Vatican to Catholics: Don't Like the Media? Fix It!

VATICAN CITY — Oddly enough, one of the last celebrations of the Great Jubilee that ends Jan. 6 (see back page) was the Jubilee for Entertainers.

Not so odd, though, Vatican media point-man Archbishop John Foley told the Register, when you consider the emphasis our culture puts on entertainment — and the duty Catholics have to change it.

Celebrating a Jubilee Mass attended by thousands of actors, singers and other performers, Pope John Paul II urged the entertainment industry to act responsibly and promote a healthy concept of fun.

Addressing some 40,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square Dec. 17 for the Jubilee for Entertainers, the Pope told them to keep in mind the rights and needs of their audience, especially children.

“Do not let yourselves be conditioned by sheer economic or ideological interests,” he told the crowd, which included film and television personalities, musicians and entertainment executives. “Society thus must give thanks to those who produce intelligent and relaxing broadcasts and programs that are enjoyable without being alienating, funny but not vulgar. Spreading authentic cheer can be a genuine form of social charity.”

During the Mass, men and women on stilts gingerly bent down to receive Communion from priests who strained to reach the performers' outstretched hands above them. Among some 200 participants from the United States were Jack Shea, head of the Directors Guild of America, and his wife, Patt Shea, president of the Catholics in Media Association. At the beginning of the Mass, Jack Shea gave a brief address to the Holy Father on behalf of those who work in the entertainment industry.

“I have never spoken to a live audience that large — it was overwhelming,” said Shea. “I was very happy to thank the Holy Father for his interest in our work and to pray with him that entertainment would be used for good purposes.

“It's very important to express that the world of entertainment can be a wonderful tool for God's people,” Shea continued. “Hollywood is made up of all kinds of people — some who are very good and some who are not. Because of our high visibility, we can make an easy target. But we have the same obligation as anybody else — to tell the truth and to follow our conscience in our work.”

The Mass included other people from the world of entertainment. The first reading, in French, was done by Robert Molhant, president of the International Association of Catholics in Cinema. Scott Armstrong, a deacon who was previously an orchestra violinist in western Australia, read the Gospel.

The Jubilee for Entertainers was organized under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Its president, Archbishop Foley, spoke with the Register about the event.

Register: What was the main purpose of holding a special Jubilee for entertainers?

Archbishop Foley: Our council is responsible for contacts both with news media and the world of entertainment — we regularly have contact with Hollywood and New York. Of course, the Holy Father himself is very interested in the world of theater and actors and writers, and he knows from his own work in the theater as a young man the impact that the dramatic world can have.

The purpose of the Jubilee was just what the Holy Father said to them in his homily: That they should be proud of their work, and that they should do work of which they can be proud in every respect.

People who work in entertainment also need spiritual care. During the Jubilee events, there was a great moment when the owner of some circuses here in Italy, Liliana Orfei, came out dressed as a clown and offered a “clown's prayer.” She said that clowns, who seek to make others happy, also need to be looked after, they too need the grace of God and to be ministered to by the Church.

Does the entertainer — the novelist, the playwright, the composer, the screenwriter — have to do more than just entertain? Is it enough to provide good entertainment, if only as a diversion?

Entertainment is valuable in itself if it brings joy and refreshment. But entertainment can also do much more than that. Writers can give insight into human nature — sometimes it is more valuable to read a novel than a history book. The dramatist can show us something of ourselves by portraying the “inner story” of the characters, their “inner struggles,” their inner aspirations. The dramatist is artistically free to go beyond the merely factual to the profoundly real.

From the North American perspective at least, can it be said that we simply have too much entertainment?

We have too much of everything, in a certain sense, and that would include information and entertainment. The only thing we do not have too much of is time. So we have to make intelligent choices. What a shame to waste time, therefore, on something that is morally destructive — the ultimate waste of time — or merely distracting instead of truly refreshing.

Once we spend a moment, it is spent forever. Every moment must be invested well, and that includes time given to entertainment. Education in the constructive use of time is an important part of “media education,” which today in places like Canada and the United States is an essential part of moral formation.

It is not that every program needs to be a specifically “moral” piece of entertainment — though of course it should never be morally destructive. But entertainment should be such that it enriches the person; it should help to refresh and to uplift the person. So we should seek entertainment and information that we truly need, and not, for example, just seek after gossip or mere distractions, as many television talk shows do.

Do these same concerns apply in other parts of the world?

Clearly, the same issues are present in Europe. The world of electronic media is reaching everywhere now, including parts of the developing world. While it does bring greater opportunities, it is also a greater intrusion. So, for example, the traditional storytelling within families and cultures can be displaced.

Should this Jubilee be understood as a particular invitation for Catholics to enter the world of entertainment, not just as a profession, but also as a mission or vocation?

I got involved in the media after reading a book by Maryknoll Father James Keller, You Can Change the World.

He was the founder of the Christopher Movement, and in that book he recommended that people ought to get involved in the media and other areas of society in which they could bring a Christian influence. So I got involved in writing radio plays on the lives of the saints.

I know of many Christians who got involved in the world of entertainment because they liked it and it was a challenge, but also because they saw it as socially significant. There are many who get involved in the entertainment industry not only to make a living but also to offer a service. It is possible to make a very good living, but for many the industry is a very difficult and risky profession.

I am not canonizing him, but to take one example, the actor Martin Sheen — who currently has a hit series The West Wing — is a Catholic who has looked for such roles in his career.

(CNS contributed to this article.)