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“When the Pope speaks to the World: Working with Modern Media”

Matthew Harrison

Thursday, May 29, 2008

[The following is the keynote Address of Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J. to the Catholic Media Convention, Toronto, May 29, 2008.]
"When the Pope speaks to the World: Working with Modern Media"
Your Eminence, Cardinal Foley,
Your Excellencies, Archbishop Celli, Archbishop Prendergast,
Dear Friends,
I am delighted to be here in Toronto for the 2008 Catholic Media Convention, and I sincerely thank the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, the Catholic Academy of Communication Arts Professionals, the Association of Roman Catholic Communicators of Canada, and the organizing committee for their very kind introduction. I am grateful to Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., co-host of this year’s Media Convention, for his kind words of introduction. [see the end of the blog for Fr. Rosica's introduction]
It is a privilege to stand before several hundred men and women working in the areas of Catholic communications and media in North America. You are ambassadors linking people together. We are all involved in the work of communications- of using words to build up, of connecting human beings across the face of the earth, giving deeper meaning to life and serving the truth.
As you know I wear several hats in the Church and in the Society of Jesus! In my role as Director of the Holy See Press Office, I work closely with the Holy Father and the Curia. I also oversee two important organs of communications of the Holy See: Vatican Television and Vatican Radio.
Today I would like to share with you some personal reflections on my work in the area of communications at the Vatican. Some of you have asked me privately and publicly about these matters over the years. In reflecting aloud with you today, I hope to encourage you in your own important work at the service of the Church and the truth.
Thoughts on Communication: Reflecting and Learning from Experience
A few days after the conclusion of an apostolic trip, the three or four people responsible for Vatican media who travelled in the papal entourage, would always be invited to a working lunch with Pope John Paul II and the Monsignor from the Secretariat of State who followed the international print media coverage of the trip. The Pope wanted to know how the trip had been presented in the media. He wanted to reflect with his collaborators on what messages had gotten through and what hadn’t. He wanted to know whether his message had reached the broader public or not.
He did this every single time, even after his one hundredth trip, when one would have thought he already understood how the media functioned… It was always a pleasant lunch, of course… but it was definitely a working lunch. The Pope knew exactly what he wanted from this kind of meeting and he never let the conversation digress very far from the main issue.
After his election, when Benedict XVI heard about his predecessor’s tradition in this regard, he decided to do the same. So after every voyage we have an informal conversation about how the trip was communicated in the media. This approach impresses me deeply. It says a lot about the two popes’ relationship with the media, about their attention to the media as a dimension of everyday life, about their awareness that the media are fundamental and necessary for spreading any message. It is a peaceful and humble awareness that tries to understand and apply the dynamics of communication in today’s world without fear, without conditioning.
Pope Benedict knows, just as John Paul II did, what he wants to say and what he should say. Neither of them would ever adapt their message, either out of fear or out of love for the media. And both of them truly cared whether or not the message was understood.
A positive attitude towards the other, towards those different from us
It seems to me that one of the reasons why Benedict XVI enjoyed such a good reception in the United States was his cordial and positive approach towards the American people. He understood how to express the values on which the history of the American people has been based since the beginning: love and respect for freedom and religious experience, and the desire to build a society that welcomes and respects others and their beliefs.
One that trusts that this encounter and exchange of gifts will contribute to the growth of the dignity and responsibility of everyone involved. Tied to this appreciation of the identity of the American people is an evaluation of the present and an encouragement of that people to look to the future in order to build it in a manner that is coherent with their vocation. In this approach, Benedict XVI acted in a way that was very similar to John Paul II.
Following John Paul II quite closely as I did, I was always deeply touched by his authoritative way of speaking to the peoples of the world - as a “teacher of peoples”. In his second great address to the United Nations in 1995, and on other occasions as well, John Paul II spoke about “the family of peoples”, of the recognition of the rights of peoples, of their identities, culture, language and tradition. He spoke of their right to self-determination. This discourse found a specific and concrete echo in his trips to different countries. On those trips, the Pope regularly addressed himself not to governments but, in the first place, to peoples as living historical subjects.
