what I thought.
As I gave the final blessing and walked down the aisle that morning, and stood in our plaza, the congregation, person to person came to me and thanked me for the Mass, and for my years of service.
Then, one man, a very handsome middle-aged man, well dressed in a suit, came forward. He did not offer a handshake, but looked directly into my eyes, and said:
“You really believe that liberal stuff, how dare you mention Obama’s name in Church, and give him credit for anything.”
This man was angry and told me so. I had disturbed his early morning with my homily and how I preside at Mass must have rattled him.
I tried for a comeback, but I was not prepared for a verbal attack, especially where I was standing with other people around me. That morning I did not have the right words, so I simply said: “Perhaps, we look at life differently.”
The man continued his rant by telling me that I had not preached about that day’s gospel, and then he went on to remind me how several weeks earlier, I had prayed for Father Daniel Berrigan, who had recently passed away. Apparently, we can pray for the dead, but only those selected dead that pass his test for eternal life.
I stood there and listened, saying little else, attempting to defuse the situation. I was deeply wounded but functioning, and hurt from stinging invective.
What do you say to this person? Is there a forum for such criticism? What about a personal note or a telephone call or an honest conversation? To my mind, this situation is worthy of a gospel story in itself.
On these occasions, you are brought back to the reality that there are some furious people out there whose sense of Catholicism combined with the spark plug of American politics make for a dangerous mix and the potential for deadly combustion.
So what does this incident have to do with communication and pastoral ministry?
Jill Lapore, the Harvard historian and writer for the New Yorker has commented that the decline in the press coincides with the decline in democracy and comity. She has an important point to make about how we conduct our public lives because of the type of supercharged and dangerous political rhetoric that fills the airwaves on radio, cable television, and of course, on the Internet.
Political life has no monopoly on this form of speech, and I’m inclined to believe that we, as persons of religion, are not immune from this form of social behavior and political discourse. In some cases, we have copied it – word for word, and with an emotional flurry.
To restate Jill Lapore’s formula, the decline in civic discourse has infected the culture and is reflected in our own religious discourse.
For example, at the time of the papal synod on the family in Rome, a high-ranking bishop complained to Pope Francis directly that the Roman synods are not accustomed to “open conversation,” at which the Pope replied: “Peter is here!” Meaning that Francis is now the Pope and that dialogue, so much a hallmark of Vatican II, was back in full force.
Francis’s style of “adaptive leadership” challenges participants to give voice to their concerns and carefully listen to those diverse and significant points of view. In effect, we have to learn how to talk to one another and listen respectfully in forms and styles of dialogue that forward us as a community of faith.
At one point, the Pope remarked to the members of the synod: “I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.”
Pope Francis is not without his critics, and ones more numerous and severe than mine.
Like “birthers” who peddle stories about President Obama, Pope Francis has his own tormentors who are found online. Their primary goals of spreading falsehoods and the discrediting of Francis’s papacy are clear.
Mainline figures, including high ranking prelates, aim to minimize the Pope’s every advance and to immobilize his agenda. Or, they assure their listeners that “nothing has changed with Pope Francis,” meaning to wait out Francis’s papacy, and mostly “go back to sleep.”
These “prisoners of nostalgia” believe there was once a “golden age,” and they’ll return there someday soon.
To end this point, let me bring three items to your attention.
First, Father Tom Rosica’s address on the occasion of World Communications Day to the De Sales Media Group of the Diocese of Brooklyn is a plea for civility and dialogue as agents of tenderness and mercy.
As the Vatican Press Office’s English analyst, Rosica is concerned about the tone of Pope Francis’s critics. The speech is a call to accountability and responsibility, especially regarding the uncharted realm of online social media and blogs. To my mind, Rosica is correct when he refers to specific blogs as “cesspools.” His own conflicts with LifeSite News and highly reactive Twitter response to his work during the Rome Synod have fueled these comments.
If you want a gauge on these, read Dwight Longenecker’s May 27 article “Radical Catholic Blogs Maybe a Cesspool, but Saying So Won’t Help,” this was published in the “Crux of the News.”
Longenecker lines up these suspects and links his article to dozens or more dubious websites. He, too, does not give much by way of a remedy to the disease of a highly polarized media/political environment; this is the same malady that plagues Church leaders, politicians, celebrities, and frankly anyone in public life.
