Image accompanying podcast of “A Closer Look” — Sheila Liaugminas’ Relevant Radio interview with Bill Schmitt on communications
Amid our “New Year’s” preparations to enter the next decade of this digital age, Pope Francis has made news once again. He’s a consistent voice among world leaders, alone in calling for renewal in today’s distracted, oddly uncommunicative smartphone culture.
In an address in St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 29, 2019, he reflected on how Jesus, Mary and Joseph “prayed, worked, communicated” together in their discernment of God’s plan. He then inserted a casual, contemporary question to young people who were gathered for the Feast of the Holy Family.
“In your family, do you know how to communicate with each other, or are you like those kids at the table—each one has their own cell phone, chatting?” Pope Francis asked during his Angelus address. He commented on the second scenario. “In that table there is a silence as if they were at Mass, but they don’t communicate with each other.”
“We need to retake communication within the family. Parents, children, grandparents and siblings must communicate with each other,” Francis said, suggesting removal of the phones from the dinner table. “This is your assignment for today…. May the Holy Family be a model for our families, so that parents and children may support each other mutually in adherence to the Gospel—the basis of the holiness of the family.”
This address, relayed by a variety of media including The New York Times, allowed the Pontiff to launch into 2020 his ongoing message about communication–a warning about opportunities we’re missing for personal conversations that are authentic, responsive and purposeful. His quotes were light-hearted, but they pointed toward a serious pastoral diagnosis.
It’s one of the lesser noticed but intensifying themes set forth in his remarks throughout 2019 and preceding years. Francis goes to the heart of our world’s crisis of social polarization. He says our “digitalized culture” risks making people more isolated, trapping them in their own perceptions of reality and blocking the pursuit of common ground.
Opportunities for values-informed dialogue are the sweet spots where truth can be sought and shared respect for human dignity can be cultivated. Modeling such conversations through diverse, relaxed, grass-roots encounters, unburdened by the torrent of data, persuasion and snap judgments in our digital diet, will help us address the profound challenges which trouble and divide our society. Good decision-making must start at the local level—in vibrant communities and secular public discourse, and in core institutions where the Catholic Church provides stewardship, such as families and parishes.
We can expect the Pope to keep pushing for such renewal in communication, recommending caution about the misuse of digital phones and scrutiny of all our media whose desirable, constructive attributes do have a dark side.
During 2019, Francis spoke about the technology’s risks and rewards in various texts. They included his message for World Communications Day, a section of his Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit (regarding the Vatican’s synod on young people), his homily for Pentecost Sunday, and others.
In April, according to a Vatican Radio audio found here, Francis urged students at a Rome high school to avoid a slavish addiction to their mobile screens.
“Phones are for connecting,” he told them. “Life is for communicating.” Young people should engage in dialogues marked by a diversity of people and opinions; he noted the Second Vatican Council’s commitment to an honest search for truth that promotes justice and solidarity in society.
“Without the search for these values, there can be no true co-existence,” he said. This is something for which “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” He has written that he sees genuine communication as an act of love tied to the virtues of community and communion.
Pope Francis’ obvious passion for a values-based reboot of our current information ecology suggests he will remain a prophetic voice for peace on the world stage. People of good will in the secular and religious spheres, including those providing parish ministry, missionary outreach and support for today’s distressed families, need to put the Holy Father’s insights into motion.
Catholics and all people desiring the common good should utilize their best networks and resources to encourage more attentive, skillful and compassionate communicators. Our investments in each other–around meeting tables and dinner tables alike–will help heal the social rifts worsened by relativism and materialism. These are the rifts which now prompt us to label, demonize and marginalize others so we can feel in-control.
We must overcome small thinking in order to build more inclusive structures and encourage more humble collaborations driven to discern the merciful will of the God who is in control. As we enter a year that threatens to bring more fractious politics, international tensions and information wars, we need to review the guidelines Pope Francis has been promulgating. They can lift up our eyes from the smartphone screen to the “big picture” where hope is found, where communication can get its good reputation back.