I personally felt the power in this way of speaking during the 1990’s when the Pope travelled to countries that had just emerged from communist domination or had only recently achieved their independence. In broad strokes, John Paul II evoked the history of individual nations, their geographical position, their great and leading figures. In this way he identified the specific vocation of each people as a subject of history. He challenged each of them to assume their collective responsibilities in order to place their gifts and creativity at the service of the family of peoples.
In so doing, he elicited a healthy patriotism – quite different from nationalism – that inserted itself positively in a much broader horizon: a fascinating vision of enriching exchanges and co-existence based on respect and love, rather than on the unbridled exercise of the advantage of the more powerful. In his letter marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, John Paul II formulated a new commandment: “Love other peoples as you love your own”.
I believe there has never been another historical personality able to assume the role of “teacher of peoples” as authoritatively as John Paul II who was so widely accepted from a moral point of view. He was recognized as an authority on a higher level, a level superior to partisan conflicts and interests. That’s why he was so credible when he referred to universally recognized values and to a universal common good. With his speech to the United Nations and his encounter with the United States of America, Benedict XVI set himself on this same path with increasing success.
For all Christian communicators, and not just for those who work most closely with the Pope, this pedagogy of peoples becomes a formidable school of universal openness of the heart and mind, of friendship and the desire for dialogue and encounter with those who are different from ourselves. It is against every form of racism and myopic nationalism. It is enough to remember, for example, Pope Benedict’s explicit references to the need for an open, welcoming attitude toward immigrants and respect for their rights as human persons.
In seventeen years of service at Vatican Radio, with colleagues and co-workers of sixty different nationalities, I have become ever more clearly and decidedly convinced that we must use the power of the word only to bring people together and never to drive them apart, to make peace and not to create conflicts, to aid mutual understanding, dialogue, the building of a community whose richness is greater precisely because it is the result of the fusion of so many different gifts.
Highlight first and foremost the beauty of the Christian life
During a conversation with a group of German journalists shortly after his trip to Valencia, Spain, for the World Day for Families, one of them asked Pope Benedict why he chose not to mention the fact that the Zapatero government was so aggressive toward the Christian vision of the family. The Pope replied, saying he had only twenty or thirty minutes to give two speeches and that he had chosen to use that time positively to express the beautiful idea of the Christian Family. When there is time for more ample and elaborate discourses, then we need to recall the negative points as well. But it is always necessary to have a criterion, a hierarchy in expressing the Christian proposition. Evidently, that which is positive takes first place. It is no accident that the Pope’s first Encyclical was on Love, the second on Hope. No accident either that his first book was about Jesus, who shows us the face of God.
When he speaks to young people too, right from his homily at the inaugural Mass of his pontificate, Benedict XVI insists that ours is not a religion of prohibitions, of “no’s!” Rather, it is based on the great “yes!” of love. The pedagogy of holiness, the presentation of concrete, attractive models of sanctity, of fulfilled Christian lives, which John Paul II promoted in a very obvious way, and which Benedict XVI continues to promote in a more moderate form, is in this same line.
As communicators, we must not let ourselves be taken in by the myth of a communication that thinks it needs to be polemical in order to be effective. There is good news out there, and there are good examples that can attract attention – Mother Teresa knew how to attract many by the beauty of her charity and holiness.
Of course we must be realistic. We have to know how to recognize and denounce the evils, the risks and the dead ends present in contemporary culture. In this, Benedict XVI is clear and decisive. In this, he refuses to compromise. His critique of relativism, subjectivism, individualism, of materialism and hedonism, is frequent and frank, especially as regards current tendencies in European culture. He is convinced that values are at stake which are extremely important for humanity, for society and the future. He is convinced that the manipulation of life and the distorting of the proper relationship between a man and a woman pose very serious risks for humanity. He is convinced that closure to a transcendent horizon causes us to lose our basic points of reference and he maintains that it is his duty to say so with clarity.
We must be careful though, not to let ourselves be imprisoned in a prevalently negative outlook, as many of the media that have a prejudicially diffident vision of the Church try to do, sometimes intentionally. If our contemporaries perceive us simply as adversaries of the new, we will be cut off from the conversation on which the future will be built.
