Media, Control, and Pope Francis

Are we faced with “A media exploiting every information gap to construct an image of the pontificate which goes far beyond anything that Francis has said or done”? I would say probably, but I am not sure. More importantly, is this a problem? I would say probably not.

These questions were raised in a post on Vatican Monday.  I am curious to know how the Pope is perceived in other countries, because I think all the evidence is that in the United States he has overwhelming “favorables”. This article’s author seems to be much more concerned that the Church not be perceived to be changing than I would be. She adamantly states that despite the expectations placed on this Pontificate for change that “In fact, the Church has not changed. The truths of the faith have remained the same. Perhaps, the only thing that has changed is the approach. And it is mostly a matter of style”. This seems to suggest that style doesn’t matter. I would disagree. Style does matter. But also, I think that there is more than “style” that has changed at the Vatican since Francis’ arrival.

Ms. Gagliarducci points out that “Pope Francis is practicing an informal Papacy”. She cites his frequent phone calls and unscheduled interviews and claims they should be “considered as the pastoral visits of a Pope who cannot leave the Vatican as often as he would like to”. I think that this pastoral focus (or approach) is a very significant change and far more than a matter of style.

In the author’s own words: “This pastoral approach is the model that Pope Francis wants to give to the Church. An inclusive approach, going to the encounter of everyone. Even lifting up the role of laymen and – why not – women in the ranks of the Church”. This emphasis, in my opinion, has been how he has so quickly turned the media to his favor. It is a change; not in the totality of the message; and certainly not in the core beliefs of the Church, but a significant change.

The author believes “making public the content of phone calls and meetings without proper oversight of the message in advance, or a heads-up to the Vatican communications offices, has its perils”, and that “the greatest risk is having Pope Francis’ words manipulated”. I disagree with both of these assertions. Tightly controlled messages don’t work in this era of media, and the greatest risk to not have the Church engaged in conversation with the world.

The media doesn’t believe tightly controlled messages and digs for dissenting truths. These many and varied conversations made public force the media into a position of interpreting and analyzing, rather than discrediting. The media must react to developing stories rather than act to create a story. The media becomes part of a conversation, where broad ideas and nuance both have a place. I would argue that it is exactly the opposite of having the media set the agenda.

One of the two central issues in the posting is that of divorce and remarriage highlighted by Pope Francis’ reported exchanges with a woman in Argentina who married a divorced man. What a great thing to make public! In the United States anyway, divorce is a HUGE problem. How should people relate to the Church in the face of it? Ms. Gagliarducci says that “Pope Francis wants to underline that the divorced and remarried, even if they cannot take Communion, must not be marginalized from life of the Church. To the contrary, they must be included”. If that isn’t a change, it is news to many inside and outside the Church- and that news ought to get out. In a tightly controlled messaging, it probably wouldn’t.

The Church isn’t alone in concerns about the ubiquity of information and not having control, but the reality is that there is no longer an ability to control information. What organizations need to do is influence the interpretation of information. Today we call this “engagement”.

I have seen this propensity to try to control information, hurt parish operation on a local level. Years ago, as part of a parish council, I received a financial report that blatantly ommitted lines in the P&L statement, so that it was obvious that the numbers didn’t add. Today, I can’t remember what the line items were hidden, I only recall that they didn’t trust us with the full story. Others will still wonder what they were hiding or what they did wrong that they didn’t want to let others know about. I am quite confident that nothing was inappropriate in the way the money was used, but because they didn’t trust the parishioners (or even the relatively small number of council members) they gave a tightly controlled message and we reacted negatively, fixated on the omissions, not their message.

I believe that all the faithful can take a lesson from the Holy Father, actually two, in dealing with information. 1.) Don’t be afraid. Let the information out. Let the discussion happen. Let the people come to the truth, guide them in the discernment. 2.) Focus on the Love as Law, not the law in its minutiae.


Is Pope Francis Leading, Or just Taking A Walk?

There is an old adage that says “If one thinks he’s leading, but has no followers, he’s just taking a walk”.

Pope Francis certainly appears to be leading, but the closing line in a recent tv news piece on the Holy Father, asks perhaps the most important question…

Is anyone following?  The pastor of the parish which is the centerpiece of this article says he has noticed an increase in attendance, despite the seeming positive attitudes of American Catholics.

The pontiff is without question setting the example.  What does it mean though if there is no discernible impact to the so called “Francis Effect”?  I don’t mean to diminish the Pope’s actions.  They speak loudly to the world and have changed the feeling of news coverage for the Church and the conversation about it.  This is no small feat.  I can’t imagine how he might do a better job.  However,….

I have not noticed a change in behavior among the faithful.  I have not noticed a change in attendance at mass.

