Media: Well Worth the Church's Effort

Author: Archbishop John Foley


Media: Well Worth the Church's Effort

Address by Archbishop John Foley to New Bishops

ROME, 4 NOV. 2006 (ZENIT)

Here is an adapted excerpt from an address that Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, gave at a meeting of new bishops Sept. 23. The meeting was at the Regina Apostolorum university.

* * *

"The Bishop and the Communications Media"

My brother bishops:

It is truly a joy to be with you as you gather here in Rome at the beginning of your episcopate for a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter, for an encounter with our Holy Father, the successor of Peter, and for reflection on various themes which can have great importance in your own ministry as bishops.

Naturally, as president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, I am delighted that your relationship with and use of the communications media form part of the reflections.

Frankly, I am convinced that communication is THE essential work of a bishop. Jesus has told us to teach all nations and we have been advised to preach from the housetops (perhaps now TO the housetops, since that is where the television antennae are normally located). Certainly, nothing can help our task of teaching and preaching more than the communications media, and sometimes nothing can complicate our responsibility to teach and preach more than the communications media. ...

At the Second Vatican Council, one of the first two documents approved in 1963 by the Council Fathers and promulgated by the Holy Father, then Pope Paul VI, was the decree on social communications, "Inter Mirifica." That document, in addition to treating generally of the theme of communications, referred to in Italian as "social communications," because the single word "communications," I am told, could also refer to travel by airplane, train and bus — that document made three concrete suggestions.

First, it asked for the establishment of a special Vatican department to treat of all the communications media, which then consisted of the press, radio, television and cinema. Now, it would have to include Internet and even portable telephones given their new capacities.

That department, first called the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications and later raised to the level of a Council, a full dicastery of the Roman Curia, was established early in 1964. ...

Second, "Inter Mirifica" called for the establishment of World Communications Day, a day which the bishops of the world later recommended should be celebrated on the Sunday before Pentecost. By the way, no other celebration of a World Day was called for or approved by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, so I hope that you are all faithful promoters of World Communications Day in your dioceses and bishops' conferences. ...

Third, the Holy Father and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in "Inter Mirifica" called for the preparation of a pastoral instruction on social communications for the use of the bishops of the world, and that was done in 1971 with the publication of the superb document, "Communio et Progressio." ...

Twenty years later, in response to technological advances, political changes, such as the collapse of communism, and the approach of the third millennium, our Council published a supplement to that pastoral instruction entitled "Aetatis Novae," "At the Dawn of a New Era."

According to "Aetatis Novae," it is essential for every diocese and bishops' conference to have a pastoral plan for social communications and to make a communications aspect part of every pastoral plan, whether it be a plan in education, in health care, in charity, or in the social doctrine and ministry of the Church. ...

Basing my remarks now fundamentally on "Aetatis Novae," let us examine what a bishop can and, I think, should do in the field of communications.

First, I think it is essential that every diocese have a communications officer — one whose principal task is what might be called today public relations.

That communications officer, and — in smaller diocese — that well may be the bishop himself, should get to know the communicators in the diocese in local newspapers, in the news departments of the radio and television stations and even in the advertising agencies.

The communications officer should be always available to answer questions and he (or she) should have a reputation for truthfulness, accuracy and timeliness. The demands of the media may sometimes seem unreasonable, but the opportunities offered for the proclamation of the message of Christ and of his Church are irretrievable — and so we should be ready to respond not at our convenience but when the media make their requests. We can appreciate from recent scandals how important that is.

If an atmosphere of trust has been established, then the media will be open to suggestions from such a public relations officer on worthwhile stories to cover — stories about what we can call the hidden saints who do heroic work with the sick, with the troubled, with the handicapped, with the young and with the old. There are literally thousands of "good news" stories waiting to be told — and which can and will be told if the media come to trust the integrity and the judgment of the communications officer who offers the story ideas.

As far as I am concerned, a good public relations office in every diocese is the least expensive and most effective communications effort in which the Church can be involved, because — when properly administered — a good public relations office helps the Church to tell its story in the mainstream media to which the people have daily exposure.

By the way, even local parishes can engage in effective public relations. For example, when there is a first Communion or a confirmation or a graduation, the local parish can send a press release to the local or community newspaper indicating the five "w's" — the who, what, when, where and why of the event, including the names of all those involved in the event, because very local newspapers love to print names, because those whose names are mentioned or their families will buy and keep that issue of the paper.

Also, at the end of the five "w's" there can be an explanation of what first Communion or confirmation is — in that way, providing a type of evangelization or religious instruction regarding the sacraments. The newspaper will not always publish the explanation, but they will sometimes — and that means we have obtained free access to a means of religious instruction and evangelization.

Basically, the attitude in public relations on the diocesan or even the parish level should be: Never overlook an opportunity to proclaim Christ's message through activities in which the general public may be interested.

What about Catholic media: Should we have them and, if so, what kind?