Once again, it seems to me that the speeches of Benedict XVI during his recent visit to the United States are a particularly effective example of the balance between the positive message and the clear identification of evils, divisions, weaknesses and dangers. The best way is the one that avoids the traps of naïve optimism and those of radical pessimism, which does not believe in the presence and the power of the workings of grace.
Trust in reason and have patience in communicating strong messages
Pope Benedict XVI did not give his speech to the United Nations “for show”. He didn’t use language meant to fire the imagination or cause a sensation. He wanted to plumb the depths, to affirm basic principles, so that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights might not gradually lose its power as a reference point for all humanity, and so that the community of peoples might be able to base itself on objective principles. He wanted to make a lasting contribution on which those responsible for harmony and peaceful co-existence among peoples might reflect and work in the long-term.
When he speaks about ecumenism too, Benedict XVI doesn’t just make good-will statements. He invites everyone to search for common ground, going back to the origins and foundations of the faith and of the ecclesial community. In the catecheses during the weekly General Audiences the Pope frequently returns to the theme of the relationship between faith and reason, reviewing the history of Christian thought, presenting the figures of the Church Fathers.
We may ask ourselves whether these teachings “get through”, whether or not they penetrate the mindset of national leaders, whether they bring together Christian confessions that tend to grow further apart in the way they respond to the challenges of modernity, whether they really enter into the thinking and the common culture of the faithful. It is a teaching method that manifests the highest respect for people’s intelligence, an unconditional trust in human reason and in reason’s capacity to guide the human being to truth and goodness, if it is allied with the light that comes from faith and charity.
This is the answer the Pope gives every day to relativism and subjectivism. For our part, we need to examine how we as communicators can best make this mission our own. We ought to appreciate everything that moves in the direction of truth and the objectivity of information, of the proposal of a correct hierarchy of priorities and values, rather than chasing after the scoop, the sensational news item. I am convinced that as communicators we cannot be slaves to immediacy and speed. Rather, we must trust more in the fruitfulness of a work of analysis that takes its time.
Do not avoid difficult problems but have the courage to tell the truth
As we all know, a crucial point the Pope was expected to address when he came to the United States was that of the clerical sexual abuse crisis. For months, people were asking whether he would say anything at all, how he would deal with the question, whether he would avoid it. It was obvious he couldn’t avoid the subject altogether, since it was a problem that had marked the life of the Church so painfully in recent years. The first public indication that the Pope was going to speak about it came in the interviews given by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, the week before the Holy Father’s departure. When I collected the questions proposed by journalists travelling on the papal flight, in order to show them to His Holiness, two days before he was to leave for the States, I wasn’t surprised to see that questions regarding the clergy sexual abuse issue were the most often submitted.
Questions proposed by Spanish-language journalists regarding immigration ran a close second. The Pope’s decision to respond during the flight - speaking off-the-cuff in English – surprised even me. His honest and courageous words instantly won him the respect and esteem of countless numbers of people. You all know what happened next. You heard the Pope’s various remarks on the subject. You also remember his meeting with some of the victims and the decision to hold the encounter in the most discreet and respectful manner possible. Though it was private, this gesture completed the Holy Father’s words and made them even more credible. It is a general principle that we ought to keep in mind when considering the effectiveness of communication, a principle in which the Church has long centuries of experience in her liturgy: words and actions complement one another.
It is vitally important to tell the truth with clarity and simplicity. Every ambiguity, every reticence and, worse still, every intentional concealment of the truth, will exact a dear price in the end. The vicissitudes connected to the sexual abuse crisis were the weightiest proof of this. The Pope understood that to heal the wounds of the past there was need for the kind of sincerity that is absolutely devoid of uncertainty. We are all grateful to Pope Benedict for this.
Be yourself!
