Pronounced Flaws in Our Messages

(This was also published on August 6 as the first segment of my newsletter at billschmitt.substack.com)

Words demand good stewardship. They are multi-dimensional containers of meaning. Never have they been more definition-fluid, and never have they shown more definition-intersectionality, thanks to the creativity Americans bring to our vocabulary.

Good communicators must be ready to hit the dictionary websites at a moment’s notice to avoid not only embarrassing errors, but also accidental insults. In an instructive example of this danger, hot from the week’s headlines, Beyonce removed the word “spazz” in her song “Heated” after the disabilities community raised concerns.

But our responsibility toward words goes beyond their meanings. This must be said: Our roles in the clear, respectful, informative communication of messages extends to pronunciation.

I am always surprised at how newscasters and others in the audio and video media seem to take lightly their duty of correct pronunciation. In cases of breaking news, we can forgive journalists if they mispronounce a word that has sprung suddenly from obscurity into prominence. However, they should make it their homework to learn the proper vocalization—and to glimpse its connection to a language, a culture, and a history, not to mention a person!

The recent drone attack on al-Qaeda leader Ayam al-Zawahiri presented a challenge. One YouTube clip offered a pronunciation that sounded authentic but did not become widespread.

Why? It’s complicated. There is often a tension between a simplified Americanization of “foreign” sounds and a complex, distracting dive into the voices of native speakers. News anchors may strive for both an accurate vocalization and an accessible, recognizable version. They will repeat what other anchors, news sources, and news audiences are saying themselves. They also need to feel comfortable with their own pronunciation for the sake of personal consistency. But favoring the familiar may literally and figuratively send the wrong message. We all should exhibit habits of independent research, intercultural learning, and the honoring of different voices.

The Internet provides pronunciation guides that promote global standardization. One handy website belongs to the Voice of America news service. VOA compiles an updated list of recent problematic words, accompanying each with a phonetic spelling and an audio clip.

However, even this is not always a simple solution. For example, the VOA site accompanies the Ukrainian capital’s name, Kyiv, with a phonetic spell-out that suggests it is a two-syllable word, not too different from the old Kiev, while the audio clip slides those two sounds together to yield the now-commonplace “Keev.”

While many difficulties may arise in covering international news translated from numerous languages, sometimes I can see no reason other than indifference to explain cases of mispronunciation. Presenters aim to say something clever and contentious before they consider what is correct and contributive.

A few months ago, journalists carelessly told us about the “omnicron” variant of Covid-19. That misreading didn’t even get close to the more legitimate debates about more precise and understandable vocalizations of “omicron,” an omnipresent Greek letter. See Pfizer’s Greek-born CEO speak out.

We also continue to hear about “fentanol,” with a sound akin to “fentinawl,” when the actual word is “fentanyl,” with the last syllable sounded as “ill.”

We see, or rather hear, the need for better pronunciation everywhere. Lectors in church need to rehearse and study the Bible passages they will read so that congregations truly benefit when “faith comes by hearing.”

At an All Souls Day liturgy several years ago, a lector read the names of the congregation’s family members who had died during the past year. Because there was no apparent rehearsal or research, we could hear that many of the ethnic surnames were clumsily mangled. I considered this an unintentional slap at families’ members and memories.

Let’s hope that people from all walks of life will realize that our pronunciations, like our awareness of meanings, deserve greater attention for the sake of fruitful, dignified communication about people and the world. Sadly, we must realize our first task is to salvage the art of conversation itself.

Signs of a mass-market interest in grammar might offer us hope that words still matter. You can find a newly published book, Ellen Jovin’s Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarianjoining a “sharp, funny grammar guide” from 2020 called Dreyer’s English and a clever classic about punctuation from 2004 titled Eats, Shoots and Leavesby Lynne Truss. The book by Benjamin Dreyer has even spawned a “grammar geek” home game called “Stet!”.

When all is said and done, any campaign for better vocalization is a campaign for diligence and curiosity, outreach and collaboration—as well as a campaign against sloppy, disrespectful thinking—among speakers and listeners alike. As vocabularies and perspectives become more complex and polarized, this should be campaign season. We do so declare!

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Hang-Ups About Spiderman on Film

(Also published on August 5 as the first segment of my newsletter at billschmitt.substack.com)

My “Spidey sense” was tingling as I finally watched the Spiderman: No Way Home film. I watched it on DVD, not the web.

As an avid fan of this superhero’s 15-cent comic books years ago, I loved the movie’s ability to remember, and draw the best from, the expansive history of Peter Parker.

The latest plot forced Parker, a role model who shines in the “Marvel universe” firmament, to survive a not-very-friendly neighborhood where mysterious menaces battered him incessantly. Audiences saw hypnotic, hyperactive scenes of chaotic violence, deadly hatred, and misshapen lives.

These long action segments, understandably enervating to someone not weaned on a procession of Spiderman products, prompted my book- and symphony-loving wife to comment on younger theater-goers who have consumed the film’s confusion and destruction.

