ROME — In light of the old mantra that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, there’s a semi-ironic sense in which Church communication professionals from around the world might want to think about coming to Rome to learn how to improve their job performance.
After all, in nearly one month’s time, the Vatican has managed to entangle itself in three high-profile communication debacles:
- The very public departure of the person tasked with the overhaul of Vatican communications reform following the digital doctoring of a photograph of a letter from Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI (“Lettergate”).
- Efforts to tamp down reports that the pope denied the existence of hell in an interview with a well-known Italian journalist (“Hellgate”).
- Pope Francis having to walk back his comments made to a journalist in Chile that reports of sexual abuse cover-up amounted to calumny — and reports of a letter sent by a survivor of Chilean sex abuse reportedly providing evidence of cover-up that never received a response (we’ll call it “Mailgate”?).
Yet, in the long shadow of Vatican PR fiascoes, some three hundred communications directors from dioceses and Catholic organizations around the world journeyed to Rome this week to attend the 11th annual Professional Seminar for Church Communications hosted at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce.
The theme, “Dialogue, Respect, and Freedom of Expression in the Public Arena,” was meant to offer some broad strokes at better understanding the realm of global Church communications — but, in some respects, could be seen as offering a direct response to recent events emanating from Rome.
Consider just a few of the session titles: “Religious Information in a ‘Fake News’ Society,” “Media and Dialogue: between Polarity and Polarization,” and “Calumny and Defamation as Weapons in Public Debate.” One has to wonder if themes were chosen with its outside audience in mind or whether a message was being sent to folks on the other side of the Tiber that someone in the Church needed to learn to get these things right.
In American public discourse, President Donald Trump has popularized, indeed weaponized, the phrase “fake news,” as EWTN head Michael Warsaw, told attendees of the conference on Thursday.
Yet for all the politicization surrounding it, Pope Francis has recognized the dangers of using the Internet and media in spreading false or inaccurate information “to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests” noting that “fake news” is a threat to truth itself.
Instead, he has called on journalists and communication professionals to be “protectors of news” through pursuing a “journalism of peace.”
Echoing those sentiments, Monsignor Lucio Ruiz, the Secretary of the Secretariat for Communication, briefed attendees of the conference on “The Current State of the Reform of the Secretariat for Communication” where he insisted that, “If you really want to know the message of the pope…you have to go to the source.”
Taking a familiar page from his boss’s script, Ruiz said that a guiding theme of Vatican communications reform is to improve upon the ability to “accompany the user” as they seek information on Church communications.
And for all of its very public communication fails as of late, Ruiz did have some good news to boast of: The smashing success of Pope Francis on Twitter and Instagram and the recently redesigned Vatican communications portal, which serves as a hub for Vatican News, Media, and Radio Vaticana Italia.
Guiding the reform, are the stated goals of being a platform that is multilingual, multicultural, and embraces multimedia.
Ruiz cautioned that communications, however, cannot be reduced to just media or technology.
“Communication is catechesis, communication is pastoral care,” he said.
Perhaps it’s for that reason that the eventual launch of Vatican Audio will include the ability for visitors to St. Peter’s Square to log in to a free WiFi network that will provide simultaneous transmission of the pope’s addresses in six languages.
When pressed on when a successor will be named to replace Dario Viganò, the former prefect of the Secretariat for Communications who was demoted following “Lettergate,” Ruiz shied away from giving concrete information — only insisting “I am not the boss.”
Yet for all of the criticism leveled at Vatican communications in recent years, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from the organizers of this week’s mega-communications conference that might offer some hope for all involved.
The Pontifical University of Santa Croce was founded in 1984 as a project of Opus Dei, one the Catholic Church’s most storied and at times controversial groups. For decades, Opus Dei was widely criticized for its secrecy and an unwillingness to be up front about just what exactly was happening behind the curtains.
Yet in a period of over a decade, the prelature underwent a massive reform effort allowing the world to better understand what and who they are, which helped put to bed much of the “fake news” that swirled around their existence.
Beyond that, their School of Communications has become a pioneer in the realm of Church communications and is now widely considered the best communications shop in Rome, drawing folks from as far away as Singapore, Australia, Chile, and elsewhere to Rome for this past week to see just how things can and should be done.
In his message for the 2018 World Communications Day, Francis proclaimed that “This alone can liberate us: ‘The truth will set you free.’” For the Church, which often operates in centuries, the road to freedom may be a long one. But perhaps those who joined in this week’s communications seminar learned, it’s a road that is worth traveling.