Nine Keys for Communicating Faith
An article published in "L’Osservatore Romano" on how to communicate the Christian message effectively and convincingly in the context of today's society.
January 13, 2012
Juan Manuel Mora // L’Osservatore Romano
The Church has always seen herself as a messenger, entrusted with good news that has been revealed to her and that needs to be passed on to others. This is an old issue, then, but also a pressing concern today. From Paul VI to Benedict XVI, recent Popes have not failed to point out the need to improve the way we communicate our faith to others.
Often, this question is connected to the "new evangelization." In this context, John Paul II said that the communication of the faith must be new "in its ardor, its methods, and its expression" (Speech to the Assembly of CELAM in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 9, 1983). This article will refer in particular to newness of methods.
Certainly, external factors today hinder the spread of the Christian message, factors that are difficult to eliminate in the short run. But with other factors, which are within our reach, there is scope for progress. If we want to pass on to others the Christian experience of faith, first of all we need a deep knowledge of the faith that we desire to pass on, and we must also know the rules governing effective communication.
Drawing both on recent important Church documents and on the essential reference points of effective communication, I will offer here a number of principles. The first set refer to the message being broadcast, then to the person who is doing the communicating, and finally to the way that message is to be conveyed to the public.
Above all, the message must be positive. The general public receives all kinds of information, and takes note of protests and criticism. But what receives the greatest attention are positive projects, proposals and causes.
Characteristics of the message
John Paul II said in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio that morality is a path to happiness, not a series of prohibitions. This idea has been frequently repeated by Benedict XVI, in different ways: God gives us everything and does not take away anything; the teaching of the Church is not a set of limitations, but a light that is received in freedom.
The Christian message has to be transmitted as it is: a huge “Yes!” to all men and women, to life, freedom, peace, development, solidarity, the virtues. To pass it on effectively to others, we must first understand and experience the faith in this positive way ourselves. In this context some words of then Cardinal Ratzinger take on particular meaning: "The force that carries the truth to others must be the joy that is its clearest expression. Christians should stake everything on truth, and it should be passed on to the world with joy." Communication through the radiance of joy is the most positive approach of all.
Secondly, the message must be relevant and meaningful for the listener, not just for the speaker. Thomas Aquinas says there are two types of communication: locutio, a flow of words that do not interest those who listen, and illuminatio, which is saying something that enlightens the minds and hearts of the listeners on some aspect that really affects them.
Communicating the faith is not arguing to beat an opponent, but having a dialogue to convince someone of the truth. The attitude of the speaker (or writer) is a desire to persuade without defeating. Listening is fundamental: it enables us to learn what interests or concerns the other person. We have to listen to their questions before proposing any answers. The opposite of relevance is self-referencing. Just talking about ourselves is not a good basis for dialogue.
Thirdly, the message has to be clear. Communication is not primarily what the communicator says, but what the recipient understands. This applies in all fields of knowledge (science, technology, economy, etc.). To communicate we need to avoid complexity and obscure language. In religious matters too, we need to look for clear arguments and simple words. Therefore we should recognize the value of rhetoric, literature, metaphors, movies, advertising, images, and symbols, in spreading the Christian message.
At times, communication fails because it shifts the responsibility onto the receiver. Our rule should be the opposite: to strive to become clearer and clearer in what we say, until we reach our objective.
Qualities of the person who communicates
For a recipient to accept a message, the person or organization that offers it has to merit credibility. And since credibility is based on truthfulness and moral integrity, lies and suspicions always undermine the communication process. The loss of credibility is one of the most serious consequences of the crises that have occurred in recent years.
The second principle is empathy. Communication is a relationship established between people, not an anonymous mechanism for the dissemination of ideas. The Gospel is addressed to people: politicians and voters, journalists and readers. People with their own views, feelings and emotions. Speaking in cold, impersonal terms creates a widening gap between speaker and listener.
