I’ve been banging the drum for years now in work in Catholic social media (as have many others) that how we speak the Gospel is as important as what we say when speaking the Gospel. The Catholic Church is inherently a conservative organization and since the written word has been the privileged form of communication for, oh, since the dawn of civilization, new forms of communication have had a tough time getting traction in the Church. But if we want people to hear our message, we need to put it in a form they will hear.
Oh sure, the Church has used radio since Marconi and TV since Fulton Sheen. Pope Benedict XVI started a Twitter account and Pope Francis has expanded that to Instagram and YouTube. But the foundation is still primarily in the written text. Go to the Vatican web site and everything is words on a page.
Which isn’t to say that this is wrong. Few forms of communication are as immutable and enduring and authoritative as letters and books. But we must acknowledge that the content of the Christian faith was not something written from the beginning. Jesus did not hand out pamphlets. Instead, He conveyed truths by speaking them to individual and to crowds alike. At Mass, the priest doesn’t hand out the text of his homily. He preaches it from a pulpit.
At the most recent meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ft. Lauterdale, there was a discussion surrounding yet another document on an important subject. Bishop Robert Barron reported on an effort by a group of bishops to encourage their brothers to consider a different way of delivering that message, a medium appropriate to the way the people they’re trying to reach will want to receive the message.
A group of bishops, including myself, had proposed that instead of producing another lengthy document to succeed “Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops ought to write a brief and pointed letter on the political challenges of the present moment and then to create a video or a series of videos bringing forth the salient points of Catholic social teaching. Our thinking was motivated by recent research, which indicates that a very small percentage of Catholics actually read that formal statement from ten years ago. Though it had been taken in and appreciated by the bishops themselves, by lobbyists and political activists, and by members of the Catholic commentariat, it was largely ignored by the very people we were endeavoring to reach.
Exactly. I have to confess that any time another document comes out from the Vatican or the USCCB, I have to struggle to read it. These are very dense documents full of theological language and I find myself drifting. “Boil it down,” I keep wanting to say. “What’s the essential point?” And that’s from someone who has spent a significant portion of his adult life reporting on or helping to promote such documents.1 What do we think the average person whose attention span boils down to a tweet, a post, and YouTube video will sit for?
And so this group of bishops proposed that rather than create yet another document few will read, they should re-formulate the timeless teaching into new media. How about videos? Not long videos, but the kind that people will pause to watch in the midst of their Facebook scrolling, a couple minutes at most. But down do it in a shallow way. Make a lot of videos that covers a lot of ground.
And not just videos. Use Instagram too. I’ve long believed in the power of photographs to convey truth and not just as background for memes. I think of the photos taken by my former colleague George Martell for the Archdiocese of Boston. His images from the time before, during, and after the conclave in 2013 that elected Pope Francis are an indelible part of my memory of that event and were way for thousands to journey with Scot Landry and George and experience it from the inside.
I do hope the bishops learn to use the newer means of communication to spread the Good News: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and whatever comes next. Because what’s truly important is the message. But if no one’s paying attention to it, what good does it do?
- I’m not unaware of the potential irony of saying that while I write several hundred words on this topic. ↩