Lastly, take a look at the essay that appeared in America (April 4-11) entitled “A Listening Church–Communications & Collegiality in the Age of Francis” by Frances Ford Plude, who has worked so many years for the integration of theology and Communication Studies. This is a brief essay on key theological themes and how the Church must position itself in this vastly complicated era of social media.
Let me turn next to my observations about the media planning and coverage of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States.
For the 2015 papal visit, I attached myself to the USCCB, acting as a “media expert” to Communications Director, Helen Osman, whose task was the coordination of information as well as the credentialing to the 7,600 press/T.V. & media and 1,800 accredited news and media organizations.
Mostly, I spent time in video trucks and newsrooms fielding questions, appearing on camera as well as providing suggestions for coverage to local and national news broadcasts.
For those of us covering papal trips, these spiritual pilgrimages become their own versions of “Canterbury Tales” by which friendships are established, newly formed alliances met, to take on the task of a massive collaborative effort, and one that is mostly in the hands of laywomen and men.
Here are three insights into the collaborative, professional, and creative sparks that can come from a papal trip.
For all of its outsized reality, a papal visit can bring together, seemingly distant forces to work together nearby, only for the sake of the story, and the person of the Pope.
For example, Opus Dei under the leadership of Brian Finnerty, their Communications Director in the United States and public spokesman, and Santa Croce University here in Rome provided press briefings and panels for the August Religion News Writers Association meetings held in Philadelphia, less than a month before the Pope’s visit.
Panels with bishops, media planners, pollsters and bus tours and “walk-throughs” permitted news organizations and reporters the behind the scenes features and news stories in Philly.
We heard from critical social, political, and spiritual leaders, including Shane Claiborne, founder of an intentional community “The Simple Way,” a compelling figure in his own right. He welcomed the Pope and all the potential mayhem of crowds and security that the Pope’s visit would cause.
To deal with the thousands of media professionals, the USCCB brought together communication/and public relations staffs of diocese and archdioceses from around the country to support journalists, provide translations, and ferry camera crews and photographers to sites with limited security access.
In a time when we see less separation between the news of assertion (or opinion) from the news of verification, the practice and craft of news reporting with editorial judgment, multiple sources, accurate quotations, and fairness really do matter. If there is a thing called “catholic journalism” (note small “c”) for the press, broadcast and online media, we need this now more than ever.
Most of all, papal trips gather together people like David Gibson (RNS), Austen Ivereigh, Laurie Goodstein (NYT), John Thavis (CNS), Sylvia Poggioli (NPR). They are a credit to their craft and their news organizations and the readers they serve.
At times, we know our Church better because theirs is a lens to our self-identity, as one aspect of modernity which we cannot escape, a public culture. Whereby the secular press provides the first and, in some cases, the only news reports read by our Church members.
Opportunity strikes with creative sparks, like ABC News’s David Muir and his “town meeting” with Pope Francis speaking to communities in three American cities that aired in primetime over the Labor Day weekend. The Pope’s personal style and competent English helped address those parts of the country that were not on his September itinerary.
Overall, the televised portions of the Pope’s trip had many highlights where his intuitive leadership style was reflected in an address to the U.S. Congress, or the glow in the eyes of children patiently waiting for him on a receiving line outside the nuncio’s resident in Washington, D.C.
For me, the most competent examples of translating the Pope for a prime time were in New York City. From his visit to the United Nations, the interfaith service at the 9/11 memorial, the visit to Harlem, and the Mass at Madison Square Garden. David Stern of D.S. Productions took a personal hand in developing the television productions for the Archdiocese of New York.
I saw first-hand the “digital online workspace” that moved from city to city composed of twenty media professionals under the direction of Matt Palmer of the USCCB, and Notre Dame graduate Brian Synder of Golin PR & Digital Media, Chicago. No one in that workspace was over thirty years of age, and their energy and long hours paid off.
It was here that the Pope’s speeches, photos with the faithful, and video were repurposed, and because of their efforts, the hashtag #Popefrancisusa on Twitter went from 80,000 views on the first day to 9 million views by the end of the papal tour.
Now let me bring my remarks back to the local Church and suggest how we might as laywomen and men collaborate employing the new social media for the benefit of the gospel and our parish communities.
In 2010, a mere six years ago, I found myself at a banquet table sitting alongside Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli. He at the time was the President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. That evening at Marquette University, the archbishop gave the keynote address to a group of church communicators. After the speech, our conversation turned from his hometown of Rimini, and to something that was on his mind.