As we watched in our living room, she said compassionately, “No wonder kids are the way they are today.”

This is food for thought. Our society has casually wondered for decades whether deaths on TV shows were affecting kids’ behavior. Now, we face a tougher debate: Is today’s menu of immersive movies, video games, pornography, and other distortions of reality, revisited and binge-watched incessantly, feeding trends of anxiety, depression, and nihilistic anger—toward self, others, the world, and God?

We tend to dismiss these influences as parts of the cultural ocean in which we swim. A spoonful of sugar, in the form of nostalgia for beloved heroes and addictive dopamine hits, helps this bitter medicine go down. Countless customers take not only this medicine, but actual drugs with such acknowledged side-effects as violent ideation.

I will still defend this film because I saw it reaffirming the humble integrity of Spiderman. I observed good conquering evil and marginalized folks—misunderstood teenagers and super-villains alike—overcoming unjust drags on the human spirit.

Admittedly, younger fans may see these battles through different lenses with a less rosy hue. Also, while I saw low-resolution depictions of affection and friendship, complete with clever buddy-movie rapport, other generations may focus on the high-definition kaleidoscope of strange beauty, exhaustion, and adrenalin. Does the dollop of sweetness leave an impression?

But I will offer one additional defense. Peter Parker’s “life verse” seems to be a maxim he learned from his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is a profound message, rooted in the Bible (Luke 12:48).

Of course, I must again question my Spidey sense. Young audiences can learn about humility from Peter, but does he shine a light on responsibility to the common good, on higher authorities shaping our reason and goodness, or on bland virtues like prudence and patience?

Perhaps a film like No Way Home challenges society to initiate cross-generational conversations about what Baby Boomers and young adults see in Spiderman. In the human and earthly ecology envisioned by Pope Francis, this spider has a certain dignity and an important role. It is our responsibility to reflect on that and to appreciate how each amazing creature fits into a wide-screen view.

Although Peter Parker can be a uniting figure, as he is in the movie, we must ask what bonds he is forging. His artificial reality ideally would resonate with actual responsibility to our society and our humanity. Otherwise, is his story more destructive than constructive as a cultural artifact?

May he still build a web of hope. A mere roller-coaster ride through the multiverse is not even what Peter himself craves. He just seeks a way toward the happiness that only a true home can provide.

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Gone Fission: This TV Spot is the Bomb!

See this commentary and others packaged in my latest entry at billschmitt.substack.com — and consider subscribing.

(Published in the blog of the Magis Center on July 28)

This month, the world got to watch a public service announcement released by New York City’s emergency management office. It offers steps to take when a nuclear attack has occurred. News reports suggested that this message—dealing indirectly with one of the “third rails” of public discourse, namely death– left many of its viewers concerned, or at least confused.

I will not try to read the minds of the PSA’s producers or audiences. My reaction focuses on an axiom I learned as a member of the Knights of Columbus, an international fraternal organization that seeks to build up and activate the spiritual lives of Catholic men. The Knights included in their instructions a simple two-word Latin phrase: “Memento Mori” or “Remember Death.”

As a 2020 article from Catholic Digest discusses, the somber reminder tells us that meditating upon one’s mortality and the prospect of death can be a clarifying exercise for the mind and heart.

With help from the PSA, New Yorkers can contemplate a sobering piece of “bad news,” or at least the fact that various forms of very bad news can and do arise in everyday life. Let’s be fair to the city’s office of emergency preparedness. They dwell much less on the tragedy of a nuclear attack than on the tactics for surviving that attack.

The announcement is still flawed, in my opinion, because it offers simplified tips centered on going indoors, staying indoors, and monitoring updates and advice from the government. Our presenter closes with encouraging words: “You’ve got this.”

I wonder whether that is so. If a blackout ensues, for example, can the population access such media as the “Notify NYC” website the presenter promotes? Isn’t this false hope?

I find nothing false, hopeless, or simplified about the Church’s alternative approach to the ultimate “bad news.” We know that, without the acknowledgment and anticipation of evil occurrences, people will not appreciate how good the “Good News” really is. I refer to the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ and the path toward happiness in this life and in eternal life.

Our reflections on the “four last things”—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—help to see the high stakes in our worldly existence. They add a sense of purpose and urgency to our decisions and behaviors. They suggest that we must ground our lives in truth and practical wisdom (phronesis!).

They also add clarity and extra dimensions of hope and wonderment when we turn to John 3:16 and read that God the Father wants to give us eternal life through His son; Christ accompanies us as we work out our salvation with a loving embrace of the Holy Spirit’s gifts.

These empowering instruments for the survivability of individuals and the whole human race are sure things. We must understand and use them well, so the Bible and the Church have provided limitless information on what to do and why.

Much of this time-tested information comes in bite-size pieces, resembling prophetic PSAs, if only we will pay attention. The virtues and resources described are valuable in good times and bad, they ease our fear rather than kindle it, and they do not shut down in power outages.

This leads me to one additional reaction, in the form of a suggestion. Those seeking to evangelize the culture, enriching its survivability through timely and timeless insights, should think more like journalists—at least in one sense. Memorable messages for spiritual growth often have a “news hook” that works like this: “Did you see x? Our faith and reason teach us this can mean y. Therefore, let’s do z.”

Religious leaders, please seize the opportunity to mention New York’s recent PSA jeremiad, encourage people to view and ponder it, and then offer more meaningful, reasonable instruction and conversation. Let’s talk about what we are saying—through our governments’ strategies and our global situations. Let’s consider the real messages about our fragility and responsibility.

Our faith is relevant to the end-times and to any personal “end time” that disrupts our lives. We need saintly guides and solid guidance to help us act upon the most enduring truths, including the four final truths. Otherwise, “blind guides” will offer only odd little tidbits of fact that strand us as demigods in idle seclusion, waiting for updates.

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Crash of Symbols

My reporting for the June 25, 2022 issue of The Tablet, Brooklyn’s Catholic diocesan newspaper, reminded me that only one-third of U.S. Catholics say they believe in the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine consecrated at every Mass. A Pew Research Center study in 2019 found that 69 percent of self-identified Catholics understand the Eucharist to be only a “symbol,” not the substance, of Christ’s body and blood.

This sad finding has helped to prompt the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to initiate this year a National Eucharistic Revival, with a major campaign planned to teach people what the Church believes and why. I am fully on-board with this effort, which could bring people back to church, rekindle a desire for intimate relationships with Jesus, and boost our outreach to a materialistic society, highlighting a sense of mystery, awe, and the community/communion of love.

While hopeful, I must acknowledge that the three aforementioned goals are clues to the huge obstacles this Revival faces. I fear that, to some unknown degree, confusion about the core of the Catholic liturgy is rooted less in poor catechetics and more in a meta-problem stunting our culture and today’s frame of mind.

The problem I posit, speaking partly as a devil’s advocate, is this: Today, everything is treated as a symbol. Think back to the landmark “Queen” song, Bohemian Rhapsody, which we discussed in Substack (June 13). The band sings: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” and “Nothing really matters.”

I fear we are so accustomed to symbolic messages, behaviors, policies, and promises, much of our awareness of reality has been “caught in a landslide.” Advocates for various positions use dramatic scripts and simplified impressions to argue their cases; before conversations dig too deeply into facts and genuine interaction, many are inclined to shut down debate through cancellations and demonization.

The clouding of shared understanding and common ground is symbolized—there’s that word again—by the statement, “This is my truth.” In an age of virtual participation, manipulated media, and artificial reality, people satisfy themselves too often with taking the “right” stand, presenting images of a happy or meaningful life, and “going through the motions” to “get by.”

For people who have chosen this attitude, or adapted to it, symbols and truth are essentially the same thing. Symbolic gestures become shortcuts to power in the political-emotional arena.

Our “utility belts,” our handy tools for expressing ourselves effectively in everyday life, include: words and phrases with pre-defined meanings, as well as cleverly crafted slogans and talking points; emojis and memes; images, photos, faces, dramatic scenes; ten-second videos that go viral; and much more. These things can seem awfully real and influential, but they are only representations—often, unreliable and unsatisfying representations—of truths where enduring power and meaning reside.

Even our colleges, families, and personal development efforts have failed to push us toward a more profound sense of hope or a purposeful vision of ultimate fulfillment.

Some Catholics may even assume that an entirely symbolic view of the Mass is as close to “the truth” as human beings can get. They cannot imagine the rewards of aiming higher, taking leaps of faith. They may be well-intentioned, but we need to help them “see” what they are missing: the option to participate in the Kingdom of God as pilgrims and, then, as saints in heaven.

In a Church and world where too many leaders and followers have proclaimed one paradigm and lived another, we may take too lightly our allegiance to clear-cut ideals like the Ten Commandments and the transubstantiation-symbolism distinction. Discerning and living out these ideals seems much too difficult as we go with the flow of information tsunamis, swimming past salvation.

Our politicians and other influencers have modeled for us a spirit of hypocrisy and doublethink that takes the name of “leadership,” “getting things done,”  “success,” or “keeping their promises.”

This is at least one part of the challenge Catholics will face during the three years of America’s Eucharistic Revival. It is a remarkable irony that a religion often condemned as fictitious, two-faced, or disempowering is committed to the mission of reviving culture at its core. We must struggle on behalf of the way, the truth, and the life: the authentically substantial, the community-building power of shared truth and trust, leading to love and justice on earth and eternal salvation beyond. Every time we worship the Lord at the altar, we can help to satisfy the soul’s need for liberation from the “false presence” of mere symbols.

Image from ClipSafari.com collection of Creative Commons designs.

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Notes for “Saints and Scholars” Presentation

Dear Prof. Albarran and Students:

It was an honor and pleasure to talk with you yesterday as part of Holy Cross College’s annual “Saints and Scholars” program. Here are some notes to amplify the thoughts I shared with you about journalism and the field of communications. I called my presentation “To be Catholic Is to Communicate.” You communicated so well, your questions and aspirations were uplifting to me.

