*Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
India today is at a defining moment of her history. There is so much that has taken place in the past five years – and particularly in the last ten days – that several citizens of the country are genuinely concerned about the future of the country! Will democracy survive? Will key elements of the Constitution be changed? Will the minorities actually become second-class citizens? Will pluralism and diversity that is so much part of the social fabric of the country be destroyed forever? Are we transparent about the problems which plague the Church in India today? These are not questions raised by doomsayers -but by social analysts, academics, intellectuals and other concerned persons, who are in touch with the ground realities and are convinced that the people of India (and within the Church) must wake up now – if the concerns and questions they raise will hopefully generate positive answers down the road!
It is a wake-up call for the Catholic Church in India too- very specifically if it intends realizing its mandate of being a ‘communicating Church’. Way back in January 2004, the General Assembly of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) meeting in Thrissur, produced a path breaking statement, ‘Called to be a Communicating Church’ in which they highlighted “that media have a prophetic role, indeed a vocation: to speak out against the false gods and ideals of the day materialism, hedonism, consumerism and narrow nationalism” . The statement also called for a Pastoral Plan for Communications which was meant to be formulated and implemented in every Diocese in India! As one looks back these past fifteen years, one needs to acknowledge with honesty and humility that the Church in India has miserably failed to translate its lofty ideals into action; precious little has been done to ensure that “God’s plan for us” is mainstreamed!
On Sunday 2 June 2019 the universal Church celebrates the 53rd World Communications Day on the theme, ‘We are members one of another” (Eph 4,25). From social network communities to the human community.’ In a very meaningful message for the day, Pope Francis says, “Ever since the internet first became available, the Church has always sought to promote its use in the service of the encounter between persons, and of solidarity among all. With this Message I would like to invite you once again to reflect on the foundation and importance of our being-in-relation and to rediscover, in the vast array of challenges of the current communications context, the desire of the human person who does not want to be left isolated and alone”. His message should in fact galvanize the Church in India to revisit the Thrissur statement, to vivify that call to be a communicating Church in India and to ensure, in every way possible, its implementation.
‘Communications’ permeates every dimension of our lives. The irony is that even when one thinks s/he is not communicating – is in fact sending out a very strong message! With the world becoming a ‘virtual village’ communications have gripped us as never before! Everyone has become a ‘communicator’ today- thanks to the digital revolution, which has overwhelmed our lives through computers, cellular phones and the internet. It is a common sight to see people from across the board obsessed with their latest gizmos: talking incessantly on phones, rapidly texting, posting dozens of photos on Instagram – and in fact ‘super-busy’ communicating! The use and the speed of technology today is easily justified (one often wonders how we survived just about twenty-five years ago, when most of our communications were confined to a landline phone, the postal system or to video film and even slide shows!) Times have certainly changed: there are newer and greater challenges today: there is a clear call to all the disciples of Jesus to be more effective and relevant communicators in India today.
Communications in the Church in India today has primarily to be contextual; it cannot be divorced or isolated from the realities that have a stranglehold on the common citizens of our country today. There is no dearth of ‘context’ in India today. The growing impoverishment of millions; the suicides by debt–ridden farmers; the politics of hate, divisiveness and exclusion(as we have seen in the recent election campaign and so blatantly obvious in some of the Union Ministers today); rampant corruption; the hounding, arrests and even killing of human rights defenders; lynchings; the constant attacks on marginalized groups like dalits, adivasis and minorities; the sexual violence on women and children; the attempts to change the core values of the Constitution – are but a few of a long list of the ills that plague the country today and many of these are bound to continue in the years ahead in greater measure! True, communication is not only about highlighting the negatives. There is plenty of good that is taking place. We need to ask ourselves however, of many of our Church publications and productions are visible and vocal on the realities and take a stand for the poor, the marginalized, the excluded and the oppressed of our country?
Meaningful communications demand that one is critical. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian pedagogue, in his books, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ and ‘Education for Critical Consciousness’ used and developed the term ‘critical consciousness’ or ‘conscientization’ as an education and social concept. It refers to the process by which individuals apply critical thinking skills to examine their current situations, develop a deeper understanding about their concrete reality, and devise, implement, and evaluate solutions to their problems. Media persons and intellectuals in our country have been killed because they were critical of the powerful and vested interests. The challenge for the Church is to address the context critically in order to create greater awareness and simultaneously work towards positive solutions. Being meaningfully and positively critical calls for serious study and research – we cannot limit ourselves to being superficial or merely cosmetic. ‘Tokenism’ always boomerangs; people will see through our ‘hollowness’.
