Sunday, July 2, 2017

Catholic Communicators of the World Meet in Quebec

Catholic Communicators of the World Meet in Quebec

One of Pope Francis’s best known quotes is the one telling priests they ought to have the smell of the sheep. That seems to me to be the take-away from the 2017 SIGNIS World Congress that took place June 19-21 at Laval University in Quebec City.

Officially, the theme of the congress was “Promoting Stories of Hope.”

SIGNIS is the Rome-based world organization of Catholic communicators, representing about 100 countries on six continents. It has been described as “an interface between the sacred and the secular.” The world congress is held every three years.
Some of the many SIGNIS reps from Asia
SIGNIS and the annual Catholic Media Conference planned overlapping, shared congresses, which was a first. The overlapping day, June 21, included notable shared sessions and Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec’s Old City with Cardinal Gerald LaCroix.  The cardinal's message to the Church's communications people was well received.
Cardinal LaCroix preaching; photo shot with my camera by Amy Morris
while I was seated with concelebrants off to the left side of the sanctuary.
The congress brought together some 300 Catholic communicators from about 50 countries—filmmakers, TV and radio producers, editors, diocesan directors of communications, publishers, exhibitors, et al.
SIGNIS opening session, Monday morning, June 19
I regularly attend the Catholic Media Conference, so was already lined up to be in Quebec as of Tuesday afternoon, June 20.  But SDB general councilor Fr. Filiberto Gonzalez asked me (through Fr. Dennis Donovan) to attend the SIGNIS congress also, so that there would be a Salesian presence there. As it turned out, there were four SDBs present: Fr. Ambrose Pereira from the Solomon Islands, secretary of the Department of Communication and Youth Ministry for the Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea; Fr. Sebastian Koladiyil from Nairobi, editor of the East Africa Salesian Bulletin, among other roles; and Fr. Leos Ryska from Prague, founder and director of Catholic TV station (Television Noe); and this humble newsletter editor.
Frs. Pereira, Ryska, Mendl, and Koladiyil
The 4 SDBs outnumbered the 3 Daughters of St. Paul, 2 Jesuits of whom I was aware, and 1 bishop who attended, Auxiliary Marc Pelchat of Quebec. (2 other bishops showed for CMC, in addition to Bp. Pelchat.) 

Spiritual life of the “nones” is based on relationships

Numerous speakers, both “keynoters” and panelists, in both plenary sessions and the smaller “breakout” or professional-area sessions, spoke indirectly of the need for communicators to be attuned to the sheep of the Lord’s flock. At least one, Fr. Richard Leonard, SJ, from Australia was explicit about that with reference to clergy.
Dr. Elizabeth Drescher & panel of respondents
For instance, Dr. Elizabeth Drescher from Santa Clara University spoke of the changes in people’s spirituality and religious practice, with heavy emphasis on the “nones” (35% of Americans under age 30 are religiously unaffiliated). She reported that surveys show the most spiritually meaningful experiences for the young to be Fido (pets), food, family, and friends. These are activities of everyday life. (Prayer ranked 5th.) Least spiritually significant for the young are attending worship and participating in church-related activities. The new reality of spiritual life is based on relationships: diverse, pluralistic, networked, experiential, incarnational, digitally integrated.

We’re seeing a series of shifts, she said:
            -- in belief, from cognitive to experiential;
            -- in behavior, from rules and ritual to narrative;
            -- in belonging, from communitarianism to cosmopolitanism;
            -- in being and becoming, from a fixed identity to an evolving narrative identity.

She continued: The more closely a story can be tied to people’s everyday lives (day-to-day expressions of faith), the more it carries meaning for people. We need to listen to what people find meaningful and respond to that.

Responding to Dr. Drescher, panelist Guy Marchessant (professor emeritus, St. Paul University, Ottawa), suggested that the key terms of Dr. Drescher’s presentation seemed to be “network, relational, incarnational.” Religion is no longer a Sunday experience but a daily one. It’s no longer top-down but bottom-up or horizontal. In turn, this implies changes in our teaching, celebrating, and governing. It’s not the message that counts any longer but one’s relationship with the other.

One commenter from the floor observed that since Vatican II the Church has noted the value and necessity of the young speaking to and evangelizing the young.

Jesus expresses God’s solidarity with human beings

In a breakout session about communicating faith and hope in difficult situations (pain, loss, tragedy), Fr. Leonard, director of the Australian Catholic Film Office, said that our story of hope is that God is good—“in Jesus Christ our Lord.” The most underrated concept in theology is the friendship and companionship of God. Jesus displayed God’s solidarity with humanity, and we can communicate God through our own solidarity with people who are suffering.

As part of a panel speaking about “Building Peace and Hope in a World of Cultural and Religious Diversity,” Jaime Carril from Chile commented that the most important value for dialog is the ability to listen. Compassion also is critical.

In a session titled “Content Creativity,” Michael Jones from Maryknoll USA told his audience that the key to creativity is sensitivity to what’s in front of the reporter or writer.

Plenary speaker Dr. Michael Higgins of Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn., spoke of reverence for the word/Word. Among other remarks, he quoted the late Fr. Henri Nouwen: the work of the priest is communion, bringing people together through and around the Word. Language can be a companion of the Divinity, said Dr. Higgins.

