LONDON — The Church and the mass media have not had an easy relationship in recent months. But a new initiative in Britain looks to change that.
With a papal visit coming in September, and no shortage of controversial material hitting the headlines, a group of lay Catholics came up with a radical new approach. “Catholic Voices” is an independent team of young Catholics who are prepared to go on TV or radio to tackle any issue that comes along.
The Vatican July 5 confirmed Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom, where he will meet Queen Elizabeth II and beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman.
During his four-day visit Sept. 16-19, the Pope will fly to Scotland to be welcomed by Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, in Edinburgh at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the queen’s official residence in Scotland, the Vatican said in a written statement. Prince Philip is the duke of Edinburgh.
The Pope will preside over an outdoor Mass in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow, Scotland. He will meet with political, cultural and business leaders in Westminster Hall in London. The Pope will participate in an ecumenical celebration in Westminster Abbey, celebrate Mass in Westminster Cathedral, and take part in a prayer vigil in London’s Hyde Park.
Pope Benedict will preside at the beatification ceremony of Cardinal Newman in Cofton Park, Birmingham. It will be the first beatification he has carried out as Pope.
The general picture for the Church as Britain awaits the visit is not a good one. The mass media never mentions the Pope without referring to the child-abuse crisis. The Times newspaper, among others, has called for his resignation, and a forthcoming TV documentary about him is to be hosted by a leading homosexual-rights campaigner who has previously interrupted Church services and is famous for his passionate opposition to Christian moral teachings. Church attendance among all denominations is low, and most students at Catholic secondary schools do not attend Mass regularly.
Further, the new government in Great Britain has recently emphasized its support for the homosexual lobby with a celebratory reception for homosexuals attended by Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron has already voiced his opposition to the Pope on the homosexual-rights issue.
In this climate, young Catholic defenders of the Church face many challenges. They will not be debating in a friendly climate.
“We are working for the Church and part of the Church, but in a sense independent of it,” said Jack Valero, a coordinator of the Catholic Voices project along with journalist Austen Ivereigh and broadcaster Kathleen Griffin. “We realized that it is laypeople who should be the experts here. We had the idea of creating a team of people who would be prepared to be trained to speak up in the media, and we put out a call for volunteers. We wondered how many would come forward, but we found huge numbers — they just kept on coming forward, and in the end, we had to close the doors because we had so many.”
The call for volunteers was for Catholics between the ages of 20 and 40.
“We found that several came from the movements — Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenate (the Neocatechumenal Way), Communion and Liberation, and so on — but there are also a good many young people who are simply practicing their faith, living it out, active in their own local parishes and keen to speak up,” said Valero. “I didn’t have so much faith that we’d find so many; I thought we’d have to dig deep. But we were almost overwhelmed by the numbers.”
The project took off this spring. “The plan was to train people from March to July, and then offer them to the media in August,” Valero said. “But the huge publicity over the child-abuse issue of course came up, and so Austen and I had to tackle a lot of media interviews right away in March and April. In a sense, that was a good thing, because it showed the young people the practical realities right from the start. They were meeting us at the training sessions having already seen us on TV, and that gave them a lot of confidence.”
No Stranger to Controversy
As a director of Opus Dei in Britain, Valero is no stranger to controversy. He was outspoken in the media, for example, when The Da Vinci Code film, with its controversial portrayal of Opus Dei, was released. A genial Spaniard with an easy manner and a good sense of humor, his task in establishing the media evangelization venture was not only to train the young volunteers, but also to raise funds.
“We worked out that we needed £50,000, and we got a donation of £25,000 right at the start,” he said. “So far, we raised another £12,500, so we are well on the way. The training sessions are going extremely well. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, and I’m impressed with the quality of the people we have recruited.”
People like Daniel Cardona, a psychiatrist; Robert Colquhoun, the author of a book on Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body; Laura Crowley, a barrister; Jim Carr, a pharmacist; and Neil D’Aguiar, a teacher. They have all been attending training sessions in London. A recent session tackled the question of the Church and science, with talks on different subjects, then discussion, a time for questions, and practice in media tactics.
Volunteer Robert Colquhoun is enthusiastic: “The training so far has been really good: excellent sessions on the moral issues of the day, and then mock-up radio and TV interviews, and sessions where we get to see things from the media point of view. We’re learning that we have to show what we can offer; we have to be ready to help. The interviewer wants to get a good program, and so do we — so we’re all in this together.”
As part of the training, the team has done some live broadcasting with Premier, a Christian radio station, taking part in debates about sex education and contraception.
“The response from the media has been great,” Valero said. “The main problem has often been that a TV or radio program just can’t get a Catholic to come and speak, especially at short notice. I went to the BBC and TV companies to market our team, and the reaction was simply: ‘Yes — we want them!’ We are finding that lots and lots of doors are opening.”
The Voices team is ready to be media commentators. “We’re all very keen and raring to go in the run-up to the Pope’s visit,” Valero said. “I think the project will pay multiple dividends in the longer term, too. It’s great to have a team of down-to-earth people who are prepared to talk in a way that people can understand.”
Valero says their voices are needed.
“The point to remember is that there is so much ignorance about religion and about religious beliefs,” he said. “We need people who can explain the Catholic position simply and clearly — and who are ordinary people; who are teachers or lawyers or working in post offices or whatever — so that the listener will feel Now I understand and perhaps for the first time will see what the Church is saying.”
CNS contributed to this report.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.