I should warn you that for about 25 years, before coming to Rome, I was associated with a diocesan newspaper in Philadelphia, my home diocese. ... Thus, I am frankly prejudiced in favor of diocesan newspapers — which, I am convinced, should be sources of information, formation, inspiration, continued Catholic education and reinforced Catholic identification.

There has been an accusation leveled against the Church that we tend to forget to continue to form people after they have graduated from Catholic schools or from religious education programs. The Catholic press in general and the diocesan newspaper in particular provide a means of continuing formation and education that cannot be matched by any other method — not even adult education programs, which, in fact, the Catholic press cannot only publicize but also reinforce.

I am a firm believer in the axiom, "Scripta manent" — "The written words remain" — and Catholic newspapers provide authentic information and formation to which Catholics can make continuing reference.

By the way, many diocesan newspapers feature a weekly or at least periodic column by the bishop — and, where that is a feature of the newspaper, it is often the most popular feature in the newspaper. People are really interested in what you have to say — and, of course, it helps if you write well and briefly.

What about radio and television?

First, in many countries with a majority of Catholics, it is relatively easy for the bishop and for the Church in general to have access to the electronic media.

It is possible in those countries to have liturgies broadcast or telecast and even to have programs of religious information, including a weekly or even daily message from the bishop in smaller cities.

Thus, it is important to use the opportunities offered as well as possible, with programming of professional quality. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most precious message the world can receive — and we have an obligation to present it well.

In general, therefore, I am in favor of using opportunities in the secular media as well as possible. In some places, tragically, these opportunities are not used.

In some countries, such as my own nation of origin, the United States, it is difficult for religion to have access to the media unless the religious organization buys the broadcast time. In the United States, about 10% of the radio stations, 1,200 out of 12,000, broadcast nothing but religious programming, and they sell half-hour or 15-minute time periods to electronic evangelists who then appeal for money to carry on their electronic preaching of the Gospel — which often reflects fundamentalist Protestantism.

Only recently have some Catholic dioceses or private Catholic groups sought to purchase local radio stations to present Catholic programming. There are, I believe, now about 100 Catholic radio stations in the USA.

In Portugal, however, the largest radio network, Radio Renscenca, is Catholic in its inspiration and organization; in Spain, the second largest network, Radio COPE, is Catholic in its organization; in France, there are two Catholic radio networks; in many nations, beginning with Italy, there is Radio Maria, a network whose Polish branch recently ran into difficulties with the hierarchy, specifically with the primate.

In the Philippines, there is a network of almost 50 Catholic radio stations. In Latin America, many nations have Catholic or community radio stations. Naturally, we do not want to forget Vatican Radio, which was set up 70 years ago by Guglielmo Marconi himself, the inventor of radio, at the request of Pope Pius XI. Vatican Radio now has an international audience not only through shortwave, but also through satellite and Internet delivery systems.

Thus, regarding radio, the norm would seem to be — use existing radio stations if you have access to them; start a Catholic radio station if it is possible; buy time on local stations, at least to announce Catholic evangelization efforts, if nothing else works.

Your decision must be based on your assessment of the local or even national situation — but, whatever you do, present quality Catholic programming, and do not have people think less of the Church because what they hear is lacking in quality production techniques.

Regarding television, the cost factor here is enormous. Here, it is particularly important to cooperate with the news directors of television stations, so that accurate stories of Catholic interest might be carried. For direct evangelization, however, in many societies, specifically Catholic media must be used.

As many of you know, in the United States and in Latin America and indeed in Europe, there is the Eternal Word Television Network — a 24-hour religious programming service which had its origins in a cloistered convent in Alabama in the southern United States. The famous Mother Angelica also started an international radio station.

There also exist Catholic television networks in Brazil and the Dominican Republic, from which Cardinal López Rodríguez is attempting to launch a continentwide Spanish-language network.

There are also Catholic satellite channels in Italy and in France.

A new form of communication which offers tremendous possibilities, but also some difficulties, is the Internet.

Many dioceses and even parishes have their own web sites. As you may know, the Vatican Web site is I am happy to report that it was I who got the .va domain for the Vatican to let people be assured that whatever messages came from that .va address were authentic. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people who get seemingly Catholic Internet addresses and provide either misinformation or even pornography on those sites. You can be sure of whatever has a .va domain — and, of course, you can have confidence in many other Catholic Web sites — but the danger of usurpers and hackers can exist on some sites which wish to appear Catholic but are not. ...

I should say a word about interviews. Sometimes, the media will "ambush" you, and it is important always to reflect in your manner and in your responses the example of Christ — kind, clear and complete.

Never say anything you do not wish to see in print or hear on the air; if you do not know something or are not at liberty to say anything about the subject, say that; also try to become adept at using their question to give your answer. That is, you will have a point you wish to make which is related to the question they have asked; use their question to give your answer, because you may never have another opportunity to make the point you wish to make.

It is perhaps obvious to say that your responses should always be truthful in content and gracious in delivery. God is truth and God is love — and we should reflect both in our witness to him both in prepared remarks and in our occasional responses to inquiries from the media. ZE06110401

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field