Religion makes good people better and bad people worse.

Lombardi & HitchenThat was just one of the pearls of wisdom dropped into our consciousness during this opening full day of the Communications Conference in Rome. This is no holiday and we have finished the day with foot ache and brain strain. The programme looked like this (in brief): Vatican Radio (with Fr Federico Lombardi and Philippa Hitchen) followed by a visit to the Pontifical Council for Social Communication followed by lunch at a clergy hostel followed by presentations at the Pontificia Universita della Santa Croce (School of Church Communications) – HQ of Opus Dei to you – followed by Robert Mickens of the Tablet (on working as a journalist reporting on the Vatican) followed by a reception and great conversation with the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell.

Vatican Radio paintingWhat is fascinating is how this enormous institution (the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church) invests so heavily in its communications. This is clearly based in the conviction that the Church has a message to proclaim that it thinks is worth proclaiming. Conscious of some of the contradictions – even within the institution of the Church – between message and messengers, our speakers were clear that the Church does not have the right to muck up its message in order to make it more palatable to a relativisitic society. As Monsignor Paul Tighe put it:

The Church is to hand on a tradition, not invent a new Gospel that people might like … Our ‘product’ is not a message, but a person…

But, what is obvious is that this ancient institution puts huge resources into communicating – not just within itself – but with and for the sake of the wider world. New technologies have to be embraced and used, but we should never become mere followers of new media fashions; after all, these come and go. What was surprising, however, was the openness to risk and trying out new media. Again, Paul Tighe introduced us to the pope4you.net venture, which sounds corny, but is a good example of how new things can be tried out without too much fear of failure.

Rome 3 008Fr Lombardi had begun our day with a history and introduction to Vatican Radio, explaining how it was the first internationally-broadcasting radio station in the world. Established by Marconi in 1931, its launching was coloured by very rational fears about the role of radio in a growing totalitarian world where control of media could become an untrusted propaganda tool. This remains a concern today, but the Vatican’s decision to go with it anyway – allowing the Pope to communicate through the War years with his divided communities across the world – was not obvious.

The opportunities and dangers of emerging media and communications technologies were addressed in different ways by several of our contributors. What was funny was how the same challenges were addressed using different languages. Forexample, Paul Tighe spoke about risk and adventure and how new technologies can be embraced in ways that enable greater social connectedness; then his boss, Archbishop Celli, joined us and spoke of the dangers and problems of the new media world. I am not sure if this was a generation question, but the difference in perception merited further conversation.

All these contributors – Federico Lombardi, Philippa Hitchen, Paul Tighe and Archbishop Celli were articulate, generous, open and stimulating. They opened up lots of thinking about communications, media and technology (which often drives ethics instead of being constrained by ethical values) and led to some very valuable reflection on our common task as communicators of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The need for any institution to allow for learning and failure is apparent and the Vatican is no exception – as our contributors noted.

The other interesting element for me was the Vatican communicators’ understanding of the different Popes. John Paul II was a great pastor who became Pope when he was 60 years old; Benedict XVI was 80 and is a professor. The former was great with people – especially young people – and the media; the latter is shy, academic and basically a teacher. They had different personalities and strengths and the job of those around the Pope is to enable the best to be drawn out of him in the most appropriate way.

There is too much to think through from today. But this probably isn’t the place to rehearse it all. The challenges facing the Vatican are similar in some respects to those facing the Anglican Communion and Archbishop Celli was keen for our churches to consider together how we might better face them – especially in relation to social communication and use of new technologies. It was encouraging to hear that we are seen as one Christian Church with a common task in the world. Like post-modernism (we know what we are ‘post’, but we don’t know what we are ‘pre’), we don;t really know where the technology is taking us or what will come next in terms of social networking.

Anyway, Opus Dei promised us they don’t send albino monks to murder people (they don’t have monks anyway) and no helicopters exploded above us while we heard how they handled (in a media sense) the Da Vinci Code business. But the view from the top of their building is stunning – bettered only by the view from the Palazzo where the Ambassador entertained us.

Best quote of the day – from a Vatican media man? “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission…” I hope my clergy don’t learn that lesson.

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