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Challenge to Catholic communicators

“Communication does not take place if listening has not taken place, and there is no good journalism without the ability to listen" - Pope Francis

On May 15, 2022, Pope Francis proclaimed ten outstanding women and men as Saints of the Catholic Church. Among them was Blessed Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite priest and journalist.

Father Brandsma was named spiritual adviser to the Dutch Association of Catholic Journalists in 1935 and became its president after the Nazi invasion of The Netherlands. He worked with the Dutch bishops’ in crafting their message opposing Nazi ideology and the forced publication of propaganda in Catholic newspapers.

Following Germany’s invasion of The Netherlands in 1940, Father Brandsma defended the freedom of Catholic education and the Catholic press against Nazi pressure.

In the face of great risk, he visited the offices of Catholic media outlets around the country over the course of ten days, encouraging editors to resist pressure to publish Nazi propaganda. His actions drew the ire of the Nazi regime who arrested him in 1942. Several months later, he was transported to the Dachau concentration camp where he was killed by a lethal injection of carbolic acid. He had to pay the ultimate price for his visible and vocal stand against Nazim. St. John Paul II, who beatified the Dutch priest on Nov. 3, 1985, regarded him as a “valiant journalist” and a “martyr of freedom of expression against the tyranny of the dictatorship.”

A few days before the canonization of Father Brandsma, hundreds of journalists from all over the world, wrote an open letter requesting the Holy Father to name the Dutch Carmelite as the patron saint of journalists.

The letter is significant on several counts; the key aspects, relevant for all Catholic communicators today include:

“In 2018 you asked us, journalists, loud and clear, ‘to promote a journalism of peace,’ a ‘journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all … a journalism committed to pointing out alternatives to the escalation of shouting matches and verbal violence’ (‘The truth will set you free’ (Jn. 8:32), Fake news and journalism for peace. Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for World Communications Day,24 Jan 2018).

- Newsletter -

We wholeheartedly endorse your call to action and in it we recognize a mission statement for the whole of the journalistic enterprise: for old and new media, for editors of newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, and internet platforms — and not only for journalists of Catholic origin, but for all journalists of good will.

On May 15, in Rome, you will canonize a man who embodied these crucial journalistic values until his dying day: the Dutch Carmelite Father Titus Brandsma (1881 – 1942).

Titus Brandsma was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp, where he was killed. He was 61 years of age at his death. (Photo supplied)

Titus Brandsma has meant a lot to the Catholic community in the Low Countries, but his journalistic work stands out among all his other activities. He was editor-in-chief of a newspaper, devoted himself to the modernization and professionalization of the Catholic daily press in The Netherlands, and strove for better working conditions and the establishment of a professional training for journalists.

Father Brandsma did his work in the context of the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe. In word and deed, he opposed the language of hatred and division that was becoming common at the time. In his view, what we now describe as ‘fake news’ was not to be tolerated in the Catholic press; he successfully argued for an episcopal ban on the printing of National Socialist propaganda in Catholic newspapers.

He paid with his life for his courageous actions: in early 1942 Father Titus was arrested by the occupying forces and consequently sent to the Dachau concentration camp. There, on July 26 of the same year, he was killed by an injection, on the Sunday that the Dutch bishops had their courageous protest against the deportations of Jews read out in all the churches.

We, Catholic journalists, recognize in Titus Brandsma a professional peer and fellow believer of considerable standing. Someone who shared the deeper mission that should drive journalism in modern times: a search for truth and veracity, the promotion of peace and dialogue between people.

We therefore see him as a friend and advocate for our entire profession, indeed a patron saint of journalism. We would therefore like to boldly ask you to make this patron saint’s office official.

The current patron saint of journalism is Francis de Sales. He is undoubtedly a holy man of faith and of great merit, but he was not a journalist in the modern sense of the word. Titus Brandsma was. And as we said, he gave his life for it. In our view, this makes him particularly suitable for this patronage.

According to UNESCO, in 2021, no less than 55 journalists died worldwide while carrying out their work. Many more had to deal with violence, threats, repression, censorship and persecution. The commitment to truth and humanity is extremely dangerous in these times of disinformation and polarization. This urgently requires a holy intercessor who has experienced this personally – and passed the ordeal with flying colors.”