  • Who is Bill Schmitt?

Latest story for The Tablet: online news

Blog at OnWord.net

Podcast at “ThatsSoSecondMillennium.net”

Links to recent multimedia content

CV and Professional Experience Summary

Linked-In Profile

Newsletter at BillSchmitt.Substack.com

  • Three reasons to think and learn about communications skills:
  • Communication in all its forms—spanning news, entertainment, design for all media, technological support, artwork, music, and more—constitutes a huge industry or field, with many valuable uses for your talents and skills.
  • Good communication will be part of any routes you pursue into scholarship, the career world, family life, service to others, and your faith. Some thoughts about communication skills: Grow your effectiveness in writing, speaking, presenting your thoughts and ideas to colleagues and audiences. Be comfortable and civil in dialogue and conversation. Listen well. Be avid and patient with learning, wonder, and the willingness to be surprised.  
  • Communication is an ideal path to something we all crave: the truth, which adds meaning, stability, and hope to our lives. We can’t find truth by ourselves. It’s a two-way street and a team effort.
  • Why care about truth? A secular reason and a spiritual reason:
  • Secular: Truth is a glue that holds people together—and it holds us together by anchoring us in a reality so much larger than ourselves.
  • Truth provides common ground for conversation and cooperation to experience life more fully and pursue worldly life / eternal life more successfully. Truth is our truth, not “my truth” alone. The free marketplace of ideas, where different thoughts and insights are exchanged among unique people with individual dignity, builds our ability to think, to know, and live together constructively. John Stuart Mill was a pioneering thinker about this.
  • Our society is vulnerable to our fascination with artificial reality and alternate realities, potentially found through technology or through harmful behavior with drugs, etc. Replacing personal contact and authentic experiences with tools that may “empower” us runs the risk of separating us from others and from encounters with others.
  • Spiritual: If we are on earth to serve God and bring the love of God to others, truth is a major instrument, even if some reality is not appealing. Our hearts are restless until they rest with God because we are hard-wired to want the most truth, beauty, and goodness, and we’re prompted to look beyond our material/secular/consumerist experience.
  • Why I love journalism:
  • Learn interesting things, meet interesting people, convey interesting stories that help other people, and get paid. Indulge you curiosity.
  • Reality wins. As Shakespeare said, “The truth will out.”
  • US founders realized that a well-informed public and pursuit of the common good were essential to America’s liberties and flourishing.

Why I love Catholic communications:

It’s a big enterprise within the universal Church, employing many people of diverse talents and backgrounds, communicating truth in the full spectrum of multimedia ways, including attention to artwork, music, and the value of beauty. Opportunities for important, satisfying, creative work.

The Church’s mission of evangelization, to spread the Good News, is especially crucial today, and it must use all the means available. The desire to reach audiences is not profit-driven, but more prophet-driven.

With the cycle of generations, there are many baby-boomer workers gradually retiring, and they need to be replaced. Young Catholics who believe in the Church’s work and have a grounding in the knowledge and practice of their faith can find the opportunities for continued learning and service very rewarding while they get to apply a wide range of skills and technologies. Moreover, you can bring new energy and perspectives to the work for the betterment of the Church as human institution—and for the love of the Church as divine institution.

  • Podcasts and online resources:

Grotto Network, from Notre Dame

Aleteia

DeSales Media: The Tablet, “Currents TV,” Online content/design

Beliefnet

Churchpop

Word on Fire Network: Bishop Robert Barron

Magis Center

Credible Catholic: Answers to Questions about Faith

Spokestreet: Podcasts that Invite

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Research Report Prompted Bishops to Start National Campaign

(Story by Bill Schmitt published in The Tablet of the Diocese of Brooklyn, June 25, 2022)

The backstory of the National Eucharistic Revival planned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) includes surprising statistics from a Pew Research Center study revealing beliefs on a subject at the heart of the Church’s mission.

Pew, a nationally recognized, secular, nonpartisan organization that says its objective research is dedicated to “holding a mirror to society,” conducted a 2019 online survey of religious views held by Americans citing membership in various faiths.

Among its findings:

“Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’ ” Instead, 69% of self-described Catholics believe “the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’ ”

This conflicts with the Catholic teaching known by many as transubstantiation — the doctrine that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are “truly, really, and substantially” present in the Eucharist. Christ becomes present by the transformation of the whole substance of the bread into His body and whole substance of the wine into His blood.

Among all the Pew respondents, regardless of their faith, 34% were correct in saying Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Meanwhile, 55% called the sacramental teaching symbolic, and 11% had no answer.

The Pew survey dug deeper among Catholic respondents regarding the teaching of Christ’s real presence. Researchers found that most Catholics who believe in transubstantiation know this is Church teaching. Most Catholics who believe the sacrament is symbolic do not know about the teaching.

