Pope Addresses Challenge of Utilizing Mass Media

VATICAN CITY — A new apostolic letter issued by Pope John Paul II reflects on the challenges from mass media facing the Church, and outlines how to utilize it to spread the message of the Gospel.

“The Rapid Development” commemorates 40 years since the Second Vatican Council’s decree on communications, Inter Mirifica. It was released Feb. 21 by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

The letter stressed particular issues for Catholics, acknowledging the media as a “precious aid” for spreading the Gospel and suggesting ways in which the Church could make use of its potential.

“The world of mass media also has need of Christ’s redemption,” the Pope wrote in his most reflective passage of the letter. “In the Word made flesh, communication itself takes on its most profound meaning.”

The Holy Father’s letter also urged believers to make the request of disciples to Our Lord, “Teach us to pray,” a personal plea.

“We can ask the Lord to help us to understand how to communicate with God and with other human beings through the marvelous communications media,” the Pope said.

Despite rapid advances in mass communications and efforts by the Church to capitalize on the media revolution, the Gospel message still fails to have the outreach many Catholics would like.

Some criticize the Church for being a poor messenger; others argue that the message needs to be presented in a more compelling way. However, Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said the problem has more to do with receptivity.

“Jesus Christ was the perfect messenger with the perfect message, and he was killed for it,” he said, at the press conference announcing the letter’s release. The problem, he argued, is not so much that the Church is failing in its duty to preach the Gospel, but that “some people just don’t want to hear the message.”

‘Absence of Meaning’

“The Rapid Development” draws attention to some of the challenges, in particular erroneous philosophies absent of Christian values, which are prevalent in society.

“There exists the conviction that the time of certainties is irretrievably past,” the Holy Father stated. “Many people, in fact, believe that humanity must learn to live in a climate governed by an absence of meaning, by the provisional and by the fleeting.” Confronting such mindsets, he added, is a “serious challenge” for believers.

The apostolic letter gives a number of clues on how to tackle this challenge, stressing the importance of good formation (to promote service rather than manipulation), maximum participation (so that everyone’s view is heard), and dialogue (to promote solidarity and peace).

Throughout his papacy, John Paul has recognized the media’s potential and has striven to make good use of it. It presents an opportunity, he said in the letter, of presenting the faith in “the most varied ways imaginable” and offering to all who search the opportunity of “entering into dialogue with the mystery of God, revealed fully in Christ Jesus.”

Still, more concrete work is necessary to make the Church more effective in the media and, for this reason, the Pope called on the Church to re-examine her attitude towards the social communications industry.

“The current phenomenon of communications impels the Church towards a sort of pastoral and cultural revision, so as to deal adequately with the times in which we live,” he stated. “The Church is not only called upon to use the mass media to spread the Gospel but, today more than ever, to integrate the message of salvation into the ‘new culture’ that these powerful means of communication create and amplify.

“Pastors, above all, must assume this responsibility,” the Holy Father added. “Everything possible must be done so that the Gospel might permeate society, stimulating people to listen to and embrace its message.”

Speaking at the press conference, Bishop Renato Boccardo, outgoing secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said that the Church cannot be silent when so many non-Christian representations of the meaning of life are presented in the arena of public debate.

“All we need to do is recall how so often television becomes a powerful instrument for personal aggression, for occasions of denigration and for battle arenas that are often vulgar and tasteless,” he said.

Bishop Boccardo, who was recently named Secretary General of Vatican City State, pointed out the need for serious reflection among members of the media. In particular, the Vatican official discussed how the Church could guide them to “undertake a path of new humanism” that places the human person at the center.

“Believers, men and women who have man’s destiny at heart, have the responsibility for cultural discernment,” he said. “We are not asked to have shining armor to overcome Goliath, but simply to know how to choose a few stones, the right ones, with the wisdom and courage of David.”

Be Not Afraid

The Pope concludes the apostolic letter by counseling the faithful working in the media “not to be afraid” of new technologies, opposition or personal weakness. A journalist at the Feb. 21 press conference asked pointedly whether the Vatican itself has answered the Pope’s call not to be afraid of the media.

Replied Bishop Boccardo, “The Pope writes that communication calls for transparency, and the invitation is for all, for those who are within and those who are outside.”

Archbishop Foley said presenting the Church’s message will always pose problems in today’s consumerist societies.

“One of the problems is that a lot of people don’t reflect on their lives because there are so many distractions,” he said. “We should be using the media effectively, but we’re not selling toothpaste, we’re not looking for ratings, we’re looking to deepen meaning in people’s lives and to help them realize the most important thing in their own life — their own destiny.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.