It seems to me that Pope Francis is consistently saying and doing the right things and he’s getting noticed for it.  What needs to happen next is that the laity must take up the cross and follow.  Be bold!  Bring the Pope up in conversation, particularly with those who have fallen away from the church or those who have not known it before (it doesn’t spread the Gospel to discuss with those you see in the pews).  Follow his lead in humility.  Speak up for the marginalized.  Invite people into the community of Christ.  Ask them to join you at mass or at other activities in your parish.

If we follow, Francis will be leading.

Universal, Not Uniform

The Catholic Church is the Universal Church, but this doesn’t mean that everyone has, or should have, the same experience with the Church.  Quite the opposite.  In order to be a universal faith, it MUST be individual as well as communal.  If it is both those things, one consequence will be a significant degree of geographical and cultural variation.

This variation isn’t universally positive, far from it, because the humans involved are not perfect.  The Sensible Bond recently wrote on the question of what is wrong with Catholic education and made me think a little about this idea of regionalization.  It was obvious that the observations he made were anecdotal and very different from my experience.  Importantly, I don’t think her observations were more anecdotal or less valid than mine it is just most of them don’t apply to the world I live in.

I was a part of a conversation a few days back on LinkedIn which had to do with whether people should kneel while receiving communion.  I thought the guy was crazy.  I explained him that in 25 years of mass attendance I’d only seen two individuals receive communion on their knees.  He explained in his parish virtually 100% do.  I attended a mass a few years back that made use of “liturgical dance”…. I hope I don’t again in the future.  I’ve never been to a mass said in Latin, but I’d like to and that shouldn’t be that hard, because they seem to be growing in number.  I did attend a mass where gospel style music was sung by the choir and while I like gospel music, it felt too much like a performance and less like a mass to me.  But I have usually found a more folk style music very comfortable and it invites me into a prayerful state.   Just last week, I learned that there is an Italian (Italian American?) tradition of giving a palm from Palm Sunday to someone with whom you have been feuding as a means of putting the feud behind you.  I can’t see myself doing that.

I’ve never been a huge advocate for “multiculturalism”, so I don’t tend to “celebrate diversity”. .  I celebrate my traditions and respect those of others.    I do feel that we can and should learn from other cultures and traditions.  If traditions strengthen the faith of the people, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss.  As evangelists, the Church, from its earliest days recognized that the world was diverse and that the quickest way to conversion was to subsume pagan traditions, so we celebrate Christ’s birthday right around the winter solstice for instance.  This practice is not something that should be done willy nilly; I am sure that numerous examples exist where people went down the wrong track (the Church decided that Father Matteo Ricci went down the wrong road in to closely comparing the Chinese veneration of deceased family members and the veneration of saints in the early 18th century, for example).  Nonetheless we should recognize that the idea of tradition in the Church is not one uniform progression.  I think this demonstrates the efforts of the Church (meaning the people) searching out God and our best connection with Him.

The other side of this multicultural Church is the current regional character.  The opportunities and challenges for the Church are not uniform around the globe.  In general, there is a declining population of priests in the United States, but I understand the priesthood is growing rapidly in a number of developing countries.  The number of laity attending mass is shrinking in some areas and growing rapidly in others.  Catholic schools are strong in some places and weak in others.  My parish is doing somethings very well and somethings not so well.  No doubt yours is in the same boat.    We as a community should do a good job of communicating these differences, so that we can learn from both the good and the bad.

He is reporting from the UK and assuming she is accurately describing the state of Catholic education over there, it is truly disappointing and while I do think Sensible Bond’s conclusions are skewed by his direct experience, the observations should be instructive to me. The situation in the U.K. sounds dire.  A benefit from improve communication capability should be to enable us be warned by their experience and some of their current challenges altogether.

Creating Good Content

On my other blog, Increasingly Strategic Planning, I just posted about the rise of PR and good content in the marketing world.  The good news for evangelization is that we’ve got lots of GREAT content.  It’s called sacred scripture!

If you want something written more recently, I would suggest Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis’ Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel.  I had a little trouble finding a version of it online, but it is worth a little effort.  This is some good reading during Holy Week.  While quoting the Bible from time to time may be appropriate in casual conversation, the Pope’s writing has an immediacy; an up to date critique of modernity, which follows and reinforces the teaching of the Catholic Church that has been for millennium.  I found a Catholic New Service video through Ad Deum’s website does a good (a brief) job of showing that Evangelii Gaudium is not a radical departure from recent Papal teaching.

Although, it is still radical.  Radical in the tradition of Christ Himself.  Jesus came to shake up the status quo.  But this status quo is not going away quietly and we need constantly renew ourselves in the fight.  Pope Francis doesn’t mince words.  At the very beginning he says “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience”.  While I wouldn’t use these words precisely, the sentiments aren’t hard to work in to modern debates.