Only 50% of Catholics answered this question correctly:

Which of the following best de- scribes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion? (Actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ / Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ / Not sure/ No answer.)

“Overall, 43% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and also that this reflects the position of the Church,” Pew reported on its website.

Probing further, the researchers said, “About six-in-ten (63%) of the most observant Catholics — those who attend Mass at least once a week — accept the Church’s teaching about transubstantiation. Still, even among this most observant group of Catholics, “roughly one-third (37%) don’t believe the Communion bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood.”

Among Catholics who do not at- tend Mass weekly, “large majorities” say the sacrament is symbolic only. And 22% of all Catholics reject the idea of transubstantiation even though they know it is Church teaching.

Belief in the real presence “is most common among older Catholics,” although those reducing it to symbolism constitute majorities in every age group, according to Pew. Among those age 60 and over, 61% say the bread and wine are only symbols.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 1374 and 1375, describes the real presence this way:

“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as ‘the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.’ In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ, is truly, really and substantially contained.’

“… It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament.”

story reprinted with permission from The Tablet … see this and other stories by Bill Schmitt at the Tablet website

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Bohemian Melancholy

(Also published as a segment of my newsletter on June 13 at billschmitt.substack.com)

“What kind of contagion is influencing our young people, and our old people, that they seek to engage in these dramatic mass killings?” That was a rhetorical question posed by Rep. Dan Crenshaw from Texas in a recent interview.

Americans need to ask such questions more frequently and to consider a wide range of factors, some of which might be direct influences and some of which might embody symbolic meta-messages. The latter are not causal, but they point to a weakened immune system within society.

In that category of indicators, one cultural bellwether is Bohemian Rhapsody, a prescient classic which the band Queen introduced in a 1975 album. Freddie Mercury’s grim but brilliant lyrics, whose full meaning is still debated today, provide an outline of pained imagination present in many people today. The messages may be all too common risk factors for male teens and young adults. They are trying to make sense of their own lives, craving whatever meaning they can find in a bohemian, rhapsodic, ungrounded culture.

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality …”

“Mama, just killed a man … life had just begun, but now I’ve gone and thrown it all away …”

“Too  late, my time has come, sends shivers down my spine, body’s aching all the time …”

“I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all …”

“Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me …”

“Nothing really matters, anyone can see … Nothing really matters to me … any way the wind blows.”

In a world where structures of principle and personal dignity get passed along poorly, thought patterns can become random and the modus vivendi can drift into mere theater. Truths are conjured by the individual, according to the script or the score being written at the moment.

Freddie Mercury nevertheless shaped his message into a creative product that contained a haunting beauty; such was the requirement of his own soul and of the 1970s musical marketplace for which he was writing. His vision included a heroism informed by love, a desire to reach out and cry out to others, and a lingering respect for knowledge and wisdom, order and substance, a search for context befitting a well-educated person.

I hear the message of “nothing really matters” in too many current songs, scripts, and actions of young adults—and older adults, including our leaders. We have allowed the contagion to spread, over decades, by further darkening the theater in which coherent visions could find a way forward. We are implicated in the hyperbole and hypocrisy spreading through our media and politics. We cannot meet today’s challenges, infused into troubled lives, with quick cures administered performatively, without true compassion for young imaginations craving guidance.

Freddie and his band have sent us a message that is deeper than the call to nihilism which too many young people now draw from an “anything goes” sense of reality. Many practitioners of pointless drama, and perhaps our entertainment culture as a whole, have become the modern theatrical “scaramouch,” who loves to get into skirmishes—fandangos that mimic heroism but display unformed, uninformed narcissism.

(Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs)

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11 Takeaways from World Communications Day: Remember to “Listen Up” for Weekend Wisdom

In his 2022 message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis has urged that we renew our ability to listen–to God, to ourselves, to others, and to information from many sources. The Vatican released that message in January, but the Catholic Church’s actual day for its annual reflection on values to enrich the means and media of social communication is the Sunday before Pentecost. That arrives this Sunday, May 29.

It is timely, therefore, to use Memorial Day weekend as a time to put the Pope’s message into action. Our activities, possibly bringing us together with family and friends with whom we have not gathered during the Covid pandemic, returning us to the public square to honor the nation’s soldiers and citizens, can help renew our spirits and relationships if we plan to be better listeners. We can be attentive to people whose lives may have taken a negative turn in various ways; they need to be heard. We can participate in discussions about politics and society–to the degree certain topics are deemed appropriate holiday fare–where others’ voices matter and we can welcome different insights.

