“Come and See” (Jn 1:46). Communicating by Encountering People as They Are
Every year on the Sunday before Pentecost the Church celebrates the achievements of the communications media and focuses of how it can best use them to promote gospel values. This year, the 55th World Day of Communications takes place on the 16th May 2021
On Saturday, 23rd January 2021 (the Feast of St. Francis de Sales) Pope Francis shared his message for World Communications Day. The following, are just a few ‘extracts‘ from this rich and inspiring letter which is worth reading in full and contemplating (in the lead up to this day) as a means of renewing communications of all kinds.
Each of us has ‘Good News’ to share.
Message of Pope Francis: For the 55th World Communications Day
This year, then, I would like to devote this Message to the invitation to “come and see”, which can serve as an inspiration for all communication that strives to be clear and honest, in the press, on the internet, in the Church’s daily preaching and in political or social communication. “Come and see!” This has always been the way that the Christian faith has been communicated, from the time of those first encounters on the banks of the River Jordan and on the Sea of Galilee.
Let us look first at the great issue of news reporting. Insightful voices have long expressed concern about the risk that original investigative reporting in newspapers and television, radio and web newscasts is being replaced by a reportage that adheres to a standard, often tendentious narrative.
‘Hitting the streets’
The crisis of the publishing industry risks leading to a reportage created in newsrooms, in front of personal or company computers and on social networks, without ever “hitting the streets”, meeting people face to face to research stories or to verify certain situations first hand. Unless we open ourselves to this kind of encounter, we remain mere spectators, for all the technical innovations that enable us to feel immersed in a larger and more immediate reality.
Any instrument proves useful and valuable only to the extent that it motivates us to go out and see things that otherwise we would not know about, to post on the internet news that would not be available elsewhere, to allow for encounters that otherwise would never happen.
“Come and see” were the first words that Jesus spoke to the disciples who were curious about him following his baptism in the Jordan river (Jn 1:39). He invited them to enter into a relationship with him. More than half a century later, when John, now an old man, wrote his Gospel, he recalled several “newsworthy” details that reveal that he was personally present at the events he reports and demonstrate the impact that the experience had on his life.
‘The Gospels as news stories’
“Come and see” is the simplest method to get to know a situation. It is the most honest test of every message, because, in order to know, we need to encounter, to let the person in front of me speak, to let his or her testimony reach me.
Journalism too, as an account of reality, calls for an ability to go where no one else thinks of going: a readiness to set out and a desire to see. Curiosity, openness, passion. We owe a word of gratitude for the courage and commitment of all those professionals – journalists, camera operators, editors, directors – who often risk their lives in carrying out their work.
Many situations in our world, even more so in this time of pandemic, are inviting the communications media to “come and see”. We can risk reporting the pandemic, and indeed every crisis, only through the lens of the richer nations, of “keeping two sets of books”.
For example, there is the question of vaccines, and medical care in general, which risks excluding the poorer peoples.
Who would keep us informed about the long wait for treatment in the poverty-stricken villages of Asia, Latin America and Africa?
Social and economic differences on the global level risk dictating the order of distribution of anti-Covid vaccines, with the poor always at the end of the line and the right to universal health care affirmed in principle, but stripped of real effect. Yet even in the world of the more fortunate, the social tragedy of families rapidly slipping into poverty remains largely hidden; people who are no longer ashamed to wait in line before charitable organizations in order to receive a package of provisions do not tend to make news.
Opportunities and hidden dangers on the web
The internet, with its countless social media expressions, can increase the capacity for reporting and sharing, with many more eyes on the world and a constant flood of images and testimonies. Digital technology gives us the possibility of timely first-hand information that is often quite useful.
We can think of certain emergency situations where the internet was the first to report the news and communicate official notices.
It is a powerful tool, which demands that all of us be responsible as users and consumers. Potentially we can all become witnesses to events that otherwise would be overlooked by the traditional media, offer a contribution to society and highlight more stories, including positive ones.
Thanks to the internet we have the opportunity to report what we see, what is taking place before our eyes, and to share it with others.
At the same time, the risk of misinformation being spread on social media has become evident to everyone. We have known for some time that news and even images can be easily manipulated, for any number of reasons, at times simply for sheer narcissism. Being critical in this regard is not about demonizing the internet, but is rather an incentive to greater discernment and responsibility for contents both sent and received.
All of us are responsible for the communications we make, for the information we share, for the control that we can exert over fake news by exposing it. All of us are to be witnesses of the truth: to go, to see and to share.
Nothing replaces seeing things at first hand
In communications, nothing can ever completely replace seeing things in person. Some things can only be learned through first-hand experience. We do not communicate merely with words, but with our eyes, the tone of our voice and our gestures. Jesus’ attractiveness to those who met him depended on the truth of his preaching; yet the effectiveness of what he said was inseparable from how he looked at others, from how he acted towards them, and even from his silence.
We think of how much empty rhetoric abounds, even in our time, in all areas of public life, in business as well as politics. This or that one “speaks an infinite deal of nothing… His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search”. The blistering words of the English playwright [Shakespeare] also apply to us as Christian communicators.
The Good News of the Gospel spread throughout the world as a result of person-to-person, heart-to-heart encounters with men and women who accepted the invitation to “come and see”, and were struck by the “surplus” of humanity that shone through the gaze, the speech and the gestures of those who bore witness to Jesus Christ.
The Gospel comes alive in our own day, whenever we accept the compelling witness of people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus. For two millennia, a chain of such encounters has communicated the attractiveness of the Christian adventure.
The challenge that awaits us, then, is to communicate by encountering people, where they are and as they are.
The Message by Pope Francis for the 55th World Communications Day 2021 ends with the following prayer:
Lord, teach us to move beyond ourselves,
and to set out in search of truth.
Teach us to go out and see,
teach us to listen,
not to entertain prejudices
or draw hasty conclusions.
Teach us to go where no one else will go,
to take the time needed to understand,
to pay attention to the essentials,
not to be distracted by the superfluous,
to distinguish deceptive appearances from the truth.
Grant us the grace to recognize your dwelling places in our world
and the honesty needed to tell others what we have seen.
Rome, Saint John Lateran, 23 January 2021, Vigil of the Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales
Note: About World Communications Day
It was established by Pope Paul VI in 1967 as an annual celebration that encourages us to reflect on the opportunities and challenges that the modern means of social communication afford the Church to communicate the gospel message.
This celebration came in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which realised it must engage fully with the modern world. This realisation is expressed in the opening statement of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes on “The Church in the Modern World”, which says: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anguishes of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anguishes of the followers of Christ as well.”
Pope Paul VI and his successors have consistently recognised the positive opportunities the communications media afford for enriching human lives with the values of truth, beauty and goodness, but also the possibly negative effects of spreading less noble values and pressurising minds and consciences with a multiplicity of contradictory appeals.
Pope John Paul II (1990) in his encyclical Redemptoris missio 37 said: “The communications media have acquired such importance as to be for many the chief means of information and education, of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, family and social behaviour. In particular, the younger generation is growing up in a world conditioned by the mass media.”