An African writer has said that maturity lies in the ability to discover that we can wound others, and acting accordingly. Our society is overpopulated with broken hearts and bewildered minds. We need to approach physical pain and mental suffering with the utmost sensitivity. Empathy does not mean giving up our convictions, but putting ourselves in the other person’s place. In today's society, the answers that will convince people are the ones that are both sensible and humane.
The third principle relating to the communicator is courtesy, good manners. We know from experience how personal insults proliferate in public debate. In a context like that, if we do not take care of the way we treat people, we run the risk of making the Christian standpoint be seen as just another fundamentalist position. Even at the risk of sounding naive, I think it is very necessary to distance ourselves from such a context. Clarity is not incompatible with kindness.
With kindness we can hold a conversation; without kindness, failure is guaranteed from the outset: the person who was on our side before the debate may still agree with us afterwards, but the person who was against us will seldom change his or her mind. I remember seeing a sign at the entrance to a pub near Windsor Castle, in the UK, which said, more or less: "Gentlemen are welcome here. And one is a gentleman both before drinking beer and afterwards." We could add that one is a gentleman both when people agree with him and when they contradict him.
Principles on how to communicate
Gaudium et Spes recalls that every human activity has its own nature, which we need to discover, use and respect if we want to take part in it. Each field of knowledge has its methodology, each activity has its rules, and each profession has its mindset. Evangelization is not divorced from human reality, but takes place from within: politicians, businessmen, journalists, teachers, writers, and trade unionists, each has to solve the problems that arise in their respective fields.
St Josemaría Escrivá insisted that it is individual people, committed to their beliefs and to their own profession, who will find the right approaches and solutions for today's problems. If it is a parliamentary debate, they do so on political grounds; if it is a medical debate, they do so with scientific arguments, and so on. This principle also applies to the field of communications, which has developed remarkably in recent years, both in its increasingly quality and its growing audiences, with increasingly broad and active citizen participation.
The second principle of good communications is gradualness. Social trends have a complex life: they are born, grow, develop, change and die. Consequently, communicating ideas has a lot in common with gardening: sowing, watering, pruning, cleaning, waiting, before the harvest comes.
The phenomenon of secularization has strengthened in recent centuries. Processes that have such a long gestation period are not resolved in a matter of years, months or weeks. Cardinal Ratzinger explained that our world view tends to follow a “masculine” paradigm, where what matters is action, effectiveness, programming and speed. He concluded that more space should be given to a “feminine” paradigm, because women know that everything to do with life requires waiting and patience.
The opposite of this principle is the hustle and short-sightedness that lead to impatience and often discouragement, because it is impossible to achieve major objectives in the short term.
Charity is a principle that affects all of the above: the message, the communicator, and how to communicate. Some authors have noted that in the first centuries the Church spread very quickly because it was a welcoming community, where people could experience love and freedom. Catholics treated others with love; they cared for children, the poor, the elderly and the sick. All this was irresistibly attractive.
Charity is the content, the method and the style of all effective communication of faith. Charity makes the Christian message positive, relevant and attractive. It provides credibility, empathy and kindness to the people doing the communicating, and it is the force that enables them to be patient and open. The world we live in is all too often a cold, hard place where many people feel excluded and battered, and long for light and warmth. In today's world, the greatest argument of Christians is charity. Thanks to charity, evangelization is always truly new.
* Juan Manuel Mora is professor of Institutional Communication at the University of Navarra. Between 1991 and 2006 he worked in the Department of Communication of Opus Dei in Rome. He has combined professional practice and consulting with teaching and research.
Images are from the University of Navarra photograph collection.
World Youth Day: A New Damascus
An article by the Prelate published in the Spanish paper "Alfa y Omega." In just a few days young people from all around the globe will gather in Madrid to meet with Pope Bendict XVI.
July 30, 2011
Alfa y Omega
PDF: The article in Spanish as it appears in "Alfa y Omega".
