An updated version of this commentary will be posted today as a special edition of “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com.
Pope Francis, posting his 2023 World Communications Day message, has reinforced the sense of urgency and purpose he consistently connects to our use of the media. He has reiterated a Christian “mission” to spread charity through authentic encounters with brothers and sisters everywhere during this “dark hour.”
The Vatican previewed this year’s message, “Speaking with the Heart: The Truth in Love,” on January 24, the feast day of St. Francis de Sales. Marking 100 years since that saint was declared the patron of journalists, the pope cites the Bible’s instruction to make our communication edifying so that “it may impart grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)
“Today more than ever, speaking with the heart is essential to foster a culture of peace in places where there is war, to open paths that allow for dialogue and reconciliation in places where hatred and enmity rage,” Pope Francis says. “We need communicators who are … committed to undoing the belligerent psychosis that nests in our hearts.”
The pope calls for Christians to reject divisive rhetoric, “as well as every form of propaganda that manipulates the truth” for the sake of ideologies. Francis warns that words can lead to “heinous violence.” They instead must build trust in a way that “helps create the conditions to resolve controversies between peoples.”
In this week’s preview of World Communications Day, which the Catholic Church has observed on the Sunday before Pentecost since 1967, the pope recalls the model for journalists set by Francis de Sales (1567–1622). That French saint reached out in highly personalized writing, where “heart speaks to heart” through tenderness and “truth in charity.”
Pope Francis explicitly uses the 2023 message to add a third “principle of communication” to two about which he wrote for the most recent World Communications Days.
In 2021, he called for communicators and all Christians to “Come and See”—to be seekers of truth with an eagerness to learn truth by experiencing Jesus, and then to encounter Jesus, one-on-one, with people whose voices were unheard.
In 2022, he urged that we “Listen with the Ear of the Heart”— with humility and compassion—so we become “attuned to the same wavelength” and find common ground amid our mutual frailties.
This year, his instruction to “speak with the heart” entails conveying the truth boldly and frankly, but with a charity that avoids society’s inclination toward manipulation and polarization. Communication must be “a genuine antidote to cruelty.”
His call to “overcome the vague din” of media presentations, with their inclination to “exploit the truth” by injecting disinformation or malevolence, reminded me of my concern when watching or reading some news pundits. Hungry for a full, fair serving of facts, we risk being diverted by presenters who lure us into their arena of negativity. They spend much of their time discrediting our leaders and institutions and even mocking their media competitors and our fellow citizens.
On a happier note, this week’s papal call for kindness, integrating respect for human dignity with the need for comprehensive learning, including uncomfortable facts, reminded me of the power of positivity. This quality, less apparent in the media than it used to be, still draws nourishment from our culture’s roots in Judeo-Christian values.
For example, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists contains a section headlined “Minimize Harm” as guidance for news-gathering. It instructs reporters and editors to “treat sources, subjects, colleagues, and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”
Ethical journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” the code says. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”
The guidelines also call for fairness, compassion, and respect for the rights of private citizens to exercise some control of their personal information.
All these recommendations go hand-in-hand with the pope’s call to communications professionals: They should “reject the temptation to use sensational and combative expressions,”—mirroring the spirit of Francis de Sales as a “saint of tenderness.”
Nevertheless, the secular ethics code is only part of the mix of social, cultural, political, and psychological forces governing the practice of journalism—including the pseudo-journalistic role now played by many non-professionals. We have become our own “publishers” in social media, or avid “consumers” of news. Our stew of information and motivation travels through corroded pipes of confirmation bias and algorithms that promote engagement through enragement.
In the tumult of today’s media, Pope Francis calls for journalists to see their profession as “a mission” which adds to the public’s diet of “clear, open, and heartfelt” communication. In the 2023 World Communications Day message, he envisions an information world—including the subset of Church news outreach— that shuns the artificial, the self-centered, the strategically contrived, and the intentionally false.
Communication is key to all that we do as a Church, as a society, and as a world, the pope says. Our relationships with God and our brothers and sisters make communication a high-stakes game where papal advice has value. And Francis cautions that faltering interactions of truth and trust among nations make things more urgent. He points to “a dark hour in which humanity fears an escalation of war that must be stopped as soon as possible, also at the level of communication.”
Perhaps the stakes are highest on the personal plane, where St. Francis de Sales speaks of cultivating relationships “in the heart and through the heart.” They are the kind of communication through which “we come to know God.” The pope cites this “criterion of love” to ground his latest guide to communicating, just as he used the principles of “come and see” and “listen well” in his 2021 and 2022 messages.
Together, these principles summon us not only into fruitful communication, but also into healthy community and communion. The linkage of these three terms helps to explain why the Church has invested in messages about the secular media for nearly 60 years.
Ultimately, the integrity of this trio of high-sounding terms relies simply on our individual lives as seekers, receivers, and speakers of truth in the light of Christian love and peace. As Pope Francis wrote, echoing what Francis de Sales discerned centuries ago, “we are what we communicate.”
Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs.