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June 16, 2011

Communicating in language people understand -
What is "novel" about the "new" evangelization? -
The new universe of social cyberspace -
Children's rights

In this edition:
1. Can pastoral ministers reach those who doubt?
2. New universe of social cyberspace.
3. Communicating in language people understand.
4. Current quote: Pluses and minuses of new communications media.
5. Novelty of the "new" evangelization: The "how" of it.
6. The church and children's rights.
7. The harm of ideological fixations.

1. Can Pastoral Ministry Reach People Who Doubt?

What can pastoral ministers offer to people whose "search for meaning is genuine," but who "struggle with doubts"? Canadian Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, examined this challenge in a May 18 pastoral letter on sharing Christian hope with people who find this hope difficult to accept and may harbor suspicions about religion.

Today's world "needs us to be bearers of hope and needs communities of people who are able to articulate why being a people of hope is not foolishly naive but an intelligent, responsible and faith-filled way of living this human life," according to Bishop Bolen.

He accented the relevance of Christian hope to daily life as people actually encounter it. It is important "to ponder the presence of God in the midst of our ordinary human experience," he wrote. And he asked:

"What can our parishes and diocesan offices offer to assist and encourage those who have a searching faith and at times struggle with doubts? How can we -- through our catechetical and faith formation programs -- specifically be attentive to the questions of younger generations who have become distanced from the church?"

The pastoral letter appeared to suggest that reaching people who might be open to faith, but who have doubts about it, requires that the relationship of faith to everyday life be made clear. Bishop Bolen noted how, "in the post-resurrection accounts in the Gospels, the risen Lord comes back to the disciples in the midst of their ordinary human lives."

The risen Lord "comes to the women in their grief, to the apostles back in their fishing boats, joining some of his disciples for breakfast and another pair on a road outside of Jerusalem. And he transforms their everyday world by his risen presence," Bishop Bolen said.

He asked: "How can we as church deepen our understanding of the paschal mystery and its relationship to our everyday lives? How can we foster a deeper attentiveness to fundamental human experience and do so in such a way that it helps others to see the coherence between their experiences and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ?"

To illustrate the challenge pastoral ministers confront, Bishop Bolen mentioned conversations he has had -- in pastoral ministry and in academic contexts -- with people who were not "convinced that it would be intellectually honest" to "lay hold of the hope" that is given birth by faith. These are "people of moral integrity who are attracted to, or at least not adverse to, belief in God," the bishop said.

It is vital to "give an account of our hope in ways which capture the imagination, mind and heart of our contemporaries," he wrote. He encouraged ecumenical collaboration in the search for ways to do precisely that.

The bishop insisted that "within our contemporary context, with its doubts, confusion and fears, its rapidly developing technologies, its blessings and opportunities, its often ill-equipped grappling with ultimate questions, it is vital for us as persons of faith to give an articulate account of our Christian hope."

He called hope "deeply attractive" and said that "being a people of hope and allowing that hope to shape everything we do and are is a vital form of evangelizing in our day." (Bishop Bolen's pastoral letter appeared in the June 16 edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.)

2. New Universe of Social Cyberspace

"If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world," said Jacquie Hughes, a journalist, filmmaker and BBC editor who gave the 2011 World Communications Day lecture May 23 in London at the seminary of the Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster.

Today, there are "literally billions of digitally active people on the planet," Hughes said. She noted that social media and social networking represent "by far the biggest driver of growth in the digital world." This development has come about "in some big part thanks to the transition from PC to mobile" devices, she explained. She said:

"We are all conducting a huge part of our lives in social space: We carry out a considerable amount of communicating, sharing, posting, accessing, forwarding, blogging, buying, liking, advocating, influencing, reading, listening and viewing in digital spaces, on all manner of platforms, all the time, anytime."

Hughes viewed social space as the context in which "all the big conversations are happening, all the influencing and advocacy is going on, where tribes and communities, and friends and followers, and influencers spring up in an instant, and where ideas and stories can go viral in minutes, and change perceptions and knowledge in an instant."

True enough, she noted, "there is a very real academic debate going on about all this." It is asked whether "spending so much time on multiple social sites makes us all more shallow and unable to concentrate on anything for very long" and whether this actually is "rewiring our brains for less depth," she said.

But there is something that "is unquestionable" here, Hughes said, and that "is that there has been a revolution in the way we communicate. And it is beholden upon all of us to understand it and the behaviors that go with it."

In some ways Catholics might view this in positive terms, since "connectedness is at the heart of it all," Hughes proposed. She said that we know "from the sheer amount of time people are spending in social space that they like to feel connected, part of a community - of many communities. They put real value in the recommendations of peers, in sharing ideas and acting in concert."

Hughes finds that this is good news for Catholics because "Catholicism is a relational" faith, and "initiating conversations - the call to dialogue - is at the heart" of this faith.

She acknowledged that "there are lots of undesirable aspects to the social web." It is easy to be dismissive about it all and to "think that what we have to say and offer" in the church "is beyond space and time, and that we shouldn't have to get down to the swirling ocean of social space," she said.

But "I don't think we have a choice," Hughes concluded. And she suggested that there is a prize to be earned in the new digital universe by communicators within the church. The prize, she said, "is the chance to reach and genuinely engage with millions of people."

3. Communicating in Language People Understand

Employing "a simple and understandable language" in which to communicate the work of the church and of the pope to "an increasingly secular and multicultural" world is one of the main challenges of his work as director of the Vatican's Press Office, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said in an interview published on the website of the Irish Catholic bishops just a few days before the church's observance June 5 of World Communications Day.

Communicating in ways people are likely to understand is essential for reaching "as broad a base of public opinion as possible, one that quite often is unable to understand the language of the church," Father Lombardi explained. He commented that in a certain sense, the challenge of the work he does is the challenge of "helping the church and the world to communicate and understand each other."

Father Lombardi believes that "the pope and the Catholic Church have a lot of good news to give to our sisters and our brothers: about human dignity, justice, human and spiritual growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, consolation of the sick and the poor, peace."

In the interview, Father Lombardi talked about the theme of the 2011 World Communications Day, which drew attention to the strengths and challenges of the digital era. Its theme was "Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age." In his message for the 2011 observance, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that the Internet has fundamentally changed the way people communicate.

Father Lombardi said that as "the world we live in increasingly becomes a huge social network, we must never overlook the fact that the human person, his or her dignity and vocation, must remain at its center." That means that "relationships established online should never be purely superficial." In other words, "they must not lose their quality."

The Vatican Press Office director asked: "What kind of 'friendships' are we building online? Is the network a place where we can convincingly and credibly give 'testimony' or is it only an environment of noncommittal presences, fictitious profiles, where we fail to admit the truth about ourselves?"

For Father Lombardi, the 2011 World Communications Day message was "a very strong call to profound reflection on how we live our human experience and Christian witness in the age and culture of the Internet."

4. Current Quote to Ponder

Reflecting on the New Communications Technologies: "Use of the Internet, cell phones, text messaging, social media and other recent developments in communication have dramatically changed the way in which human beings relate to each other. They have also changed the way in which we seek information and the sources we authoritatively turn to not only in search of facts, but also in responding to questions of value and meaning. In countless ways these technologies are a great blessing. Yet there are certain risks which must be attended to -- for instance, the way in which we can be isolated, rarely engaging in heart-to-heart, face-to-face communication; how our minds learn to race from one subject to the next, rather than cultivating concentration and focus; how virtual reality can end up distancing us from fundamental human experience; how developing technologies are changing our leisure, our means of educating, our ways of grappling with questions of ultimate meaning or distracting us from asking such questions at all." (Excerpt from the May 18 pastoral letter of Bishop Donald Bolen of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on sharing the hope of Easter in contemporary contexts)

5. "New" Evangelization's Novelty: New Language

The message transmitted by the new evangelization is not different from the message communicated by the church at an earlier time. The "novelty" of the new evangelization is found "in the way we do it," said Archbishop Jose Octavio Ruiz Arenas, who was named secretary May 13 of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.

The Colombian archbishop was interviewed by Clare Ward, who serves on the Home Mission staff of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. The conference published the interview on its website June 7.

"We must know how people think" in order to reach out to them, Archbishop Ruiz said. He recalled that in Pope John Paul II's efforts to promote a new evangelization, he encouraged the use of "new expressions," by which "he meant that we must transmit our message in a different way," according to the archbishop.

Archbishop Ruiz said that the late pope wanted the new evangelization to keep the "core values and the essence of the Gospel" in proclaiming the faith, but to "find a modern language" for doing this. The archbishop said that to achieve this, "we need to know the people, their concerns, their lifestyle." Knowing them is essential to responding to them, he explained.

