Bishop Crispian Hollis, Bishop of Portsmouth, gave the following speech at a conference organised by the National Office for Social Communications of the Italian Bishops' Conference between 7-9 November. My father was an author and a journalist and so I grew up in a literary world with a love for words and for the crafting of language. Conversation was a constant feature of our family life and we read anything we could get our hands on. Such an upbringing has been invaluable to me in my life as a priest and as a bishop, surrounded as I am by the demands to speak, to write and, most importantly, to be nourished by the Word of God. Ten years as a university chaplain and four years as a member of the Religious Broadcasting Department of the BBC meant that the development of such skills of language that I have even more important. One of Jesus' best-known parables is the parable of the sower. "A sower went out to sow his seed - the seed is the Word of God." The scene described by Jesus would drive any self-respecting 21st century farmer to distraction because no one in their right mind would scatter seed in such a profligate way, but then, God's ways are not our ways. God takes the chance with His Word and scatters it liberally in the hope that somewhere, somehow, it may take root, overcome the harshness of its environment and bear the fruit of the Kingdom. There will always be stony paths, unreceptive rocks and tangled briars which fight against God's Word bearing fruit and yielding its harvest and yet the Kingdom grows and flourishes. This is the world in which we live and this is the world into which we are sent to scatter the Word and proclaim the Good News. If we are to evangelise this our world, we have, as Pope Paul VI reminds us, to study, love and serve the world." Part of that loving and serving consists in learning the language and respecting the conventions of our world. We live in a media culture and many of our attitudes and values are shaped by it. If we pretend that, somehow, we Christians do not belong to this culture, and are not subject to the tensions and pressures that the world exerts on human lives, then we will have nothing to say to our society. We will only be able to talk to ourselves. In a conference held in England some years ago on evangelisation and the media, one group produced a sketch of how it saw the Church in today's media culture. They drew a boat, high and dry on the top of a mountain, full of people talking to themselves. Down below, in the turbulence of the sea, was the real world and its real people. The people in the boat had no way of communicating with them. It is a caricature I hope but if there are even a few elements of truth in the picture, what chance has the Church of being the "Gaudium, Spes and Lumen Gentium." I believe that we do face a crisis of language in today's Church and unless we can solve it, we will find it increasingly difficult to speak to anybody, even our own people, about the "magnalia Dei" in ways that they can understand. In a recent meeting of CEEM the Media Committee of CCEE, of which I was, until recently, the President a Hungarian sociologist and two eminent Cardinals all highlighted this as one of the most important challenge that faces the Church today. We are so often "insiders" and we speak the language of "insiders" and those outside of the Church and beyond have little or no idea what we are talking about. There is a hunger for faith among many people they want to believe and they want to be able to give expression to the genuine spirituality that so often lies dormant in their hearts. There is in people an enormous goodwill and a desire for the things of the Spirit, but we do not speak a language that they can understand. "The hungry sheep look up and are not fed." (Ezekiel 34) One Irish broadcaster has put it like this: "In our increasingly secular society, broadcasting a sense of who God is and what the Gospel message is about, requires people who can develop a new language, a language which continues to speak to people's deepest longings and hopes but one which rekindles a sense of meaning and purpose in life, a language which can speak, on the one hand, to the committed, whilst making intellectual and spiritual sense to the uncommitted. But it is also a language that has to be expressed in the most powerful, arresting and challenging images and symbols possible; because that is the kind of world we are in. After all, the Church over the centuries has spawned the best in drama, art, dance, architecture, music, and mime. It has produced spectacle and released imagination and creativity down the ages. Today we need the courage and the imagination of those who built the great cathedrals of Notre Dame and Chartres." (Fr Dermod McCarthy The Furrow : January 1994) We have the technology of the mass media at our disposal for the proclaiming of the Word and you are particularly blessed in the Church in Italy in this respect. But Pope John Paul II gives us a salutary reminder when he writes that "since the very evangelisation of modern culture depends to a great extent on the influence of the media, it is not enough to use the media simply to spread the Christian message and the Church's authentic teaching. It is also necessary to integrate that message into the 'new culture' created by modern communicationsa culture with new languages, new techniques and a new psychology." (Redemptoris Missio 37c) So you see, we're back to language again. But we are a post modern society with all that implies about distrust and fear of the institution as well as the exaltation of the individual and the personal freedom that flows from such individualism. This is the society that we are challenged to evangelise. When all is said and done, the media cannot do that work for us. They are only what they are media, means to an end. For its full impact, the Gospel has to be proclaimed in the spoken word that "'moves from interior to interior' and 'genuine interpersonal encounter is achieved largely through the voice.'" (Walter J. Ong : Presence of the Word, quoted by Michael Paul Gallagher in Clashing Symbols p.34) There was a famous British broadcaster of an earlier generation who used to say that the greatest temptation that Christ would have to face today would be to be offered a worldwide TV network, with instant access to every home. But He would reject it because God's encounter with his people cannot be like that. Our Christian heritage and culture, which exists alongside and within today's media culture, demands the presence of the person you and me to God, and sister to brother, brother to sister. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw His glory." (John 1: 14) The great American evangelist, Billy Graham, said that television was the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man he was speaking before the days of the Internet. He claimed that in a single broadcast he preached to more millions by far than Christ did in his lifetime. In response to this claim, Dr Colin Morris had this to say: No doubt. But those millions cannot reach out to a television screen and touch the Word of Life. By all means we must master the media for God's sake. But it is proper to remind ourselves of the image of Jacob, a specific man in an individual encounter, struggling to win clarity and understanding from darkness and mystery. This assuredly prefigures Jesus, the shocking particularity of whose love mocks mass media or mass anything, and who said "I do not pray for the world; I pray for these." (John 17: 9) (Dr Colin Morris Wrestling with an Angel) The soil of our culture in which the Lord sends us out to plant His Word often seems arid and unresponsive. We need to understand why this should be so. If we are honest, we have to admit that it is sometimes because of us because, with all the goodwill that they can muster, our contemporaries simply do not understand what we are talking about. Perhaps we do not really understand ourselves, which is why we take refuge in the tribal language of the "insider." Nevertheless, the sower still goes out to sow His seed; the seed is the Word of God and it falls in the most unlikely places where it takes root and bears fruit. No "narrowcasting" for the Lord. No, He is the greatest of all "broadcasters"; He is the Word made flesh and we are " earthenware vessels" to whom the treasures of the Word have been entrusted. (2 Cur: 4:7)
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