For Bl. John Paul II, the phrase was “culture of life.” For Pope Benedict XVI, it was “dictatorship of relativism.” But for Pope Francis, the phrase that might just sum up his papacy is “culture of encounter.” That’s the keyphrase we find in his first Message for World Communications Day, which is entitled “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.”
A culture of encounter is one in which we seek opportunities to fulfill the question of the scribe in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?” What can we do to be Christ to our neighbor? In the context of the World Day of Communications, the Holy Father considers how the various kinds of communications can aid in this “neighborliness”. As in previous messages by his predeccesors, the Holy Father says modern media, including social media, can be both good and bad, with promise and drawbacks.
Among the drawbacks is the speed with which information spreads and how little time is afforded for people to stop, consider, and think before they’re bombarded by the next bit of information. We see that in the reactions to the various messages and interviews of the Holy Father, how quickly the long knives have come out and the doubters have attacked. He also notes that the vast variety of opinions and sources of information, while democratizing communications, can also lead to confirmation bias.
“The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests.”
So how are we to respond in the face of these pitfalls? With deliberateness and calm, time and silence, listening and patience. “People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted.” How often have I been in a conversation with someone else, barely listening to what they’re saying because I’m already formulating my response, waiting for them to pause so I can launch my next salvo? Is that communication that honors the root of the word: communion, community, fellowship, sharing in common? Or is it merely debating in order to win?
A Culture of Encounter
Instead, in a communication at the service of a culture of encounter, we listen, we are attentive to the other, we want to know the other, we are interested in the other as a person. Pope Francis offers the Parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of this kind of communication.
Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.
Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road. The Levite and the priest do not regard him as a neighbour, but as a stranger to be kept at a distance. In those days, it was rules of ritual purity which conditioned their response. Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour.
He goes on to warn us that it’s not enough for us to be connected to others online, to be Facebook friends, Twitter followers, to be in the each other’s Google+ circles. Connection is not an authentic encounter unless it grows into an exchange of selves. “We need to love and be loved.”
This is what I was saying, albeit in a poorer form, in my recent blog post “Catholic social media isn’t really media at all”. The important part of the term “social media” is “social” because what’s important in Catholic social media is the relationship among persons.
The Christian faith isn’t mere content. It isn’t even just the message, the deposit of faith. If that were so, all we’d need is a book and we could go off alone into our room to be Christian.
The essence of the Christian faith is relationship, a relationship with God in Three Persons and a relationship with our brothers and sisters in the world. We must know our faith, yes, but we must live our faith and share it too. But for those relationships to work, they must be reciprocal. There must be a willingness to speak and to listen on both sides.
All media must be at the service of bringing people together in relationship.
The Holy Father also continues his teaching on the need for the Church to be present in the streets, not just simply as a megaphone for Christian messages, but by entering into a conversation that addresses people’s concerns, their questions, and their lives.
One line that is sure to cause some consternation involves the importance of dialogue.
To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.
The Holy Father is not rejecting the reality of objective truth, nor is he saying that Catholic doctrine is any way negotiable. He is simply acknowledging the long-held understanding that truth subsists in its fullness in the Catholic Church, but that elements of the truth can be found in many places. For instance, perhaps there is value in considering a way of prayer or a form of evangelization or even the reverence for Scripture found in certain Christian churches and ecclesial communities.
In the end, the Holy Father calls us to a kind of presence in the media that we know we should be providing: “Let our communication be a balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts.” It’s left for us to consider whether our communications online and in other media do just that.
- It’s somewhat gratifying to see that the Holy Father also references the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus as an analogy of the kind of relationship we must have with people we encounter as we share our faith, which is what I did in my post. It confirms that I’m on the right track. ↩
- Jan_Wijnants_-_Parable_of_the_Good_Samaritan: Public domain | Public domain