It was the archbishop's conviction that "we will not be able to evangelize" and to show that the Gospel responds to people's needs "if we speak a language that people do not understand or if we do not understand the people." He called it "imperative" that a new language be found "that ensures that the message of Christ and his salvation is understood by the new generations."

While it is important in the new evangelization that those who have received an official mandate to do so talk to people, "it is also important that the young speak to the young, women to women, bankers to bankers, economists to economists," Archbishop Ruiz said. And because the Gospel has to be spread "through the whole church and its members," the laity "have a very important role to play" in the new evangelization, he added.

6. The Church and Children's Rights

The church's commitment to defending and promoting the human rights of children was reaffirmed June 6 when Archbishop Silvano Tomasi spoke in Geneva, Switzerland, to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

He commented on the draft of an Optional Protocol to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child designed to make it easier to report violations of children's rights by establishing a communications procedure for filing complaints.

The draft protocol "provides a word of hope and encouragement to those children and young people whose innocence and human dignity have been wounded by the cruelty that can be present in the world of adults," Archbishop Tomasi said. The "entire international community" bears a responsibility to promote "the dignity and well-being of all children and adolescents everywhere," he said.

Archbishop Tomasi encouraged passage of the protocol, which expands upon the basic U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. He is the Vatican's representative to international agencies in Geneva.

It has been suggested that the very dependence of children on the adult world often eclipses their dignity and human rights. Too often their dependence - their very childhood - not only makes them vulnerable to exploitation, but makes it difficult for them to be heard and to make abuses known.

At the present time, the international community of nations is concerned especially about matters such as the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents (in prostitution and pornography, for example), forced marriages, the forced drafting of child and adolescent "soldiers" into military services in various world regions, and other issues.

The communication procedure called for under the draft protocol can be viewed as an "opportune contribution to strengthening the human rights system," Archbishop Tomasi said. He recalled that Pope Benedict XVI has spoken out on the human rights and dignity of children.

In remarks Nov. 18, 2009, Pope Benedict spoke of children throughout the world who suffer because of violence, abuse, sickness, war and hunger. The "tragic problems of childhood" require a generous commitment by the international community to assure that the rights of children are recognized and that their dignity increasingly is respected, he said.

7. The Harm of Ideological Fixations

Ideological fixations on the part of people in the church can distract them in such a way that they are unable to address the issues that need to be faced today, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica said in a June 8 biblical reflection for Pentecost. A well-known leader in the field of Catholic communications, Father Rosica is CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation in Toronto, Ontario. His reflection appeared on the Salt and Light blog.

"Some of us seem to be stuck in the ideological battles that followed the Second Vatican Council," Father Rosica wrote. That, he said, can mean being "frozen in categories of left and right, traditional versus avant-garde, male versus female, hierarchical versus lay-led or prophetic versus static."

The problem is that "interecclesial and intercommunity fixations and polarizations on all sides of the ecclesial spectrum can distract us from addressing with requisite depth and discernment the issues facing us today," Father Rosica commented.

He asked, "Is joy present in our Christian witness?" The deepest assurance of the Holy Spirit's presence is found in joy, he said.

Father Rosica also spoke about hope, another "true manifestation of the Spirit at Pentecost." A challenge to hope is that many in today's church "feel like we are caught in a flash flood that is unexpected, powerful, destructive and filled with despair. The flame seems to have gone out, and our influence is terribly diminished."

For some, the disheartening sense that we've been caught in a flash flood results in "great pessimism," Father Rosica observed. He wrote:

"Perhaps we have chosen to look at everything only from the data of sociology, psychology, polls and predictions, blogs and brief Twitter messages, and foresee an inevitable, almost deterministic future designed more or less by demographic, social and economic forces, a future which is dismal and dark."

For Father Rosica, hope is not a word to use lightly or cheaply. He said that in a world of sound bites, "hope usually means that we make ourselves believe that everything is going to turn out all right." But, he added, "this is not the hope of Christians." What is needed, he proposed, is to "be icons of hope, a people with a new vision."

The life of faith and the church's vitality cannot be assessed "solely on the basis of demographical or sociological indicators, numbers, polls and outside statistics, as helpful as they may be," according to Father Rosica. He said that "what is required of those imagining and building the church is to think big, and to cast our nets into the deep."

He advised his readers that "individuals and communities without vision and a church without a mission are like a person without relationships." He said, "Unless we are able to go beyond ourselves, we will remain undeveloped personalities."