In anticipation of the 45th World Communication’s Day tomorrow, Pope Francis offers some observations on the centrality of communication in the modern world and the ways in which it can help forge solidarity and bridge gaps, but only if used properly.
In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity. The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect. A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive. Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.
If good communication helps us to grow closer, then surely bad communication pushes us the further apart. The question is: to which end does the internet trend? Like all who spend a great time in this space–working, playing, learning, and evangelizing–I believe that there’s a downward gravitational pull in modern mass media that favors the lowest forms of communication. Dialog rarely retains a lofty or even civil character before beginning the invenitable slouch towards Godwin.
Francis is aware of this, because in the very next paragraph he makes the following observation:
This is not to say that certain problems do not exist. The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression. The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests. The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings.
These risks, for those of us here and for the Pope, do not meant we leave this space behind, but act with greater deliberation:
What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding? We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen. We need also to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us.
His suggestion of how to achieve this draws on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the notion that the one who sees the neighbor as one like himself is able to act righteously:
Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God. I like seeing this power of communication as “neighbourliness”.
The problem with this analogy is that of the people who passed by the man on the road, two-thirds of them didn’t get this point, and the percentage is at least that high in the digital space. In internet terms, that translates into millions of truly miserable people. Francis observes that the response of the Levite and priest were culturally conditioned, and that modern media works to condition us in a similar way. We see not a neighbor, but either an ally or an other. The point is not to keep the others out, but to draw them in. You can defeat an enemy by crushing him, or you can defeat an enemy by making him a friend.
And as Francis observes, the nature of the media themselves lends itself to abuse, but also to glory:
Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road…. Media strategies do not ensure beauty, goodness and truth in communication. The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness. The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people. The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others. Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator. Christian witness, thanks to the internet, can thereby reach the peripheries of human existence.
He concludes by saying the risk is not just worthwhile, but essential if the gospel is to be proclaimed everywhere in the modern world:
… if a choice has to be made between a bruised Church which goes out to the streets and a Church suffering from self-absorption, I certainly prefer the first. Those “streets” are the world where people live and where they can be reached, both effectively and affectively. The digital highway is one of them, a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope. By means of the internet, the Christian message can reach “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)…
Effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence” (BENEDICT XVI, Message for the 47th World Communications Day, 2013). We need but recall the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus. We have to be able to dialogue with the men and women of today, to understand their expectations, doubts and hopes, and to bring them the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate, who died and rose to free us from sin and death. We are challenged to be people of depth, attentive to what is happening around us and spiritually alert.
May the image of the Good Samaritan who tended to the wounds of the injured man by pouring oil and wine over them be our inspiration. Let our communication be a balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts. May the light we bring to others not be the result of cosmetics or special effects, but rather of our being loving and merciful “neighbours” to those wounded and left on the side of the road. Let us boldly become citizens of the digital world.
There has always been a lot of idealism in papal statements about the internet, and this address is cut from the same cloth. And that’s a good thing. If we keep our eyes fixed on the ideal while navigating a fallen world with the love of God in our hearts and the gospel ever on our lips, we’re being true to the call of Catholicism.