In the coming weeks, with my move to DC imminent, I will be stepping down from my current role as Communications Officer for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. I began this job almost two years ago now, with no prior experience and no expertise; simply with an enthusiasm for the project and a passion for evangelisation, especially through new means, such as social media. And I certainly don’t claim to be anything like an expert now. I have had no formal training. I learned to write press releases from the gentle criticisms sent me by friendly journalists, and I have tried to present our work and mission in a positive light, sometimes in the face of negative or unthinking rebuke, even from Catholic sources. I don’t think we’ve done a bad job, and the Ordinariate is still in most of the Church press most weeks, and in the national press on a regular basis too.
At some level, though, it isn’t the press work that I think has been the greatest success, nor the primary focus of our work, because I do not believe that this is where the Church should be focussing her energies in the field of communications. Too often we are on the back-foot; responding to criticisms or situations, or buffeting the wires with information of limited interest to the public. Too often we are responsive, rather than pro-active; often failing to make real use of the opportunities presented to us to speak explicitly and articulately about the central precepts of the faith. Too often we have become experts in media work at the cost of becoming weak practitioners in the task of evangelisation.
This is seen particularly in two places. First, in social and new media we find large numbers of Catholic journalists, organisations, active lay faithful, and priests (and one English bishop, so far) making use of Twitter and Facebook. This is a seriously positive step forward, essential for raising awareness of the life of the Church, and also for reaching beyond our own flocks and friends. It is a tool of communication and of evangelisation. The problem comes, though, when an imbalance – usually communication over evangelisation – creeps in, either be poor individual judgement or a lack of prudence (i.e. engaging in polemical arguments or point-scoring against others), or – and this is perhaps more easily solved – because an organisation or individual adopts a ‘mediacentric’ view (i.e. seeking to promote news to journalists, rather than Christ to the world). If we fail to make use of the ‘digital continent’ as – in Pope Benedict’s words – ‘portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelisation’, then we are simply wasting our time out there, and engaging in what Pope Francis might call a ‘self-referential’ exercise, that does little to truly promote the gospel.
Secondly, it is a cause of some real concern that there is growing number of ‘professional Catholic’ journalists and commentators – lay and clerical. These are people who make use of their Catholic ‘credentials’ as a means of giving a particular view or outlook on a story – often in a secular sphere – but who do not make use of their chosen outlet (and increased portfolio) for pure, raw evangelisation. Be it Catholic newspapers or Twitter feeds, the church of the New Evangelisation has little time for those who simply wish to comment on the life of the Church, without themselves engaging actively in the central reason for the incarnation: bringing the light of Christ to the darkness of the world. Anyone who seeks to work for the Church – in whatever capacity – needs to speak regularly and clearly about the transformative love of Christ in their lives and the life of the Church, if they are to avoid painting a picture of a mere institution rather than the Mystical Body of Christ.
My call, then, is for a renewal in Catholic communications, for them to really become exactly that. It is a call to move away from ‘Catholics doing media’, and towards Catholics communicating the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, more explicitly and more comprehensively than ever before. We need a renewal that will see evangelisation, and the person of Jesus Christ, put at the centre of all that we do and say, so that every interview given, every press release issued, every message tweeted, will speak of Jesus Christ, and will explicitly seek to draw others to him.
If that means a story isn’t published, or our comment isn’t sought – fine. A content-light article or a painfully balanced piece isn’t going to bring the world to Christ. What might, is our own courageous witness to the joy and delight that comes from knowing the Lord Jesus in his holy Church, and that can’t be hidden under a bushel for the sake of journalistic credibility, press protocol, or an impressive scoop.