Mass Media Can Be Ministry

By Richard Leonard
National Catholic Reporter
September 19, 2003

A few years ago I attended an international meeting of Catholic communicators in Rome. During a coffee break I got into conversation with an English-speaking bishop who was a member of the Catholic conference’s media committee in his country.

“I hear you’re doing a Ph.D. in film,” he said to me. I confirmed what the bishop had heard. “The Jesuits are always into the weird and wonderful,” he laughed. I suggested that, given the focus of our conference, I hoped he thought my studies were more wonderful than weird. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the movies.” “Oh good,” I replied, “what recent film have you enjoyed?”

“Well,” he mused, “the last one I saw was ‘The Sound of Music’ in ’68. I saw it four times.”

For one of the few times in my life, I was speechless.

As much as I like “The Sound of Music” and have seen it more times than the good bishop, here was a leader of the church, serving on a media committee, who never went to the cinema, and I soon discovered that he watched TV and listened to the radio only for current affairs and went online solely to get e-mail. I wondered what he spoke about when he preached to young people and their parents.

Welcome to the land of the weird and wonderful.

It seems that recent and insightful teachings from the Vatican are having little impact on local churches. This year Pope John Paul II recognized that the media is now “the modern arena in which ideas are shared and people grow in mutual understanding and solidarity.” In 1987 he saw the link between media arts and the exercise of religion in telling stories of hope, which in turn release a spiritual power. In 2000 the pope observed, “The impact of the media can hardly be exaggerated. For many the experience of living is to a great extent an experience of the media.”

If we take these statements seriously, then they name the new context in which the church lives, and the world it is called to evangelize.

It is not hard to understand why the relationship between the media and the church is often an uneasy one. Some Catholics just want the media to be kind to the church, report it well and take up its positive messages. At the same time, all of us want to be an influence on the media for good. To achieve this, however, we rarely want to risk entering the media world, where we may not be in control, for fear we will be tainted by the worst of its values. Unmindful of our commission to go out to the world, we often want the world to come to us, on our terms, to speak our language and act as we want it to.

Pope’s stand against Iraq

In recent years we have been bruised by the media’s often unfair and lopsided reporting of clerical sexual abuse allegations and convictions. This has served to make many in the church feel with some, but often exaggerated, justification that the media culture will always be hostile toward our concerns. We only have to think of the generous coverage given to the pope’s courageous stand on the invasion of Iraq to see how misplaced this attitude can be.

Until quite recently the church has been a strong player in the media. Jesus understood the power of parables or stories. For most of the church’s history we have rightly understood that the most effective media is personal communication and witness where a relationship is nurtured and we are seen to practice what we preach.

The church was most comfortable when communications meant the serious and time-consuming task of researching and reading. As the last century drew on, however, communications has become more democratic; the emphasis has moved to entertainment, and postmodernity has challenged all universal truth claims.

In the last 40 years, the church has, in practice, been in retreat from the very culture it is sent to evangelize.

At the same time the vast majority of Western Catholics are comfortable in a media-saturated culture. They are part of a community that watches, on average, four hours of television a day, which means by the time a U.S. citizen turns 70, he or she has spent 11 years and nine months in front of TV. It’s reported that 69 percent of all U.S. homes now have two televisions, and last year 1.5 billion movie tickets were sold in the United States.

This is not to canonize the media culture. From a Christian perspective there are worrying signs. The abasement of sex, the promotion of violence and the abuse of journalism are but three manifestations of what Pope John Paul II calls an “anti-culture.”

On the other side, however, the highest-rated programs in the United States reveal a desire for community, for connection and well-being. Many of the top 20 TV programs in 2002 were consonant with our values. Over the years our most popular films reveal our tastes to be optimistic, humorous and family-centered.

So what can we do?

Catholics cannot stand apart from culture. To do so would be to deny the worth of humanity’s existence and being. Every Christian is called to be a participant in his or her culture as critic, shaper, receiver and translator. Indeed we are called to be “inculturated.”

To enter the media culture, we need to let go of our long-held suspicion of media that entertains, of the belief that we cannot use a popular forum to speak about the things of God because it requires too much seriousness, too much nuance. Jesus, in the way he used the media of his day, the parable, understood that the most important lessons could be learned through stories -- while people are laughing, crying, being confronted and consoled. He also knew the art of communicating his message simply. In some respects the church has become too serious for its own good.

As passionate as the church has been about various issues, it is creative and thoughtful film and television makers who are the marketplace preachers of our day.

Power of stories

We need to rediscover the power of accessible stories to communicate our message and harness the necessary resources to tell them in the public domain.

One of the obstacles to this occurring is that the church has been, understandably, seduced into seeing its relationship to the media in terms of public relations. We need to be careful about how much money we invest in this necessary but secondary activity. We are not like other organizations where the promotion of a name, an individual or a product requires an expensive and systematic media campaign. We do have a responsibility to be accessible to the media, wise in using it, and constant in informing it about the daily good news stories with which we are involved.

If we reduce our involvement with the media to being a critic and concerned with public relations, the church will lose out in the long run.

Furthermore, we need to leave behind the misapprehension that radio, television and film are good for direct evangelization. While the media can move the emotions and provide information that can be helpful to a person’s journey of faith, a person cannot have a relationship with his or her computer, radio or television. The gospel is essentially about relationships with Christ and the community that gathers in his name. To the degree the media can enable people to join this community, it is helpful in the service of the gospel. We should not take as our example television evangelists who often reduce Christianity to being anti-intellectual, morally black and white, wealth-producing and miracle-hunting.

Learn the language

More positively, the first thing we can do is learn the language. When St. Francis Xavier, arguably the church’s greatest missionary, left Rome for Portugal and then on to India, St Ignatius Loyola gave him one piece of advice: Wherever you go, learn the language.

It is hard work to learn a language, especially at an advanced age, but a new understanding and the ease it gives within a culture amply reward the effort involved. If we want to influence the media for good, we have to learn its tongue.

The church, for example, has commendably been a custodian of high artistic culture. We do not need to abandon that legacy from our past, but marry it with the popular culture that now forms the people with whom we want speak. This involves being conversant with the sporting and public entertainment events, music, television, Internet sites, and films that appeal to a majority of our compatriots.

While we cannot retreat from our role in society as a constructive critic, we can be more supportive of the media in our culture that is often concerned with similar issues to the church. Many programs look to show the cardinal virtues of justice, fidelity, self-care and prudence or the Christian values of mercy and hospitality. Some darker programs even explore the consequences of the vices of malice, envy, greed, sloth, lust, pride and anger. Our problem with these programs is not they explore these realities, but that they glamorize and normalize the behavior.

As the pope has said, any media that attend to these things and to their costs and consequences are implicit proclamations of the Lord.

Our participation as a player in the media industry has not been found wanting. It has not been seriously tried.

We are guilty of giving up too easily because media production can be expensive, because we may have to concede full control in ecumenical or secular alliances, the programs were not explicitly Catholic and the results are not immediate or demonstrable.

We only have to think of the areas in which we have already had a long-lasting impact and are a key player: health, welfare and education. Our presence in these sectors would never have been as significant if the only roles we fulfilled within them were that of critic and consultant.

What we need to recover is the courage, risk and creativity of the sanest Catholic spirituality, which impels us to bold action and to take risks in reaching out to those who have, whether we like it or not, taken up residence in the land of the weird and wonderful.

Jesuit Fr. Richard Leonard is the director of the Australian Catholic Film Office. Earlier this year, he was a visiting scholar at the School of Film, Theater and Television at UCLA and has just submitted his Ph.D. in cinema studies at the University of Melbourne.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.