It seems to me that the examples above illustrate calls to smell like the sheep—at least as important for priest and religious evangelizers as for people working as communicators in fields other than the pulpit or classroom.
A panel of Fr. Luis Garcia Orso, Magali Van Reeth, Fr. Peter Malone, Sr. Nancy Usselmann,
and Abdul Rehman Malik discusses religious themes in recent films.
Martin Scorsese found communion in his boyhood parish

But the idea of communion and sensitivity to the sheep also came from no less a source than filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

The core of the SIGNIS-CMC shared sessions on Wednesday, June 21, was a screening of Mr. Scorsese’s most recent movie, Silence, and a conversation with Mr. Scorsese. Silence is a story based on the persecutions of Christians in 17th-century Japan. It took Mr. Scorsese 27 years to make the film after he read Shusaku Endo’s novel in 1989. On stage in front of between 400 and 500 captivated Catholic communicators, the legendary director engaged in “a conversation” with writer Paul Elie.
Martin Scorsese accepts an award from the Catholic Press Assn. and SIGNIS at dinner on June 21.
Mr. Scorsese started with his boyhood experiences at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan’s Little Italy. The church offered an element of peace amid the noisy streets and the quiet pervasiveness of organized crime. Early on, he saw different ideas of power: street power, parental power, and church power (that power offered balm and peace). Since asthma kept him from activities that most kids enjoyed, the cathedral and the movies were his outlets and stirred his imagination. “You don’t see cinema once and throw it away; it stays with you.”

Church imagery in the 1950s was of martyrs and suffering—quite a different set of images than Hollywood offered at that time concerning Catholicism. The parish also presented liturgy, pageantry, Holy Communion, community, a sense of right and wrong. The cathedral’s focus and its rituals helped one get to the core of Christianity.

Unlike the parish’s other clergy (good men though they were), the young assistant pastor, Fr. Francis Principe, paid attention to the youths, guiding them in how to transition from their parents’ Italian culture to America’s, to pay attention to their minds and to learning, to beware of the ethic of the streets. They learned that professional recognition isn’t the highest value; rather, family, religion, and school are to be valued.

At a formal dinner on Wednesday evening, Mr. Scorsese was presented with an award from the Catholic Press Association and SIGNIS for excellence in filmmaking.

The message of Silence

Martin Scorsese explained on Wednesday afternoon that his movie explores our search for meaning when what’s right and wrong isn’t obvious. As with any film, one must look beyond the image. What’s the idea being presented, the spiritual question? Silence challenges us to ask what we’re looking for in our own lives, regardless of our age. How do we live who we are? The key issues to face are love, trust, and betrayal.

Mr. Scorsese’ interlocutor, Paul Elie, had written earlier in the New York Times Magazine (11/26/16): “‘Silence’ is a novel for our time: It locates, in the missionary past, so many of the religious matters that vex us in the postsecular present — the claims to universal truths in diverse societies, the conflict between a profession of faith and the expression of it, and the seeming silence of God while believers are drawn into violence on his behalf.”

Other significant events and observations

Speaking of St. Michael’s University of the University of Toronto, its president David Mulroney said: “We have to live the mission, communicate the mission. . . . You can’t communicate who you are if you don’t know who you are.”

John Zokovitch of Pax Christi has observed that extremism arises from situations of hopelessness, especially in the young.

Fr. Tom Rosica, CSB, defined the mission of Canada’s Salt + Light media as “opening doors and building bridges.” He stated that we must offer the world solid, beautiful content, always respectfully, and not be concerned about ratings or hits. People respect and respond to truth and beauty. “Joy and hope are the weapons of mass construction.”

Addressing “Finding Truth in the Age of Digital Propaganda,” Dr. Renee Hobbs of the University of Rhode Island said, “The best digital software is mindware,” i.e., being aware of what we’re hearing or watching.

Reporter Sebastian Gomes from Salt + Light made these points among others:
     -- Catholics have a great story to tell, and we have to tell it well.
     -- It’s important to be professional: to give good, timely, respectful information.
     -- Build personal relationships.

Brenda Riojas described a program of the Brownsville diocesan communications office, a “mobile journalism” partnership with youths in the parishes, some as young as 11. This engages them in their parishes and also catechizes them. They start with photography, which is easier to teach and which grabs their interest faster than writing does.

“Babble-on: The Role of the Word in a Barrage of Words”

Dr. Michael Higgins’s address on the word/Word was cited above. (It wasn’t always clear when he was referring to the Word of God and when to “mere human words.”) More from that presentation:

Our mission as Catholic communicators is to protect the word. The word is some jeopardy and needs to be recovered. “A lot of language is steeped in opacity.” Facts are foundational. Words must represent reality. Words have to be handled with reverence.

There’s some concomitance and some divergence in the use of words between the religious and the secular spheres. The meaning of the word has been corroded; discourse has coarsened. E.g., what does “mercy” mean today?

John Paul II spent the bulk of his pontificate attacking the lie that was Soviet hegemony. We renew, cleanse, and redeem the word. The Word will undo the chaos of lies. People listen to great orators and poets because they’re looking for truth.
Some of the audience, including Fr. Pat McCloskey, OFM, line up to comment on Dr. Higgins's address

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