Monday, October 13, 2014

The Church's Media Strategy: Witnesses More than Press Releases

Christ the Bridegroom
It's been a while since I last posted, so this is probably two or three posts combined into one.  

As news stories and commentaries about the Synod of Bishops continue to flood the Catholic world, I have felt myself a little bit sad about the amount of turmoil and contention that has been stirred up as a result.  I'm not sure if it is intentional or accidental, but the flood of leaks, interviews, and commentaries haven't done much to build up communion in the life of the Church.  Instead, so far, it has only caused deeper divisions.  I hope that the end results of the Synod do something about building up the communion of the Church, but right now, if there is some sort of ecclesial media strategy going on, it certainly isn't effectively building up the communion of the Church.

Like most priests, I've dealt with a lot of Catholics who have divorced and remarried.  I hope that they would all say that I've loved them, offered them solid pastoral care, and have treated them with dignity and respect.  

Some of the greatest Eucharistic Faith that I have ever witnessed has come from people who abstain from receiving the Eucharist at one time or another.  When I see a couple who attend Mass every Sunday, but because of their marital status do not receive the Eucharist, I am moved by their devotion and love for the Eucharist.  While I am moved with tremendous sympathy for them, I also want them to know that God is using their suffering to help others.  Perhaps many of us have had moments where we have marched up to communion with no examination of conscience.  When I see these couples who devoutly attend Mass, but who do not come up to receive, my inclination is not to judge them.  My inclination is to judge me!

Similarly, I am often impressed by the students who come to Mass here at Boston University.  Fairly often, various students come to daily or Sunday Mass but abstain from receiving the Eucharist.  When I see this, I am moved by their faith in and their love for the Eucharist.  Their decision not to receive the Eucharist on a given day becomes a beautiful witness to Christ.  They are not refraining because--as some would like people to believe--the Church's pastors are trying to lay heavy burdens upon them.  Instead, these young people recognize that their life needs to be consistent with the one Whom they are receiving.  When I see a young person refrain from coming to communion, I think, "Isn't it beautiful how they love the Eucharist?"  Their example helps me.

Priests are not only asked asked questions about past sins, but also about future ones.  "Father, if I don't go to Mass next Sunday because I want to go golfing, is that a sin?"  In these instances, it is necessary to talk about not presuming upon God's mercy.  Much of the debate about communion for the divorced and remarried centers around those who find themselves already in this situation.  But, let's not forget about those who are thinking about committing adultery or those who are considering abandoning their families.

Let's suppose that those who argue for reception of communion for the divorced and remarried were successful.  What is a parish priest supposed to say when one of his parishioners comes to him and says: "Father, for the past year or so, things have been kind of dry in my marriage.  About two months ago, I met a woman and I think she is really my soul mate.  She's taking a job out of state and I feel like if I don't go with her now, I will never be happy.  I just want to be sure I understand the rules.  If I divorce my wife and leave her and my kids and go marry this other woman in a civil ceremony, I can still receive the Eucharist, right?"

Or, what about the man who decides to have a girlfriend on the side?  He doesn't leave his wife and kids, but feels like having another woman who "really understands" him, will really help him to be happy and will make him better able to remain in his marriage.  Can he continue to receive communion?  He sincerely believes that this approach will actually help him to be a better husband and father.  In this instance, isn't he doing something better than just abandoning his spouse?  In his mind, he's living in two committed relationships.

In my experience of working with a lot of couples who have experienced marital problems, I am struck by how cruelly one spouse can treat another.  The answer to these pastoral situations doesn't seem to be making divorce easier and less painful.  It means reiterating and teaching all over again the importance of the vows.  It means helping people to see that in entering a marriage, they are truly responsible for the other spouse.  

The proposal just to give people communion is not a solution to their situation.  What they need is a friendship, a lived communion, a pastor, a companionship.  Instead of pretending that there really isn't a problem, let's surround these suffering members of our church family with love and support.  Some of our brothers and sisters are carrying a heavy cross.  Let's acknowledge it and walk with them.  Let's stay close to them. That's true mercy.  And maybe, their suffering somehow helps the rest of us who too glibly approach the Eucharist with little self-examination.  Perhaps these witnesses--by not approaching Holy Communion--are doing far more to catechize the rest of us than any bishop or priest is doing.  

Perhaps, we are looking at this situation in the absolutely wrong way.  Maybe these brothers and sisters of ours are turning our attention to the truth and beauty of marriage and the truth and beauty of the Eucharist.  Their suffering is an eloquent testimony to the truth about marriage and the Eucharist.  Maybe in His mysterious way, God is using these suffering friends to strengthen the rest of us in our Faith in marriage and the Eucharist.  If so, God is using these people to show the rest of us mercy.  

In many ways, the public face of the Synod has become another example of the Church attempting--but failing--to become media-savvy.  Pope Francis often refers to the problem of the Church being "self-referential."  I would argue that this problem is particularly evident in a new obsession with media.  Instead of using media as a means to promote the Gospel, oftentimes Catholic institutions seem too willing to employ "savvy" media at the expense of the Gospel and of the Truth.  The use of the media in advancing the Gospel is awesome.  But, too often, we appear as though we are cheapening the Gospel in order to sell ourselves and increase membership.  We sometimes look like we are pandering rather than witnessing.

The Church's first media strategy is worth a second look: "Come see a man who told me everything I ever did" (JN 4:29).  "One thing I do know, I was blind but now I see" (JN 9:25).  "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:15).  "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in him might not perish, but might have eternal life" (JN 3:16).  "We are fools on Christ's account . . . we have become the world's rubbish, the scum of all" (1COR 4).

The first media strategy employed by the Church was to send out sinners who had encountered the love and mercy of Christ and whose lives had been changed because of that encounter.  That strategy got Peter crucified, Stephen stoned, and Paul beheaded.  And, the Church grew.  Spending tons of time trying to make ourselves look good in the media is probably a big waste of time.  Christianity is always a personal encounter.  I'm guessing that 99.9% of conversion stories do not begin with, "So, I read this article in the newspaper . . . ." 

As I write this, 25 kids from the BU Catholic Center are spending a few hours together, apple picking.  They'll come back, bake apple pies, and bring them to some homeless shelters.  Later on tonight, those kids will do what they do every Monday night.  They will come to Mass and adoration.  They live a friendship together.  That friendship is lived in mercy, in prayer, in laughter, and in charity.  This is the encounter.  I'm convinced that if the Church spent more time witnessing to who we are rather than trying to appear as others would like us to be, we would be in much better shape.  

There's a young man who comes to Mass every Sunday at Boston University.  If he misses a Sunday, he comes to weekday Mass to make up for it.  Of course, doing that would not make up for missing his Sunday obligation.  But, this young man is not obliged to go to Mass on Sunday.  He is not Catholic.  In fact, he is not baptized.  But, he comes every week to Mass.  What is going on in that young man's soul is--as Pope Benedict said (and as Pope Francis often repeats), "not because of an ethical decision or a great idea, but rather because of an encounter with an event, with a Person, who gives new horizons to life, and with that, a decisive orientation.”  

Instead of spending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to appear good according to someone else's standards, we ought simply to share the good news of what Christ is doing in the lives of people.  We ought to show forth the friendship of the Church and our communion.  This might mean giving up on the idea of mass media conversions.  It might mean spreading the Gospel one encounter at a time--as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

1 comment:

  1. This should be required reading at the Synod.