Speaking as a long-time journalist who looks to Pope Francis for insights that can help renew the business of information and the art of conversation in our polarized society, I’m happy to say the Holy Father has once again hit a home run with his message for the Church’s 2021 World Communications Day.
The message, posted online by the Vatican this past weekend, is titled “Come and See: Communicating by Encountering People as They Are.” World Communications Day #55 won’t arrive until the Sunday before Pentecost, but by tradition the annual messages debut in advance to mark the feast day of Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists, on January 24. Following up on thought-provoking ideas about news-media responsibilities (in 2018), digital-culture dangers (in 2019), and story-telling strengths (in 2020), the diagnoses and prescriptions for 2021 couldn’t be more timely and galvanizing.
Here are highlights from this year’s reflections, which as always ponder how Catholic wisdom might serve to make contemporary social communication tools more useful as instruments of grace for human flourishing. These information points are based on quotes from our Pope but contain occasional riffs of my own reactions. By all means, please read the eloquent words of Francis directly; among world leaders, he seeks a seat the table to discuss these things in a constructive way with secular world influencers. I support such conversations among people of good will. May this help:
- In a world where some producers and consumers of mass-market information suffer symptoms of passive posturing, narrow-mindedness, and aggressive anger which demonstrate our society’s lack of–and desperate need for–the virtues of faith, hope, and love, the Pope wants to remind us of “the method for all authentic human communication.” That method is the simple yet profound invitation to “come and see” (John 1:46). Jesus showed his disciples that this is the way to build the relationships that enkindle faith, to be part of a meaningful personal experience. An openness by all parties to encounter other persons, one-on-one, with a willingness to listen and learn, as well as to share connections to unvarnished reality for the sake of the common good, a greater good, is the antidote to what ails us in our relativistic solitude. This remedy works at the individual level, at the international corporate level, and at all levels of culture and politics in-between.
- A major disease rampant in the news business, Francis points out, is that original investigation into the hard and full truth of situations “is being replaced” by reportage built around simplified, manipulative, and “often tendentious” narratives rather than complex stories honoring human dignity. The staffs in too many newsrooms create or convey what advocates want us to know “without ever hitting the streets” to gather and verify facts of life by meeting people face-to-face. These days, large portions of the population act as journalists gathering and spreading information–or misinformation–while “we remain mere spectators” who are not encountering the human (and inevitably divine) truths around us. “Curiosity, openness, and passion” are lacking. Few participants in this space are testifying to the deepest stories in our lives-a tragic lapse when popes of the past have told us that faith-seekers (or simply truth-seekers and trust-seekers) demand not only teachers, but witnesses. “That is how Christian faith begins, and how it is communicated: as direct knowledge, born of experience and not of hearsay,” Pope Francis writes.
- There is more at stake than the loss of some human-interest stories that might inspire us. First, the absence of reportorial zeal shows we have lost our sense of wonder and our eagerness to be surprised by the other; we fail to see how that person is impressively different from us and remarkably similar to us. Second, we are learning only about the people or circumstances backed by manipulators; we receive only some of the information we need to become well-formed agents of justice and mercy. For example, as the Pope points out, if we learn tidbits about international COVID-19 vaccine delays “only through the lens of the richer nations,” then we and our news media are “keeping two sets of books.”
- While the Internet is a powerful means for sharing truths and learning things we might never have known, social media are risky spreaders of misinformation and blockers of discernment and responsibility. Indeed we do have a responsibility to battle “fake news”–which Francis discussed in his 2018 World Communications Day message–“by exposing it,” he says. “All of us are to be witnesses of the truth: to go, to see, and to share.”
- So much of the rhetoric that rushes at us through a digital firehose is devoid of meaning. Francis quotes Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice as saying the empty facts “are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: You shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.” This danger of wasting time reminds me of the TV program, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”. That particular ad-lib comedy show has the virtue of being entertaining and clever, but I hear the Shakespeare metaphor for modern punditry when the TV host speaks; she welcomes us to “the game where everything’s made up and the points don’t matter.”
- The Pope tells us time is not wasted when the Gospel comes alive for us thanks to “the compelling witness of people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus.” The words of Scripture do indeed bear fruit in people’s lives when, as Saint Augustine remarked, “we have books in our hearts, but the facts before our eyes.” Francis adds, “For two millennia, a chain of such encounters has communicated the attractiveness of the Christian adventure.”
- Francis personifies this adventure by making a reference that gave me a happy surprise. He speaks of Blessed Manuel Lozano Garrido, a journalist and Catholic who was born 100 years ago in Spain. He is the first lay journalist to have been beatified, and his life captured the potential joy of a journalist who is seeking truth by experiencing people and placing curiosity and wonder in the service of compassion, truth-seeking, and the common good. He even wrote a “Decalogue for the Journalist” that expresses this joy eloquently. When others read what you have written, he tells the periodista, “they too can touch first-hand the vibrant miracle of life.”
- The Pope ends his message with a prayer that combines all of these points well:
“:Lord, teach us to move beyond ourselves, and to set out in search of truth. Teach us to go out and see, teach us to listen, not to entertain prejudices or draw hasty conclusions. Teach us to go where no one else will go, to take the time needed to understand, to pay attention to the essentials, not to be distracted by the superfluous, to distinguish deceptive appearances from the truth. Grant us the grace to recognize your dwelling places in our world and the honesty needed to tell others what we have seen.” The invitation to “come and see” is thus revealed as something all of us communicators have a duty to accept and a reason to embrace. This message for the 55th World Communications Day reminds us of our need for experiences that rise above the sterile, distracted, isolationist status of too much news in 2021–a journalism that can deform us as much as it can form and inform us.
See all of Bill Schmitt’s blog posts on communications and Catholic values here at OnWord.net. See his CV and resume here. Find a collection of his recent accomplishments, including links to radio and podcast productions, here. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. See his Linked-in profile.