Saul of Tarsus, full of zeal for the law of Moses, and bringing letters from the highest authorities in the Jewish capital to the synagogues of Damascus, intended to arrest and bring back to Jerusalem everyone he could find—men and women who were followers of the “Way of Jesus.” But our Lord intervened. As Saul approached Damascus, a blinding light caused him to fall to the ground and he heard a voice: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The young man replied: “Who are you, Lord?” And the voice told him: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
It had all happened so quickly on the way into Damascus. Ever since, that name—Damascus—has been a synonym for conversion, an opening to God’s grace. From that moment, Saul the persecutor—aided by a devout Christian in Damascus, Ananias—became the Apostle Paul. Freely responding “Yes” to the Lord, he was to be a faithful disciple and evangelizer of Jesus with a generous, cheerful struggle until death.
In a way, one could say that for many young men and women every World Youth Day is an opportunity to re-live the Damascus episode. The Lord Jesus, through the words of his Vicar on earth, Benedict XVI, will speak to those who are ready to hear and provoke in them a new conversion, possibly a deep change in their lives.
From the Pope's words, heard with faith, could come thousands of decisions to seek Jesus without changing one's state in life (whether in marriage or apostolic celibacy), and vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
The Lord calls many—everyone, in fact—to the fullness of the Christian life by diverse paths. But it is necessary, as in St. Paul’s case, to have a heart open to God and to others that is acquired and deepened with the help of catechesis and of other persons (like Ananias) who can make sure that the Pope’s words take root in the soul.
Every saint (canonized or not) has had his Damascus, his moment of real conversion to God. Perhaps it was not as dramatic as St. Paul’s, but it was just as effective. It may have simply been a matter of replacing indifference with the gift of self, moving from a life of receiving to a life of giving. But however it happens, it is always accompanied by true happiness, so different from what material satisfactions can give.
I had the good fortune of living for many years close to a saint who said with conviction: “Madrid has been my Damascus. For that is where the scales fell from the eyes of my soul and I saw my mission.” I refer to St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei.
Although born and raised in a different part of Spain (Aragón), it was in Madrid that God made known to him his mission to show all Christians that ordinary life—woven of hours of work well done, surrounded by family and friends, for the common good of society—can and ought to be a true path to sanctity.
Sensing that God wanted something from him but not knowing what it was, the young Josemaría had prayed for years, Domine, ut videam, "Lord, let me see," the words of the blind man at Jericho in the Gospel. His soul received that sight on October 2, 1928, precisely in the city of Madrid.
It was through his generous service to the sick in the public hospitals of Madrid and those living in the poorest neighborhoods that his vocation first began to mature. Quite soon he was accompanied by a group of young people who “caught” his human and supernatural enthusiasm, and he began teaching them to sanctify their study, work, and all aspects of their daily life.
Many people have experienced their Damascus in Madrid, a city of saints and martyrs, and lay people who sought to imitate Jesus in their ordinary lives. For a few days, this is the city that will become the world capital of youth.
Above all, it will be the papal city. Benedict XVI guides us and leads us towards the Model of all the saints—Jesus Christ. Let’s give him the warmest of welcomes, praying for the fruitfulness of his pastoral visit and asking especially that many young women and men will sense that he is speaking directly to them and that they experience their Damascus during these days: a direct personal encounter with Jesus that changes their lives for the better.
At the beginning of his pontificate the Pope said: “Whoever lets Christ enter his life loses nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful, and great. Nothing at all! Only with this friendship do the gates of life open wide to the greatest potential of the human condition. Only with this friendship do we experience what is beautiful and what makes us free."
We must be fully convinced that Christ takes from us nothing that makes life beautiful and great. Rather, He brings it to perfection for the glory of God, the happiness of men, and the salvation of the world.
Have recourse to the intercession of St. Josemaría, who is so closely linked with this city, and of Blessed John Paul II, who inspired the World Youth Days. May they draw down upon us from our Lord, through the intercession of our Lady of Almudena (Patroness of Madrid), showers of grace during these days.
May the Madrid World Youth Day be the Damascus for many young people who are ready to open their lives to Christ and to others, to serve as credible and vibrant witnesses of the Gospel—ever old and ever new. The world so urgently needs this witness.
wORLD YOUTH DAY 2011 hIGHLIGHTS
WYD 2011 Iraya Edtion