There’s plenty of GOOD content in there!


How Social Is Our Media

An excellent point made on CatholicTechTalk. The author, Brad West, boiled it down on LinkedIn for me…. The question is what’s the point of attracting lots of visitors to your media?
Lots of likes may be an ego boost, but does it serve another purpose? Well the answer should be yes and that purpose should be a higher one. Likes, or traffic, are not an end in and of themselves (at least they shouldn’t be). They should be a means to engagement.
Earlier I wrote a bit of a rebuttal to the thought that technology was a negative in the church. I acknowledge that the speed that communications works nowadays doesn’t lend itself to long periods of reflection and deep thinking and I would advocate for people of faith to “go deep” more than occasionally. But it does leave open the question how do we use technology to support our mission?
It does depend a little on how we view our mission, but let’s assume for a moment that you agree with my view which is that we should be preparing and supporting disciples and evangelizing. That being the case, likes are a beginning, not an end. Our traffic should bring us to engagement.
Disciples should get value from their engagement…. And I would suggest that in this case value means depth. Depth, I think, is “long-form”. It could be a discussion with meaning or a link to long form documents. It could be “links” to resources that may be online or offline. Events are something that could be pointed to in the physical world, or developed in the online version.
All of the above could be done one-way, pushed to the consumer. Engagement denotes two-way communication. So the trick is presenting long form in a manner that creates response and feedback.
Evangelizing is the communication through which we endeavor to engage the unchurched, or de-churched. This audience needs answers; answers to questions they ask and answers to unasked questions. They need to be drawn into conversation. There doesn’t need to be as much depth to these conversations. The media should focus on making the church accessible.
Nothing above limits the more common volume generating activities, but this does raise the game substantially. And for the Church, it is no small feat, because it really hasn’t been a leader in using social media. The good news is that it be a leader in the next level of social media, without having been a leader in the volume approach.

Disconnecting to Connect

Over on LinkedIn Hugh Macken started a discussion of a paper by Father Jonah Lynch in which I think the author decries technology to the extent that it reduces direct human contact. I didn’t love the paper mostly because I don’t think it met its objectives, but it is worth reading for the anecdotal examples on the shortcomings of technology. Below is my response to the article.
1- Author primarily uses his personal experience, which on the one hand enrich the “story”, on the other is limits the evidence to anecdotal.
2- His foundational point is that virtual relationships will never replace physical (face-to-face) relationships. I would replace the words “will never” with “does not yet” and I’d support replacing them with “I hope never will”, but as technologies converge (e.g. VR & SM)… I wouldn’t be confident with never. I have a strong emotional attachment to books, not e-books, not just the written word, but physical books. Interestingly, if I confined my reading to physical books and my personal interactions to only those who I met in person, I’d never have had the opportunity to contemplate the author’s idea. I am not ready to give up the “traditional” elements of a multi-media approach to communication (handwritten notes, face-to-face, etc), but neither should we eschew newer forms of communications.
3- His presumption that technology is not neutral is in fact a statement that it is negative. I disagree with that assertion. There are risks with most tools and those risks mostly have to do with the relationship between the user and the tool (and there is always a two way relationship).
4- I think Fr. Lynch did a reasonably good job of shifting the question to “what are trying to use technology to do” away from “how can the church use new technologies”, but I don’t think he provides answers, or even suggestions to answer either of those questions. Interestingly, I don’t think he actually voices his real question, which is: how do manage (avoid) the negative impact technology’s progression can have.
5- I think the best answer to his unasked question (I give credit to Warren Tomlin for the seed of this ) is: Encourage the faithful to know when to go deep. Jesus regularly retreated from all the noise of his life to spend big blocks of time in prayer. We might not be able to take 40 days, but we should take regular blocks of time unplugged (do long form reading, hand written writing, having coffee with loved ones with the phone turned off).

Saving Catholic Culture from Destruction | Crisis Magazine

Saving Catholic Culture from Destruction | Crisis Magazine.

While this blog is primarily to capture my thoughts regarding how to use strategic (albeit worldly) techniques to spread the Word of God, I never lose sight of the endgame. The post linked to above is a well written reminder that faith isn’t practical by worldly standards.

As a Church, I often feel we have resigned ourselves to a bleak reality. The future need not be bleak. The Church can grow and strengthen. We can feel confident as we build upon the work of generations of disciples. It isn’t easy, but it certainly can be done. I implore any person of faith who reads this to truly believe and virtually (if not literally) shout “We can do it!!” Because we can.

Call me a success. Call me a failure. Just don’t call me timid.