Campus journalists belonging to the Union of Journalists in the University of the Philippines take photographs during a demonstration marking the anniversary of the 1986 EDSA Revolution on Feb. 25, 2020, in Manila. (Photo by Jimmy A Domingo)

The letter says it all: what Catholic communications should be today; the fact that St. Brandsma courageously embodied its totality. It was certainly not easy for him; he had to face much hostility from the all-powerful fascists; he did not relent and had to pay with his life for his prophetic stand.

There is plenty that Catholic Communicators all over need to learn from St. Brandsma and also from the letter written by some renowned Catholic journalists to the pope.

More so because on May 29, 2022, the Church all over the world observes the 56th World Day of Social Communications. The theme of Pope Francis’ powerful message is “Listening with the Ear of the Heart.” The theme is rooted in the Gospel of St. Luke “Take care, then, how you listen.” (Lk8:18).

The theme complements the 2021 message “Come and See.” Pope Francis in his opening statement says, “Last year we reflected on the need to ‘Come and See’ in order to discover reality and be able to recount it beginning with experiencing events and meeting people. Continuing in this vein, I would now like to draw attention to another word, ‘listen,’ which is decisive in the grammar of communication and a condition for genuine dialogue.”

“World Communications Day” was established by Pope Paul VI in 1967, just about two years after the Second Vatican Council. In fact, it is the oldest special observance day of the Catholic Church. This annual celebration encourages us to reflect on the opportunities and challenges that the modern means of social communication (the press, movies, drama, radio, television, the internet and all of social media) afford the Church to communicate the Gospel message effectively and contextually.

The Church realized that she must engage fully with the modern world. This realization is expressed in the opening statement of the Pastoral Constitution “Gaudium et Spes” on “The Church in the Modern World,” which says, “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anguishes of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anguishes of the followers of Christ as well.”

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI, knowing that the Church is truly and intimately linked with mankind and its history, wanted to draw attention to the communications media and the enormous power they have for cultural transformation. He and his successors have consistently recognized the positive opportunities the communications media afford for enriching human lives with the values of truth, justice, beauty and goodness, but also the possibly negative effects of spreading hate, fake news and pressurizing minds and manipulating consciences with a multiplicity of contradictory and divisive content. In 1990, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical “Redemptoris Missio” states, “The world of communications is the first Areopagus of the modern age, unifying humanity and turning it into what is known as a ‘global village.’ The communications media have acquired such importance as to be for many the chief means of information and education, of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, family and social behavior. In particular, the younger generation is growing up in a world conditioned by the mass media.”

For Pope Francis, “listen” is not something theoretical; it is the sine qua non for any Catholic communicator who is interested in authentic communications, through searching and arriving at nothing but the truth, just like the Master Communicator Jesus! One hears a common complaint today “nobody is listening!” Many experience this feeling — there is a painful story to share, a cry that needs to be heard — but nobody cares! That story, that cry becomes a voice crying in the wilderness! Is there someone listening? Does anybody care? In his message, Pope Francis throws a direct challenge to communicators: to listen and when you listen, to do so with the ear of your heart!

In October 2021, Pope Francis launched the Synodal process with the theme “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission.” The process will culminate with the 2023 Synod in Rome. Pope Francis has been insisting that the synodal journey is about listening, learning and loving. His Communications Day message reiterates this when he says, “A synodal process has just been launched. Let us pray that it will be a great opportunity to listen to one another. Communion, in fact, is not the result of strategies and programs, but is built in mutual listening between brothers and sisters.”

The question one needs to ask oneself: Is there serious listening? Or is it lip-service: a tiresome formality without change? The painful reality is that, in several dioceses the first phase has been sheer tokenism: an attitude of “it is a process which ‘had to be done’ – so let’s get over it as soon as possible!”