To tackle this beneficial project, it’s time to recall key points Pope Francis made when this year’s World Communications Day message was posted online on January 24. His thoughts are indeed worth listening to in preparation for this weekend–and for our mission of more fruitful communication all year round, on both the secular and spiritual planes. Here are some takeaways we can memorialize:

  1. He started with bad news. “In fact, we are losing the ability to listen to those in front of us, both in the normal course of everyday relationships and when debating the most important issues of civil life.” He added a galvanizing point to keep us motivated. “At the same time, listening is undergoing an important new development in the field of communication and information through the various podcasts and audio messages available that serve to confirm that listening is still essential in human communication.”
  2. The greatest need of human beings is to be heard. This is an important guide for parents and teachers, educators and parish ministers, educators and communicators of all types. Our sense of hearing is crucial for God’s interaction with us. “Faith comes through listening.” (Rom 10:17) Listening is a humble act and a freeing act. God sets the model because he “inclines his ear” to us.
  3. Sadly, humans have a tendency to close our ears. We even become aggressive in doing so, the Pope says. [This is the polarization we see continuing to grow in America, manifested in a “cancel culture” where we censor others and even ourselves, missing opportunities to seek truth in partnership with others who have experiences and viewpoints to be shared.]
  4. We are foolish if we try to censor God’s voice, too. He is always eager to reveal himself to us as an act of love. We must be ready to “listen well,” to receive his Word with an “honest and good” heart so that it bears fruit in life and salvation. (Luke 8:15) [Our secular society too often shuts out God from our public—and our interior—conversations. We consider ourselves the masters of our own truths, creators of our own realities. God, as the way, the truth, and the life, is our bridge to reality and to each other; if we make ourselves into gods and set ourselves in opposition to others who are “evil” because they disagree with us, we separate ourselves; the ideas of community and the ecology of God’s creation both break down.]
  5. Listening is a profound thing because “there is an interior deafness worse than the physical one,” says Francis. We must bring our whole personhood into the communication process; it is not just about talking points or manipulation of opinion. We are called to share all of the qualities and dignity that come from our being unique children of God. “And we can only start by listening to what makes us unique in creation: the desire to be in relationship with others and with the other. We are not made to live like atoms, but together.”
  6. This communication must start with listening to oneself—“to one’s truest needs, those inscribed in each person’s inmost being.” [We tend to mask every uncomfortable thing that arises in our own lives, perhaps using drugs, or disconnecting from relationships of responsibility and contribution, or retreating into artificial reality, or simply painting a false Facebook picture of an idealized life. I would say we also need to listen to our consciences and act accordingly, but only after we have done the diligent listening and learning which inform our consciences with virtue and wisdom. Ultimately, listening only to oneself is self-destructive because true information and formation come from God’s grace, inseparable from our relationship with Jesus and the wisdom of the Church, and the experiences of other people through whom that grace is working. We must acknowledge our flaws. That opens our hearts to forgiveness and makes us able to forgive others.]
  7. Listening goes awry when it slips into “eavesdropping and spying” or “exploiting others for our own interests.” Pope Francis says these have worsened in the age of social media. We should listen to learn, to take in truth, to encounter God in others through genuine two-way communication. He suggests the best communication is face-to-face. [So often, we say what others seem to want to hear; this decreases freedom and dignity on both sides of the equation. We manipulate and pander to others. We manipulate words and situations. Our actions and institutions become less authentic, less trustworthy. Information becomes propaganda. Meanwhile, information is also weaponized; many cases of “gotcha” communication uncover and narrowly judge something someone said in a different context or at a different time.]
  8. If we listen only to “talking points” that confirm our own biases or promise to bring us power and personal gain, “we often talk past one another” and fail to communicate the richness of our lives as individuals or the potential of our growth in community. [I think of the recent school-shooting situations, where our hearts yearned for a time of quiet, empathic sorrow over the human toll, but some politicians seized an opportunity to further their self-serving argumentation. The argumentation adopts an oversimplification of, even an ignorance about, the many complicated factors that make life’s tragedies and dramas worthy of deeper reflection. We tend to forget what really matters and to move on to the next item on the agendas of institutions and media. All the world’s a stage, and we are performing as narcissistic individuals, writing other persons out of the script. Much of our social interaction becomes theatrical in nature, geared to empower us, and we shape an “attention economy” where we seek to please our audience, capturing their minds and hearts so they are distracted from other information.]
  9. Pope Francis adds that “there is no good journalism without the ability to listen. In order to provide solid, balanced, and complete information, it is necessary to listen for a long time.” Journalists—and all people—must be willing to take in information that surprises them, challenges them, deepens their understanding of the whole story. “Only amazement enables knowledge.” Francis quotes a diplomat who spoke of “the martyrdom of patience” because becoming truly informed requires patience with others, including difficult people. [The Catholic Church fosters a spirit of wonder—and a “Catholic imagination”—that connects empirical experiences to profound mysteries, adding extra layers of insight that will stick with us and increase our wisdom. Our culture suffers from a severe case of attention deficit, snap judgments, and oversimplification. We fail to listen and learn about a number of interconnected subjects over a long period of time; we pragmatically deal with problems in the present moment, or not at all, without incorporating insights of the past and future. Pope Francis highlights today’s immigration challenges, reminding us that we need to look at population flows as more than statistics, and at migrants as individuals whose diverse stories must be taken into account.]
  10. Pope Francis addresses the Covid crisis and its communications aftermath: “The ability to listen to society is more valuable than ever in this time wounded by the long pandemic,” he writes. “So much previously accumulated mistrust towards ‘official information’ has also caused an ‘infodemic,’ within which the world of information is increasingly struggling to be credible and transparent. We need to lend an ear and listen profoundly, especially to the social unease heightened by the downturn or cessation of many economic activities.”
  11. The Pope also speaks of communication in the Church, where “there is a great need to listen to and to hear one another …. Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the word of God.” This “apostolate of the ear” is a segue into discussion of the current Synod on Synodality, which focuses on listening to everyone for the sake of a more authentic Church community globally and locally. “As in a choir, unity does not require uniformity, monotony, but the plurality and variety of voices, polyphony. At the same time, each voice in the choir sings while listening to the other voices and in relation to the harmony of the whole.”
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A Tearful City Regroups with Eyes on Faith

