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Synodal Church

Communication in Asia for a Synodal Church

Fr. George Plathottam, sdb, Executive Secretary, FABC-OSC
Address at the 28th Annual Bishops Meet, FABC OSC
November 20-24, Bangkok

The most important resource today is the human resource. Economic resource and effective action plans will come to naught if men and women at leadership roles and pastoral responsibilities do not have a passion for what they are called to do in their ministry.

All strategies for an effective communication ministry for the church in Asia must be deeply rooted in a commitment which calls persons to awake and act- not alone, but as the synod urges us- in communion and through participation.

The place of Asia in the communication map of the world needs to be carefully studied. That provides a milieu to reflect on our work. We need effective strategies to respond to the situation. But to do so we need a clear knowledge of the situation, the road we are travelling on the synodal journey. Repeating the same old things, and expecting new results is madness in management parlance. We may need to charter new pathways under the power of the Holy Spirit and following Jesus who walks with us.

There is need to find new frontiers- places of resilience and creativity, where God is revealed, and love is proclaimed.  There are numerous frontiers that are tangible and intangible. There are also structures that perpetuate the status quo and are not willing to change. People desiring for change, or even do not know they need change often get little by way of improvement, and sometimes feel helpless. We have to be aware of the invisible boarders that create inclusion or exclusion. Asia needs to confront issues like migration, refugee crisis, unjust distribution of resources and a host of other issues. Pope Francis speaks about the periphery, listening to the voices of the voiceless. The Synod talks about inclusion, listening, participation, journeying with everyone.

God is a frontier God who is at the crossroads. Religious men and women must be at the crossroads too to encounter God, as Jacob did the Old Testament. Our communication ministry must go beyond the confines of the church structures and models we may be familiar with. We cannot go on with the ‘business as usual’ approach.

In our reports and stories, we should not be communicating ourselves. Our efforts should eb to tell the stories of people whose stories are not told yet. In our effort to give voice to the voice suppressed, we have to pay attention to those who have not spoken and even sometimes not even  allowed to speak- due to political, patriarchal power structures.  

We need to offer affirmative action in favour of the ethnic minorities: their land, language, resources, culture. We need to accompany them through our media ministry in order to affirm their identity, give them a voice in political affairs, in the church, in decision making.

The Synod held a lot of discussion on digital synod, new technology of communication in the mission of the church. There is a very new idea in the document for enhancing the formation and support of “digital missionaries”. This is for reaching out to young people, some of who are distant from the church or have left the church.

The Synod also recommends “spiritual conversation’ as a method of prayer for all our meetings and deliberations. It emphasizes the importance of listening to groups that have been harmed by or excluded from the church, including victims and survivors of clerical sex abuse. “Authentic listening is a fundamental element of the journey toward healing, repentance, justice, and reconciliation.” This calls for a “synodal conversion.”

Rebuilding Trust and Credibility

In recent years, cultural and social change together with scandals and incoherence on the part of institutions have led people to evaluate organizations more rigorously than ever. Today many countries have democratically elected heads of states who are right wing, with special and sometimes skewed ideologies- in US, Canada, Turkey, India, Philippines, Russia, the latest being in Argentina. There is a culture of suspicion toward political parties, financial institutions, trade unions, even NGOs, the media, and also–of course–the church. People don’t easily trust these. It is now like the norm.

We also witness the rise of collective intelligence, public participation and misinformation which are creating new forms of authority and allocations of trust. Some see it as the decline of “experts” and the fall of hierarchical structures. This has importance consequences for the church and our communication ministry

Yet we know that in today’s culture–global, collaborative, and interconnected– trust has become an essential element for carrying out personal and institutional missions. In times of change, it is important to reflect on the indispensable role of trust, and wherever mistrust and suspicion reign, we need to find ways to instill and inspire it again.

How can we who are responsible for institutional communication help the church to become more credible and trustworthy? How can we inspire trust today? We can we help nourish the roots of faith, rebuild confidence? We have no other formula or solutions than to fall back on to a fuller living of the Gospel, being a living witness to our faith and the power of God to lead and guide us.

The Synod on Synodality has raised a lot of hope and created much interest in the whole church. This is largely due to the process itself which involved   from the beginning , a path of participation of people of God from the grassroots through the parish, diocese, episcopal conference, continent, and the General Assembly in Rome in October 2023. The process is still on and the avenues of communication are still open.

For this reason, the media has also shown considerable interest, though a section of media may be interested in some specific issues like changes in doctrine, ecclesial practices etc. They coined a phrase called ‘hot button issues.’ Some of the media have been negative, critical, calling it a waste of time or looking for a needle in a haystack! Some found them too, a needle here and there; some even found skeletons in the cupboards of the church. But some also noticed that the church was quite transparent, aware of its sins and admission of its fragilies and sins. The Church is holy, Catholic, apostolic church but it still is the ‘ ecclesia semper reformanda’ in need of metanoia, conversion.

During  the Synod the participants acknowledged that in spite of the much efforts, there was the realization that only a very limited percentage  of the people of God have participated or know about the synod and what is going on. I am reminded of a division someone made of people into three categories on most matters and in situations:

The people who make things happen; the people who watch things happen and the people who have no idea what is happening. Probably herein we might find a clue to what we have on hand, an indication of what we could do, our tasks.

We are entrusted with the responsibility of communication in the episcopal conferences. We can play a crucial role in increasing the level of knowledge and participation of the Synod, and thereby contribute to the renewal of the church as desired by Pope Francis.

