Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 17, 2004
The media's great commission
Every year now the Roman Catholic Church celebrates Ascension Sunday as World Communications Day. At first glance, it may seem an odd choice. The Ascension is Christ ascending to the Father - and away from us. Yet, communication is that which brings people together . . . and that which brings people and God closer together.
The reason for uniting World Communications Day with the Ascension is, of course, that the Ascension was the occasion for the "great commission": "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). Making disciples and teaching them cannot take place without some form of communication.
The Second Vatican Council brought this general notion into the modern age with its Decree on the Means of Social Communication. The decree was the Church sticking a tentative toe into the water of addressing the rights and responsibilities of the media, as well as the Church's own role in the media. It spoke of "a right to information on the subjects that are of concern to people either as individuals or as members of society." To those who live in democratic societies, this is not astonishing. But coming from a Church which had a history of fear of new or modern ideas, it was a step out into the light.
The Church's attitude towards the media is now somewhere between a wary defensiveness and an open embrace. This ambivalence is appropriate in today's secularized Western world and is reflected in Pope John Paul's 2004 statement for World Communications Day (see Page 5). On one hand, the pope speaks of a media agenda that encourages trends hostile to the family. On the other hand, he says the media offer virtually unlimited opportunities for families in terms of education, cultural expansion and spiritual growth.
The media is a powerful tool for forming public opinion. People do not necessarily agree with the opinions they read in the newspapers or hear on television, but the topics chosen for discussion in these media often become the topics that people discuss. The media sets the table and makes up the menu even if the public ultimately finds the food delectable or distasteful.
With a globalized media, there is genuine concern that the public is being fed a homogenized diet. At a recent Vatican meeting, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras spoke of this fear. And he also suggested the information glut and massive amounts of entertainment available through the media might "anesthetize our ability for discernment and to have any reaction."
Many parents might agree with the cardinal about the mind-numbing effect of the media on their children . . . and on themselves.
But, the cardinal went on, the Church must not simply condemn; it must use the media to ensure people have "space to think, oases of peace." The Church has not always used the Internet and other media effectively. And new forms of media have created new forms of awareness. Adapting to meet those new forms of awareness is not for the faint of heart.
What is heartening is that some excellent Church websites are available. And even many Church print media have changed from the days when running interminable columns of type, interspersed with the occasional photograph, was deemed to be enough to meet the needs of readers.
On top of all that, content matters. The content of Church media has to be interesting, as well as bringing the Gospel to bear on the burning issues of the day. Church media have to do their job with far fewer resources than is available to the commercial media.
We do, however, have one invaluable resource. God is with us. Jesus summed it up at the end of the great commission when he told the disciples, "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
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