Along with sincerity of speech, there is sincerity of behaviour: how one lives one’s life. Everyone needs to be oneself and to communicate in a way that fits one’s personality. I’ve often asked myself how John Paul II managed to gain the respect and attention of the better part of the world’s media, how he earned the status of a superior moral authority, how he became such a credible man of peace. This wasn’t something to be taken for granted, nor was it easy. Many people working in the media, and many of their superiors, were steeped in a culture that was anything but well disposed to the Church and to the exacting moral solidity of Pope John Paul. In time, though, many of his critics were obliged to recognize the unique authority of that champion for the cause of God and humanity.
Apart from his natural gifts of human expression, the reasons why the media were won over in their relationship with John Paul II seem to me to have been the following: John Paul II was always open to the world and always demonstrated as much. He was always honest and sincere in his relations with God and with others, entirely “squared” – so to speak – with his conscience, whether as a man, as a Christian, or as a pastor. This is where he got his courage and the natural ease with which he presented himself, when he was strong and when he was sick, with serenity and at times, expressing his outrage against evil. That’s why he could present himself powerfully in word and deed, without giving even the most fleeting impression of seeking approval, of subjecting himself to the power of the media.
The media finally understood they were dealing with someone who was not afraid of them, one who would not let himself be dominated. They realized they were dealing with someone who had something (many things) to say that were important for their audience. They realized they were dealing with someone who helped them rediscover the true purpose of their work, who encouraged them to avoid playing games and tricks to win approval.
Benedict XVI is very different from John Paul II. But with time, the media is getting to know him better. Not only is his teaching deep and coherent, seen up-close, he is a kind, humble and gentle person. Sometimes this has proven a most effective force. When he visited the Mosque in Istanbul, for example, during an extremely delicate trip in search of dialogue with the Muslim world after the discussions and misunderstandings surrounding his Regensburg speech, the TV camera revealed a respectful and humble Pope who let himself be guided by the Imam and who paused in silent prayer facing Mecca. An image worth dozens of theoretical statements about respect for Islam.
In New York, at the end of the celebration in the Cathedral and all along Fifth Avenue, we saw the Pope’s joy as he responded to the joy of the faithful and ordinary people. This illustrated the sincerity of the words he repeated again and again regarding his trip: “I came here to comfort and encourage you. But you too have encouraged me!”.
Benedict is no longer just a great teacher. More and more he is becoming an engagingly human pastor. It is up to us as communicators to find the way to make the most of these characteristics which an earlier, and incomplete, picture of his personality kept in the shadows.
Signs of hope
In conclusion, I’d like to recall a few stories that nourished my hope in serving communications for the Pope and the Holy See. I believe they might nourish your hope too in facing your role as communicators. Deep in the hearts of many people, there is the hope for something good. After September 11, 2001,, on the day Europe decided to observe a minute of silence at noon in remembrance of the victims, phone calls started coming into the Vatican Television Centre early in the morning. They were calls from television agencies requesting images of the Pope at prayer. I spoke to the Pope’s secretary, Archbishop Dziwisz, and at noon our CTV cameramen were at Castel Gandolfo, filming the Holy Father praying in silence. The pictures went around the world in minutes. I want to make it clear: I was not the one who suggested it. The other TV agencies asked me to do it, anticipating their audiences’ desires. People were suffering and wanted to see the Pope praying. TV executives understood that and requested those pictures. In this way they helped respond to people’s expectations.
Those were the images that came to my mind as I watched Pope Benedict pray at Ground Zero. The prayer at Ground Zero was also one of the most intense and evocative moments of the time spent in America. Just because they are sometimes less explicit or less pronounced, we shouldn’t think that people don’t have spiritual expectations and desires. They are always in their hearts, even if we cannot always see them.
Even more so, the death of John Paul II and the participation of all humanity, was the greatest media event in the history of social communications. It was the greatest event and it was a positive one. Despite all the horrible things television and internet are capable of, the greatest thing they ever did was a good thing! So good messages do get through, after all.
The Church continues to offer us a vision of the good that social communications can perform in the service of society and the human person. The titles of the Church’s documents on the subject are all optimistic: Miranda Prorsus, Inter Mirifica, Communio et Progressio, Aetatis Novae, The Rapid Development….