Aware that I teach in Northern California, Celli asked: “Mike, what do we do about Facebook?” Good question and one that has come home to me in many forms, especially attempting to forward my own students into jobs at Facebook, Google, Cisco Systems, Twitter, and Pixar. The archbishop’s question and the subsequent development of Vatican media, the restructuring of Vatican press, T.V./Radio, and online media as well as hiring lay advisors such as Greg Burke have made a marked difference.
To my mind, these efforts have much helped to sustain a positive worldwide reception for Pope Francis. You may check from day-to-day, the short videos by Pope Francis on YouTube, or his Instagram page.
Now, most of us don’t operate here in Rome, and most of our efforts on the local parish level or at our university or college provide an opportunity to laywomen and men, youth as well as clergy to provide a means of social communication for the sake of evangelization. Here we need an overhaul in how we conduct ourselves for a more effective and persuasive public presence.
Yes, our task is to create a compelling and persuasive public presence for our local Church or college/university, and for the gospel!
In response to Archbishop Celli’s questions about Facebook, how do we, as a Church, adapt to the new media environment? I discovered such a parish church that we may wish to consider as a case study or experiment, something worth considering.
St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Walnut Creek, California, is one of those parishes that looks and sounds like a Catholic parish. I had participated in a Catholic/Lutheran wedding there, and the Roman Catholic side of the congregation had little evidence to support that they were an alternative faith community, since this Church looked and sounded so much like a Roman Catholic church.
However, several significant differences and features could refresh our own liturgical celebrations and the overall strengthening of the parish community. So I went back to this St. Matthew several times, simply to be an observer of their music, media, and how these were incorporated into the worship and life of the parish.
For example, they have a full-time media director who works alongside the musical team of an organist, choir director, leaders of song, and youth choir. The media director has the task of dealing with lighting design, microphones, and visuals.
While scripture is read, behind the lecture, there is a large screen project of the scriptural texts for those with hearing loss. Toward the end of the liturgy at the time for announcements, there were visuals to accompany the information about coming events, and often they may show a tightly edited video: one Sunday, the short video reported on their youth service projects in Latin America.
Many of these elements find their way onto the parish website, and most of all there is a person to person outreach employing email and Facebook that’s meant both to welcome new members and to encourage parish participation.
I discovered too that you may get out of this Church without putting money in the collection, but I assure you that you cannot leave without giving them your email address or telephone number.
And for a good reason, they want to incorporate you into their prayer life, and intentionally at the end of the Sunday service, the ministers at the altar ask members of the congregation to come forward for a blessing of the day, that might spark a renewed life in Christ.
Again, Saint Matthew’s is not a mega-Church, and in fact, it’s not an unusually large space, but it does have a strong following, and for a good reason. It has refreshed itself with the tools of social communication for the benefit of the gospel.
I’ve never been one to suggest that there is one model or size that fits all, and not every parish has the capacity to carry out some of my suggestions. Nonetheless, I believe there is an opportunity here for creative action, where talented lay men and women, and those in the digital arts may provide an opening for us in the years ahead.
Here is a particular chance for the college or university campus ministry, and the Department of Theology or Religious Studies, along with Communication, Film, and Art departments, might find meaningful collaboration.
Under Pope Francis, and so directed in his “Joy of the Gospel” we need to open up our liturgical and sacramental life to experiments with social communication and new media for the sake of advancing our life in Christ.
- David Gibson, “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI & his Battle with the Modern World” (Harper: San Francisco, 2006).
- Austen Ivereigh, “The Great Reformer: Francis & the Making of a Radical Pope (NYC: Henry Holt, 2014).
- Jill Lapore, “The Whites of Their Eyes – The Tea Party Revolution” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 2010).
- Dwight Longenecker, “Radical Catholic Blogs,” Crux of the News, May 27, 2016.
- Joseph S. Nye, “The Powers to Lead” (NYC: Oxford, 2008).
- Frances Ford Plude, “A Listening Church – Communication and Collegiality,” America, April 4-11, 2016.
- John Thavis, “The Vatican Diaries” (NYC: Penguin, 2013).
- Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, “Connected Toward Communication: The Church and Social Communication” (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010).
Father Mike Russo has recently retired as Professor of Communication Studies, Saint Mary’s College of California. He has worked as a media consultant to CBS News and major news organizations and the USCCB for the Pope Francis’s 2015 United States pastoral visit. He teaches about the news of religion and politics, and writes the blog “Francis Factor.com.”