WAUKESHA VALUES CHURCH IN RECOVERY FROM PARADE TRAGEDY SIX MONTHS AGO

(Story by Bill Schmitt published in The Tablet in the Diocese of Brooklyn, May 21, 2022)

Two women visit a memorial to those who were killed during the Christmas parade tragedy in Waukesha, Wis. on Nov. 21, 2021. (Photo: CNS/Cheney Orr, Reuters)

WAUKESHA, Wis. — Viewers of a Wisconsin TV news report on Easter Sunday evening saw Catholics testify to the power of faith and community — not only as Mass attendees but as people recovering from the parade tragedy that struck the city of Waukesha six months ago.

Father Patrick Heppe, whose affiliation of four parishes is called the Catholic Community of Waukesha, told a reporter visiting St. Mary Church that the morning’s liturgy was “a celebration of hope.”

He and the congregation were looking beyond the suffering that began when an SUV crashed into the city’s Christmas Parade on Nov. 21, 2021, leaving six dead and about 70 wounded.

Darrell Brooks, the suspect who drove the SUV that day, awaits an 83-count criminal trial scheduled to begin this October. He has pleaded not guilty and is seeking to have the venue moved from Waukesha County.

But neither the Milwaukee-based Fox reporter nor Father Heppe referred to the judicial process in the recent broadcast. Instead, their focus was on the process of healing.

“We had numerous members of the parish that were injured,” said Father Heppe, who suffered a concussion himself. He described a wave of “people helping people,” including businesses and families. Groups have shared their grief, joined together frequently in prayer, and worked toward forgiveness.

After conversations with countless people in the past six months, Father Heppe pointed out, “Each one, without exception, has said, ‘If it wasn’t for my faith, I wouldn’t be able to get through it.’”

Two experienced observers, who made presentations at a symposium this March titled “Waukesha, Built on Faith,” pointed to a long history of hospitality and solidarity in this locale not far from Milwaukee.

Waukesha, a city of about 70,000 people, has shown “a tremendous responsiveness to changing demography” through schools and other institutions, according to Father Steven Avella, a Marquette University historian who has chronicled the Catholic Church’s impact in the Midwest.

Despite ups and downs in attendance, Catholics and those of other faiths have preserved a skyline of beautiful churches built during immigration waves of previous centuries, Father Avella told The Tablet. They have been strengthened by an influx of Hispanics from various countries in the 20th century.

He sees a continuation of “the tradition in Waukesha of meeting people where they are and assisting those in need” with secular and religious resources.

Priests and others in the Catholic Community of Waukesha have shown a great capacity to listen to people’s grief and anger without the conversations getting bogged down in political divisiveness—a big challenge in pastoral ministry today, he said.

The Church has contributed strength through its worship: “People out here in Wisconsin are cultural Catholics. This is where their families were, and this is what they do.”

“Religion helps you make sense of your life,” Father Avella said. He credited “the dimensions of Catholic worship” that provide comfort —“vestments and lights and flowers and bells … all the things that appeal to so many different senses.”

Bonnie Byrd, executive director of the Waukesha County Historical Society, said she has respected, from a non-Catholic perspective, many religious denominations that came to town along with waves of immigrants over the decades—Germans, Italians, Hispanics, and more.

“We are a city that is full of spires,” Byrd told The Tablet, referring to churches and synagogues where distinct groups gathered but then proceeded to reach out beyond their tall buildings.

The “Built on Faith” symposium where she spoke was part of plans developed by a vibrant civil society of non-profit organizations, churches, and others for multiple celebrations of local history, she recalled.

The city, incorporated in 1896, was marking its 125th anniversary when last year’s heartbreak came.

The 58th annual parade was also continuing a beloved tradition of outreach beyond Waukesha, inviting schools and teams to march alongside locals, Byrd said.

“The character of our city was demonstrated in tremendously beautiful and moving ways in the aftermath of the tragedy,”  Byrd added. She called it “a shared experience” that has prompted ongoing acts of kindness, gifts from donors, and local grants for new projects “as we all continue to grieve and process and look forward to who we are and what’s next.”

