Mass Media Can Be Ministry

By Leonard, Richard | National Catholic Reporter, September 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

Mass Media Can Be Ministry


Leonard, Richard, National Catholic Reporter


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. …

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