One evening, John Paul II was participating in a prayer vigil with Roman university students. Together with the Vatican Television Centre we’d organized complicated two-way TV link-ups with several different cities. At one point the Pope exclaimed: “What a wonderful thing this television is! It allows me to talk with my young people in Krakow even when I am here in Rome… Blessed TV!”. I was deeply struck. The Pope taught me to have a positive Christian vision of television, something I usually thought of as a source of various problems and evils! His was a prophetic vision, a vision that sees beyond what things are, and that helps us make them what they should be: in the service of good and of the human person. We must never get discouraged as we perform our service!
Pope John Paul II wrote in his final apostolic letter on communications, “Rapid Development”: “The communicator is not only one who practices his work, but someone who "lives" his work. As communicator, the person transmits a view and, therefore, becomes a witness. Communicators must be witnesses of values that are good for society. Communications and the media become instruments at the service of peace, at the service of the development of human society.”
Let us continue to work together at the service of peace, at the service of the development of human society.
God bless you all!
Federico Lombardi, S.J.
Introduction by Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.
of Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J.
Catholic Media Convention
May 29, 2008
Last week, on May 23, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the participants in a congress promoted by Archbishop Claudio Celli and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications on the identity and mission of communications faculties in Catholic universities.
The Pope’s significant message to that gathering in Rome finds an echo amoung us at this important convention in Toronto. Benedict XVI said: “A communicator can attempt to inform, to educate, to entertain, to convince, to comfort; but the final worth of any communication lies in its truthfulness. In one of the earliest reflections on the nature of communication, Plato highlighted the dangers of any type of communication that seeks to promote the aims and purposes of the communicator or those by whom he or she is employed without consideration for the truth of what is communicated.
No less worth recalling is Cato the Elder’s sober definition of the orator; vir bonus dicendi peritus – “a good or honest man skilled in communicating.” The art of communication is by its nature linked to an ethical value, to the virtues that are the foundation of morality.
These words made me think immediately of today’s speaker: Fr. Federico Lombardi: “vir bonus dicendi peritus”, a good and honest man skilled in communicating. In fact that is exactly what he has been doing for over thirty years in the business of Catholic journalism and communications.
Federico Lombardi is native of Saluzzo in the Italian province of Cuneo, where he was born on Aug. 29, 1942. He entered the novitiate of the Jesuit's Turin province, in Avigliana, in 1960. He received a licentiate in philosophy in 1965 from the Jesuit Aloisianum Faculty of Theology in Gallarate in Varese. Over the next four years, he was an assistant to students in the Jesuits' University College in Turin. He received a licentiate in mathematics from the local university.
Ordained a priest in 1972, one year later he obtained a licentiate in theology from the Jesuit St. Georgen Philosophie une Teologie Hochshule in Frankfurt-am-Main. He became a member of the college of writers of the Jesuit review Civiltà Cattolica and its editor, and in 1977 became deputy director of this prestigious publication.
From 1984 to 1990 Father Lombardi was provincial of the Jesuit's Italian province. He served as Vatican Radio's program director from 1991 to 2005, when he became its general director. Since 2001, he has also been director of the Vatican Television Center. In July 2006, he was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as Director of the Press Office of the Holy See – the spokesperson for the Pope. And most recently, in March 2006, during the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Lombardi was named one of the Assistants to the newly elected Fr. General of the Society, Adolfo Nicolas. Fr. Federico wears many hats of service with generosity, kindness and humility.
On Tuesday afternoon of this week, Fr. Lombardi was granted an honorary doctorate from Regis College, the Jesuit Faculty of Theology at the University of Toronto not far from here!
I have had the privelege and pleasure of working with Padre Federico on various Vatican events and projects, including our World Youth Day 2002 in this very city and the greatest event in television and media history in 2005. I have learned much from him and his gentle, quiet ways, his “sensus Ecclesiae” and his ability to multi-task with such serenity.
Today this special guest from Rome graciously accepted our invitation to address 2008 Catholic Media Convention on the theme: “When the Pope speaks to the World: Working with Modern Media”
Colleagues and friends, please welcome Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi.

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