Asked about his city at the six-month point, Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said, “We’re still working through a lot.” But “a lot of good things … are happening.”

A group called “Waukesha Strong” has sponsored a day of healing. A collection has yielded almost $5,000 to start work on a permanent memorial.

The busy agenda includes collaborations for upcoming Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades.

“Therapists are working with people to create stars of hope” that participants can hold up, Reilly told The Tablet.

And yet, another reminder of the strength of faith in the Waukesha community: The city is gearing up for its 59th Christmas Parade, scheduled this November.

story reprinted with permission from The Tablet … see this and other stories by Bill Schmitt at the Tablet website

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A Day to Learn the Threat of Can’techesis

(Also published in the blog of the Magis Center, May 3, 2022)

Many people are observing May 3 as National Teacher Appreciation Day. Lord, I want to be in that number! Even though this is a commemoration on the secular calendar, not a faith-based celebration, we all would agree that countless educators, at all grade levels, deserve to be saluted as heroes.

They elevate our minds and hearts, wills and emotions, helping us to grow in the phronesis—a practical, virtuous wisdom for action—which can help us serve God and society well.

A more contentious concept of this day arises from our society’s appreciation for teaching, rather than appreciation for particular teachers. It’s a day to ask whether Americans, in every line of work, sufficiently honor the highest principle of educating–passing along to younger generations the most essential knowledge, understanding, and values-rich behaviors with which older generations have been gifted.

To bestow such honor, we need firm structures and enthusiastic approaches within which we can consistently provide formation and information that anchors us.

Such structures do not indoctrinate people or close minds if they are based on an honest search for truth. Organized, prioritized, and dynamic structures allow and encourage debate because the exploration of reality can go on collaboratively, with respectful trust and patient prudence. Conversations where people come equipped to explain their views, analyze the merits of other views, and make democratic virtues more sustainable respect our need—and expand our desire—to keep teaching and keep learning in orderly, constructive ways.

Therefore, the word that sums up this day for appreciating education is catechesis. Dear teachers, hey everyone, does our society mostly catechize ormostly can’techize?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “catechize” in these two ways:

  • To instruct systematically, especially by questions, answers, and explanations and corrections—specifically, to give religious instruction in such a manner
  • To question systematically or searchingly

Increasingly, I fear we are not a catechized culture.

This meta-problem in modern-day education of all sorts has been recognized most clearly in the Catholic Church, which is an enduring and universal structure for catechizing, and literally appreciating good catechesis, about our creaturehood in a world hungry for meaning.

Many Catholics bemoan their observation that young people have not been richly or rightly catechized, perhaps over decades now. We in the Church have not always taught the essentials of the faith to future generations in ways that cultivate fertile fields for growth in the family of God. Sometimes, the essentials have not been clearly identified or prioritized, leaving a weak structure upon which to build lives attuned to our kinship in human nature and the divine order.

This lens helps to highlight the Church as a microcosm of the challenge and urgency of catechesis. And it reveals that the family is another crucial setting because it centers our experience of love, our learning about what’s important, within everyday experience.

Because households have been weakened as anchors in America and in much of the world, we need to boost our appreciation of teaching in two fundamental institutions—the Church and the family. In many cases, of course, the process of catechesis is conducted well, allowing people to develop instincts of phronesis in their individual lives and to share that gift with others for the betterment of society and the achievement of our highest goals. But what I call can’techesis, the inability of people to nurture this growth, has spread broadly nevertheless.

Most institutions have not catechized well. Civics courses and explorations of the structure and spirit of our culture sometimes fall short of energizing the robust citizenship America’s founders said our democracy requires.

Another example: The medical profession seems unclear the value of its traditional Hippocratic Oath as a core statement of ethics to be maintained. Is it overridden by marketplace demands, technological abilities, and self-centered drives for power?

As of today, May 3, many professionals in government, the law, politics, and other fields are reeling from the thought that someone in the highly revered institution of the US Supreme Court might have subverted the pledge to keep confidential the development of a Court opinion. A leaked document reported to be a draft of the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has sparked fears of an unprecedented violation of judicial propriety—injecting suspicion into a structure of trust deemed vital for full, free, and fair deliberation.

Most of us would say our best teachers have been those who challenged us, who took valuable truths and top-priority insights they had garnered and joyfully handed them down to us in rigorous, thought-provoking, well-ordered ways. They allowed us to say yes to things that made our life better while also empowering us to ask follow-up questions, just as Mary did when she received an ultimate, uncomfortable truth in the Annunciation.

Our appreciation of teachers must go hand-in-hand with a deepened appreciation of everyone’s role in teaching and learning the most enlightening, sometimes almost unbelievable, realities that reflect the dignity of our lives. We need to ask, as members of families, parishes, communities, and institutions, how we can get better at systematically instructing, questioning, answering, correcting, and searching so as to revitalize the goals and methods of catechesis in education.

[Image is from Clip Safari collection of Creative Commons designs.]

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