Are we listening to the cries of the poor and the vulnerable, the excluded and the exploited, the minorities and the other marginalized? When we listen with the heart, we are called to do something about it — we need to make a paradigm shift, to change; to ensure a better quality of life for all. Pope Francis says it rather strongly “human beings tend to flee the relationship, to turn their back and ‘close their ears’ so they do not have to listen. The refusal to listen often ends up turning into aggression towards the other, as happened to those listening to the deacon Stephen who, covering their ears, all turned on him at once.”

A photojournalist wears a face mask and a face shield during coverage of the pandemic in Manila (Photo by Mark Saludes / LiCAS.news)

In this context, he once again highlights the plight of the migrants and their cries. We often treat them as outsiders: they are not like us, they do not “belong” here! These suffer because of man’s inhumanity to man. They are the “other!” To this Pope Francis says, “The reality of forced migration is also a complex issue, and no one has a ready-made prescription for solving it. I repeat that, in order to overcome prejudices about migrants and to melt the hardness of our hearts, we should try to listen to their stories. Give each of them a name and a story. Many good journalists already do this. And many others would like to do it, if only they could. Let us encourage them! Let us listen to these stories! Everyone would then be free to support the migration policies they deem most appropriate for their own country. But in any case, we would have before our eyes not numbers, not dangerous invaders, but the faces and stories, gazes, expectations and sufferings of real men and women to listen to.” The reality of forced migrants is a key concern of Pope Francis’ papacy! Once again, we need to ask ourselves: are we listening to them with our hearts?

In his message, Pope Francis does not spare the Church. He calls for a Church that has the heart to listen. He says, “It is sad when, even in the Church, ideological alignments are formed and listening disappears, leaving sterile opposition in its wake.”

In the final segment of his message, he emphasizes the need and importance of “Listening to one another in the Church.” He says, “In the Church, too, there is a great need to listen to and to hear one another. It is the most precious and life-giving gift we can offer each other. Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the word of God.”

He reserves his choicest words to “so-called” Catholic communicators, many of whom are frightened to be visible and vocal in standing up for truth and justice. Pope Francis urges them to develop their listening capacities. “Communication does not take place if listening has not taken place, and there is no good journalism without the ability to listen…. In order to provide solid, balanced, and complete information, it is necessary to listen for a long time. To recount an event or describe an experience in news reporting, it is essential to know how to listen, to be ready to change one’s mind, to modify one’s initial assumptions.”

Pope Francis speaks with journalists during a papal flight. (File photo by Joe Torres)

He quotes the German Lutheran theologian Bonhoeffer, who like St. Brandsma, was executed by the Nazis in 1945, “Thus, the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the first service we owe to others in communion consists in listening to them. Whoever does not know how to listen to his brother or sister will soon no longer be able to listen to God either.”

Strong words indeed if we have the courage to listen with the heart! On May 1, Pope Francis paid tribute to journalists who have died or been jailed in the line of duty, defending a free press and praising those in the media “who courageously report on humanity’s wounds … I render homage to journalists who pay in person for this right”

It is important then, for all Catholic communicators to do an honest and objective evaluation of their writings, productions and other forms of communications. How many of these have genuinely responded to the cries of the poor and the vulnerable, the excluded and exploited, the marginalized and the minorities of the country? How many have written/done productions against draconian laws, the illegal incarceration of human rights defenders, the demonizing of the Muslims, the anti-conversion laws?

Do Catholic communicators have the prophetic courage to take on the fascist and fundamentalist forces that are working overtime to destroy the sanctity of the Constitution and the secular, pluralistic fabric of our beloved nation? It is time to listen! It is time for introspection! It is time to act! It is time to change!

Meaningful communication is not about sophisticated centers, glossy publications or “projects” to be run but the ability to stand for and communicate justice and truth with prophetic courage.

Pope Francis has been consistently challenging Catholic communicators to live up to this call. His message this year is all about that. Besides, from this year, one has a saint in Titus Brandsma who lived his vocation to the fullest. Will Catholic communicators have the audacity to listen with ear of the heart, to stand up and be counted, to be witnesses for justice and truth today?

A tough challenge indeed! A challenge which demands an immediate and wholehearted response! After all, World Social Communications Day is also the Feast of the Ascension, when one is sent out to be his disciples, to witness to the good news, in the world today! Is “YES” the answer?

Father Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer based in India. [email protected]

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