It also means directing the media to a proper reporting of the Synod and its intention and help in the function of presenting the larger picture of the aims and goals of the Synod with its three key words: Communion, Mission, Participation.

In its communication with the media we should shift the focus from a limited and often narrow interest of the media on the outcome on certain issues (what was decided, how many in favour, against, who they are etc). We should emphasis more on the process rather than the outcome.

Media and most people are influenced by parliamentary debates, collective bargaining, lobbying and advocacy. The synod was not following that path. It is not a parliament, the Pope said it again and again. In trying to make the media understand is also a call to be  evangelized. And the synod, if we accept it as a process, is not yet over. Probably it will not be over in 2024 either.

Therefore we could focus more on the synodal processes, goals envisaged for the church- its hierarchy, leadership, faithful, faith practice, beliefs, decision making processes, mission,  challenges in the world today and so on. They are all figuring in the various documents of the conference, continent, and the Instrumentum Laboris and the Synthesis document.

On the whole the participants, and the communication agencies as well as their body language, seemed to me to indicate that they have grasped the importance of and the church’s attitude of willingness to be open and welcoming, and transparent with the media.  There were of course some whispers and murmurs in the corridors.

But we can understand that since media, which is used to  narrating stories of conflict, controversy, parliamentary debate, it takes time to understand the synodal process, which even the bishops and pastoral leaders, let alone ordinary faithful, are trying to understand. We all need to learn more on the Church’s method of conversation in the Spirit, listening to diverse and even opposing views without acrimony or animosity, but in a spirit of dialogue, openness and friendship.

In sharing the experience of the Synod, the participants often focused on the local church they represented. Some of the issues that came up in the Synod were looked at from the lived reality of the church in those countries, religious, ecclesial, cultural and socio-political contexts. They were not pre-packaged, not uniform.

The Synod on Synodality as well as the sum of the message sent out by the church in its communication from the Pope, the Secretariat of the Synod and the Dicastery for Communication indicated this openness and expressed this diversity. The Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, Dr Palo Ruffini, who was appointed as one responsible for the media by Pope Francis himself, had also a team from around the world to assist and support this work. That was truly synodal too, and I was happy to be part of that team and working with the Communication department of the Synod and the Dicatery for Communication of the Holy See. It was a great learning experience.  

The daily media briefing during the Synod assembly presented church leaders from different parts of the world. They talked about the local churches in their continents and countries, and they were not all on the so-called ‘hot-button issues’ though I felt that the media, mostly the Western media, was too much obsessed with them. These issues were not ignored by the Synod, but there were many more pressing issues that needed attention too.

Having been in Catholic communication as a practioner and teacher, I would recommend that our communication ministry should stress on sharing whatever can be shared rather than emphasize secrecy. We also have a duty to call the attention of the media to issues they tend to ignore. Rather than keep the Synod or any other issue of event in the church  as a secret, hidden or wrapped up event, shrouded in mystery, we can speak more of them with the media. As for the synod, we can try to emphasis the process of discernment under the Holy Spirit, fostering respect for each other’s views and positions, and the process of decision making and the space necessary to do so. I do not think media will have a quarrel with anyone on this score. We also have to see our media ministry as an opportunity for evangelization, that there are stories out there that tell of hope, courage and the final triumph of truth as in the story of Jesus.  

The Communication Dimension

We recognize that many issues related to the Synod has important communication dimensions. They are also the focus of Pope Francis in his recent World Communications Day messages: Listening with the heart, Listening to the Spirit, the people at the periphery Speaking- speaking from the heart, speaking the truth, fighting fake news
Encounter, Presence, Meeting in person. Speaking, listening and personal encounter and presence constitute the experience of most people in their daily acts of communication. They are also deeply related to the relationship of the Christian faithful with their God. Our God is ever present, he speaks, he listens to his people and also calls us to a personal encounter.

Doing the Small Things

Indian author Arundhati Booker prize winning book is called “God of Small Things”. God is great and magnificent, but he is a God who does not ignore the poor, the simple, the small ones. We know from the Scriptures that God is decisively on the side of the poor- the orphan, the widow, the weak and the vulnerable, those on the periphery.

Teresa of Lisieux, the little Flower said: “Remember that nothing is small in the eyes of God.” Mother Teresa described her work as “something beautiful for God”. Sometimes she would be asked if she was named after Theresa of Avila, or Teresa of Lisieux. “Oh, not the big one but the Little one”, she would insist. Theresa of Avila was  the great mystic, doctor of the Church. Mother Teresa identified more with the simple Carmelite of Lisieux, the Little Flower.

Mother Teresa, now a saint of the Church,  used simple phrases and imageries to communicate: “I am a pencil in the hands of God.”  Even long before Twitter began, Mother Teresa gave us what would look like some of the best tweets. She had a small card which she used to distribute saying this is my business card. It had these words:

“The fruit of Silence is Prayer
The fruit of Prayer is Faith
The fruit of Faith is Love
The fruit of Love is Service
Mother Teresa”.

This indeed was a unique and interesting business card! And yet it well defined who Mother Teresa was.
Timothy Radcliff, the Dominican who animated the retreat for the Synod participants in Rome, quotes St David, the Patron of Wales: “Do simple things well”.
Indeed, everything counts in front of God but more so the small and simple things we sometimes tend to neglect.
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