EVERY YEAR in the Catholic Church worldwide we keep the Sunday before Pentecost (which is either the Sunday after Ascension, as it is now again in this country, or Ascension Day itself) as World Communications Day, linked to the Lord’s commandment to his disciples as he left their sight that they should go and preach the gospel to all nations. Each year the pope publishes a special message, and this year’s from Pope Francis reflects on social media and the internet, drawing on words from the letter to the Ephesians, ‘We are members one of another’ (one of the official logos is shown here). The Holy Father is concerned that in spite of appearances, online communication often doesn’t lead to a real sense of community among its users, but rather an artificial sense of belonging, concealing a worsening culture of individualism and a tendency for people, especially the young, to become excessively inward-looking. You can download the whole document HERE (and it is also on the noticeboard in the porch).
Journalism and work in all aspects of the communications media is one of the many issues addressed by that part of the Christian moral and theological tradition known as Catholic Social Teaching. The Catholic Church not only depends on the media to communicate our message effectively; we also look at the society and world through the eyes of religious faith, we will have some-thing to say about these things. At the heart of how we look at the world of communication is what we believe about truth, over and against falsehood. ‘You shall not bear false witness’ is one of the Ten Commandments; in the words of the Tom Lehrer song, ‘Lying, she knew, was a sin.’
On the one hand, we have in the life of the Church unprecedented means of communicating Christianity. Just in this parish we have this newsletter, our parish website (on which it appears), our means of broadcasting our acts of worship, live and recorded, all over the world; we also have a parish Facebook page. Not only that, our striking church building is itself an act of communication, a statement. It is not only a place for worship, set aside for this purpose when it was consecrated, it is a material symbol of God’s love, made real in the person of Jesus Christ. It is because our building is a statement. Therefore we care for it, we make sure it is open and inviting all the time; it is a means of communication. And outside our parish the Church is in a stronger position than in the past to communicate our message. Numerous websites enable us to access material within seconds; it’s also remarkable that the comparatively small Catholic community in this country can sustain four weekly newspapers* and countless other journals.
But it’s not all rosy: while there are many good Catholic blogs and websites, there are also some from within our community which do damage. Some are not always truthful, or they are motivated by partisanship, by contempt for some people or groups within the Church, or by disloyalty to the leaders of the Church. Of course, our own leaders can get communication wrong too: one reason why child abuse scandals in the Church have done so much damage is that bishops and their communications officers have sometimes not told the truth or have concealed the wickedness that has been committed. A culture of openness and transparency in the Church is still in some ways a long way off.
Things are no better when we look at communications and the media in general. In addition to what the Holy Father addresses in his message, we should be concerned at standards of truthful-ness in journalism and the media in general. Journalism is a noble profession, and this Sunday we should pay tribute to journalists who risk their lives and are killed all over the world in the service of communicating the truth. However, in media and in much of political life we’re very aware of untruthfulness, of public figures who get away with bare-faced lies, and are often not challenged by compliant journalists. Communication is often not only false but hypocritical: so when a far-Right populist politician simultaneously attacks the pope and brandishes a crucifix, he is abusing sacred symbols to bolster his false message, his narrative of hatred. Christianity is often used by those who know nothing about it.
We should not be surprised at such sinfulness in the world of communication. One of the traditional titles of Satan is The Father of Lies. As we pray at this point in the Easter season for the gift of the Holy Spirit, we need to pray particularly on this World Communications Day for the gift of discernment: the ability to recognise and name falsehood, sin and evil in our society and in the world.
We ask you this Sunday to help the Church’s leaders in this country to do a good job in this area, through the Communications and Media office in our Bishops Conference, for which there is a second collection: please give generously.
*Fr Ashley mentions in this article the fact that in England we can sustain four Catholic weekly publications. All these are available from the porch and make interesting and thought provoking reading. Have you thought about taking a Catholic newspaper or periodical on a regular basis? It will help you keep abreast of what is happening in the Church and keep you informed of developments and changes. We have available the Catholic Herald, The Tablet, The Universe and Catholic Times. Take a look at the CTS stand too which has a selection of little books on a variety of interesting topics.