Published in the Fall 2006 Edition of Seminary Journal
Sherry Kennedy Brownrigg
Media and the Priesthood
We live in a media culture. We have been using this statement for decades to describe media’s persuasive power in shaping the world in which we live. According to the latest research trends, however, this statement has startling new depth. Not only do we live in a media culture, it has become our culture. The average person now uses media more than anything else they do in their daily life and they frequently use more than one form at a time. Media, whether it is television, radio, film, internet, print, or some form of new media, is the arbiter of what is important to us. We receive all of our information about current events through media, and we learn how to understand their effect and relevance in our own lives. It teaches us social doctrine and strongly influences our sense of right and wrong. Media shapes our opinions about everything, including the Church, and it intensely affects our patterns of thought. Media consumption even molds the way we consume all other forms of information and interact with each other. In short, through media we define the world around us and our place in it.
This is particularly unsettling for the Christian faith. The media consumption patterns of the average Christian and the average American are nearly identical, and much of what is communicated via media is opposed to Christianity. The Catholic Church, in particular, is largely absent from the media, communicating an irrelevancy and disconnect with daily life. Even worse, our absence leaves a void of information about the Church that other media outlets fill. All of this makes the job of anyone who seeks to communicate the faith very difficult.
Media, of course, can bring great benefits. The Catholic Church understands this and has published no less than ten excellent and comprehensive communications documents, highlighting the positive aspects and urging clergy and lay Catholics alike to engage the culture through media. Despite this clarion call, we have been very slow to understand the consequences of a media culture and harness its power to spread the Gospel.
The 1986 document, Guide to the Training of Future Priests Concerning the Instruments of Social Communication, calls for training priests at three distinct levels. The first level is to gain a personal understanding of proper media consumption. The second is to appreciate how media affects consumers, adjust pastoral activity accordingly, teach responsible media use to parishioners, and gain a basic knowledge of how to use the tools of media. The third level focuses on clergy who have a special calling or plan to teach media to others. The Church is wise to address the influence and use of media at the seminary level. Understanding the media culture is an essential aspect of pastoral ministry that will become even more acute in the future.
Only a generation or two ago, Catholics discovered and viewed their place in the world through the eyes of their faith, practiced at their local parish. Now through the overwhelming influence of media, the average Catholic is beginning to see the parish and organized religion as merely one of those messages – one of many ways to practice faith. They are conditioned by media and media choices and increasingly apply consumer expectations to the way they experience their faith. They appear to be looking for authentic spirituality but not seeing their parish or the Church as the only way to find it. There is a much greater focus on increasing spirituality and less on learning Church teachings; a personal desire to “be fed” at Mass and have an experience of God rather than attending out of obligation.
Even though parishioners are changing how they view their parish and practice their faith, they intrinsically remain people who long for God and seek a greater relationship with Him. It is only their way of seeking Him that has changed, requiring a change in the way in which we as a Church communicate. Pope John Paul II recognizes this and writes in his last Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development, “The current phenomenon of communications impels the Church towards a sort of pastoral and cultural revision, so as to deal adequately with the times in which we live. Pastors, above all, must assume this responsibility.” Jesus Christ is our prime example in understanding the nature of the adjustment. In fact, the Church calls him the “Perfect Communicator.” Jesus changed His style of communication to fit His audience. His message was no less challenging or radical, yet He knew how to speak to each different audience in the way their base of experience and mindset would allow them the best opportunity to understand.
The foundation of media is simply communication, and the most important form of communication in the Catholic Church today is the Mass. Of the roughly 40% of Catholics who attend on a regular basis, the overwhelming majority will have contact with their parish or the institutional Church only through the Mass. The Mass has literally become the central Church access point and often moves parishioners to decide on a deeper relationship with the Catholic Church or the decision to seek God elsewhere. Do we need to change the Mass to fit the culture? Water down the message to make it more palatable? We can thank God that the answer is no! The Truth attracts by its very nature, and the power of the Holy Spirit is always at work; however, a basic understanding of the “audience” and the core principles of communication and how these concepts apply to the Mass, or any liturgical worship service, is the first and vital step in reaching today’s media saturated parishioners.
Everything in the Mass is communicating a message, from God speaking through the gift of His only Son, to the words used in the homily and the way they are spoken, to the body language and demeanor of the priest. The message you want to communicate, even during the Mass, must be understood in the context of the receiver. People come to Mass with varying degrees of expectations, but commonly anticipate what is likely the only recognizable experience of God they will have that week. Media conditions them to expect well-prepared messages that often speak directly to their personal needs and desires. How can we as a Church possibly satisfy that media mindset? Actually, quite easily. Parishioners want to hear what the pastor has to say and they want to experience God. If the priest understands the condition of his “audience” and adequately prepares, they will find what they seek and what they need, and they will be drawn into a deeper journey. There are more insights into the special nature of clergy communication than space will allow, but a few core principals stand out in reaching a media saturated culture. First, regardless of the topic of the homily, the homilist must know the message he wants to communicate. Secondly, following the model of Jesus, it should be delivered it in a style and using language the audience can understand. Finally, the priest must be completely present to his flock and remove the invisible, protective walls that project inaccessibility and distance.
Understanding how media influences your parishioners and incorporating that understanding into better communication during the Liturgy is vital. The next step is finding ways to incorporate media at the parish and pastoral levels.
Many pastors and priests are being called upon to participate in local traditional Christian and Catholic media, such as print, radio, and television (to a lesser extent) and on secular media to provide a distinct viewpoint. Catholic media, often run by lay apostolates, is particularly hungry for clergy who understand the basic principles of media and can communicate effectively. A priest or pastor who excels in media can literally change the lives of thousands of people at once!
On-demand media is the biggest revolution in current media consumption. If one follows the logic of being present where our audience lives, being present on the internet is key. Two thirds of Americans of all ages now say they use the internet on a regular basis. Having a church website is no longer a nice addition; it has become a necessity. It need not be flashy, slick or costly. The site merely needs to appropriately reflect the church and easily provide the kind of information the audience for which it is intended will seek. The internet has great power to bring people together, and a website at its most evolved can become an information hub and a church family gathering place outside Sunday, particularly beneficial for a large and busy church.
There are other opportunities within websites that represent some of the fastest growing media trends for all ages, including adults. Blogging, a contraction of “web log,” could be described as public journaling and has great potential to drive existing and potential parishioners to your website. Blogging has many uses, including by the pastor to teach or discuss a sermon topic in greater detail and it can present another aspect of a pastor that parishioners rarely get to see, helping to build a better relationship between them. Podcasting is a combination of the words “IPod” and “webcasting,” and is audio that can be listened to on the web or downloaded onto a portable player. Like blogging, it is a great tool in strengthening use of the church website and reaching a media savvy culture. There is a wide variety of uses such as teens creating their own faith-sharing program, segments of an RCIA class, pilgrims describing their thoughts while visiting a famous shrine, parishioners on a church-sponsored mission trip, or just the Sunday sermon, all downloadable and available for listening at any time.
Our opportunities to use media are only limited by time and skill. However, we as a Church must commit to their pursuit and at the very least, understand the media culture and its effects and adjust our communication accordingly. As John Paul II writes, “Communicate the message of Christ’s hope, grace and love, keeping always alive, in this passing world, the eternal perspective of heaven…”