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Posted January 30, 2008

Communications Ministry

Given by John Allen
National Catholic Reporter NCR
At a meeting of rectors of cathedrals in Florida

To some extent, both these suggestions involve piggy-backing upon global or national events, bringing in the life of your local cathedral, so to speak, through the back door. The more enduring challenge you face, however, is to communicate the daily life of your local faith community without depending upon external news angles.

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, but I do have a premise: The problem is not that routine pastoral life lacks drama, and therefore you constantly have to be seeking artificial ways to dress it up. Rather, what happens in cathedrals -- in liturgical celebrations, faith formation programs, schools and clinics and soup kitchens -- is always fascinating to those who know it from the inside, because otherwise they wouldn’t bother. The trick is figuring out how to communicate that appeal to the outside world.

I’d like to close today by encouraging the continuing emergence of “Communications Ministry” as part of the “basic package” in Catholic pastoral life, sort of like CNN and TNT come with basic cable. I know many of you are already well underway, and I want to urge you to build upon what’s been done and to go deeper. I believe cathedrals in particular, since you are the showcase parishes in our dioceses, should consider communications an essential component of pastoral activity, on a par in terms of emphasis and resources with youth ministry, liturgical ministry, and so on.

I am not necessarily proposing the creation of new committees or hiring new personnel, though in some cases that might be appropriate. What I am proposing is that communications ought to be at the heart of every pastoral and administrative discussion. The trick is to make this Copernican shift: from first deciding what to do, and only then how to communicate it; to making communications part of the thought process about what to do in the first place. The extent to which “x” can be used as an occasion to promote better understanding of the church, both in its local and universal dimensions, ought to be part of the conversation about whether to do “x” in the first place -- and equally importantly, perhaps, how to do it. Every time you organize a liturgy, launch a faith formation program, or serve people in need, the question of how to communicate something of that activity to the outside world ought to be part of your reflection. By the “outside world,” I don’t just mean the press, but all the sectors of civil society present in your local community -- academics, social activists, leaders of other faith communities, and so on.

To repeat, the problem is not a lack of material to communicate. Every RCIA director in this country has stories to tell of that remarkable convert whose life is the stuff of a Hollywood screenplay; our social action directors know families whose lives were rescued by a timely intervention of the church; our principals and teachers can point to kids whose lives were headed in the wrong direction, but who were instead given the chance to flourish in our schools; our confessors and counselors understand more deeply than most what’s churning today in human hearts. Incredible drama unfolds in cathedrals every day; indeed, it would be stunning if this were not the case. Religion is where people bring their deepest fears, their highest hopes, their most intense passions -- it’s the Coliseum of the conscience, the arena in which the universal human struggle between sin and redemption, between disgrace and new grace, plays itself out.

You don’t have to manufacture news, in other words, you simply have to be imaginative about communicating the stories we already have before our eyes. The crucial step is becoming intentional about it, hence the urgency of putting “Communications Ministry” on the ecclesiastical map.