Communications necessarily have to be creative. One is flooded with communications from every direction. What is important is to ‘catch’ the attention of the audience. Creative communications often stand a better chance of getting the message across. Creativity does not have to be loud, heavy or even sensational; it can be simple, tasteful and yet have the vibrancy to drive a point home. Pope Francis reminds priests of the sermons they give (which are often long, dry and verbose) during the Eucharist: “they pay no attention on how it should be said” (cfr. Evangelii Gaudium #!45-159) So much of our communications are just run-of-the-mill and truly lack the wherewithal to attract! Have we seriously evaluated our ‘ministry of communications’ at every possible level?
Communications above all, has to be courageous in the proclamation of truth and justice. There are no shades of grey in this fundamental or for that matter, any room ‘to run with the hare and hunt with the hound’. Truth and justice are two-sides of the same coin and non-negotiables. In a country today where media has become so one-sided and blatantly corrupt, we desperately need more communicators who are visible and vocal, demonstrating unflinching courage to uphold truth, justice and other gospel values. The Church in India must speak ‘truth to power’. Communications for a disciple of Jesus – is never about diplomacy or anonymity. True one needs to be sensitive at all times! Evangelization, in word and witness, therefore is the heart of communications.
Collaboration is the essence of a Communicating Church. ‘Communications Day’ in India falls on the feast of the Ascension. Jesus invites us to be his collaborators in his mission here on earth. We cannot remain neutral in communicating the “good news” We cannot be in competition with one another. The Church has several ‘media institutions’ all over the country; but at the level of the Diocese we hardly work in tandem with one another. We prefer being little ‘islands’- doing our own thing! Oftentimes we are in competition with one another. We hardly utilise the talents and the competencies our laity (some of them are media professionals) to be our spokespersons. In the struggle for truth and justice we have to work in tandem with other men and women of goodwill. We have to engage constructively and committedly with others if we want to usher in a society based on the values of the Gospel.
If the Church in India intends realizing the mandate which it gave itself in 2004 it must face the challenge of being contextual, critical, creative, courageous and collaborative. Last year 2018, the 52nd World Communications Day, had a contextual and challenging theme. In a hard-hitting message for the day, Pope Francis dwelt on ‘Fake news and journalism for peace’ whilst highlighting the scriptural text “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Pope Francis emphasizes the non-negotiable dimensions of communicating truth and countering ‘fake news’ stating, “I would like to contribute to our shared commitment to stemming the spread of fake news and to rediscovering the dignity of journalism and the personal responsibility of journalists to communicate the truth.” His opening statements summarizes the thrust of his ‘spirituality of communications’, “Communication is part of God’s plan for us and an essential way to experience fellowship. Made in the image and likeness of our Creator, we are able to express and share all that is true, good, and beautiful. We are able to describe our own experiences and the world around us, and thus to create historical memory and the understanding of events”.
It is no state secret that those who take a stand for truth, who promote communications of justice and peace, have often to pay the price: they are sidelined, denigrated, false accusations are foisted on them and some are even killed. At this juncture of our country’s history, the Church in India, must not be afraid! It must play a defining and prophetic role in order to be a truly communicating church, in every sense of the word and in fulfilling the mandate she has given herself! It will not be easy; but authentic disciples of Jesus, are always ready to pay the price-whatever the consequences!
Pope Francis in an address to the participants at Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (21 September 2013) said, “Are we able to communicate the face of a Church which is “home” to all? We sometimes speak of a Church that has its doors closed, but here we are contemplating much more than a Church with open doors, much more! . . . We need to bring Christ to others, through these joys and hopes, like Mary, who brought Christ to the hearts of men and women; we need to pass through the clouds of indifference without losing our way; we need to descend into the darkest night without being overcome and disorientated; we need to listen to the dreams, without being seduced; we need to share their disappointments, without becoming despondent; to sympathize with those whose lives are falling apart, without losing our own strength and identity (cf. Pope Francis, Address to the Bishops of Brazil, 27 July 2013, n. 4). This is the path. This is the challenge.”
Yes, this is the path; this is the challenge: the Church in India must wake up now- if it is serious about exercising its prophetic mandate in being a Communicating Church today!
1 June 2019
*(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ (GUJ) is a human rights activist and writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )