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Transcript: Archbishop Celli’s Keynote at World Communications Day, Brooklyn

Posted on Jun 19, 2014 in DeSales Blog, World Communications Day

WCD100Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the president of the Pontifical Council on Social Communications and one of the originators of the Pope’s Twitter feed, was the keynote speaker at the Diocese of Brooklyn’s World Communications Day Conference on May 22. A transcript of his speech is available below, and as a PDF. To see video of the speech and photos from the event, go here.

Bishop DiMarzio, I am very thankful that you are opening my process of canonization. The fun is that I am still alive.

I would like to begin my address this afternoon by acknowledging my appreciation for the award, which has just been conferred on me. I would like to thank Bishop DiMarzio for his hospitality this week, and Monsignor Harrington for his support in making this trip possible.

During these days when I have had the chance to visit Philadelphia I have been very conscious of the legacy of Cardinal John Foley, who was my predecessor as president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and through whose efforts the church owes so much. From a very early stage, he had entreated this shift in media that was being brought into being by the Internet. He was urging the community of the church, of church communicators, to prepare for change.

I was appointed president of the council on the 27th of June 2007. I am struck by the coincidence that two days later, on the 29th of June, the first generation of iPhones was released and affordable smart phones were with us.

At that time, Facebook was three years old. It had just over 40 million subscribers, but it was still running second to MySpace. Twitter was one year old and was averaging 50,000 tweets a day only. YouTube and Flickr were healthy infants, but Pinterest and Instagram would not be along for another three years.

I draw attention to these facts with a view to remind you just how much has changed in the field of communication in the last decade, and perhaps more importantly how much is still changing.

Over the past seven years, we have made it a priority for our council to encourage the Church, and particularly Church communicators, to reflect on the nature of these changes and to develop appropriate forms of engagement.

In my talk today, I would like to share with you some of the insights that are emerging from this reflection and consider how they can help us to begin to formulate a strategic approach to digital communication that is rooted in a grounded understanding of the transformation being affected by social media, and that is true to who we are as Church and the mission to which we are called.

My approach will focus on our guiding principles, but I will be happy to speak of some of our specific initiatives in response to questions.

When we begin to reflect on the changes in communication, what some commentators call the digital revolution it is easy to focus on the technological developments. We are fascinated by the speed with which communication devices are becoming more powerful, smaller, more connected and accessible. While this focus is understandable, the truth is that the most significant change is not technological but cultural.

The real challenge is to appreciate how much is changing in the ways that people, especially young people, are gathering information, are being educated, are expressing themselves, are forming relationships and communities. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI specified that, I quote, “The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate but communication itself.”

A study sponsored by the British government, focusing on personal identity, published in 2013, concluded, inter alia, that particularly among younger people their view of themselves is shaped increasingly by online interaction of social networks. And it further indicated that the elements that traditionally would have been considered most important in forming a person’s identity such as their religion, ethnicity, job and age, are less important than they once were.

These changes, moreover, are not just happening outside the Church but within our communities and in everyday experience of believers. I am reluctant, notwithstanding the title of my address, to use the term “new media.” These technologies networks are new for me, and those of us of a certain age, but they are a normal, everyday future of the lives of younger generations in the developed world, and increasingly in developing countries.

To talk of new media is to date oneself, and to it’s failing to appreciate their ordinariness in the lives of so many. We need to recognize that those who have come of age with digital communications do not live with strong distinctions between their online and their offline experiences.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in his message for World Communication Day 2013, “The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young. For them digital devices are not primarily instruments to be used but are part of the fabric of their lives.”

The connectivity facilitated by these devices has reshaped their existential environment and enables them to live their lives in the context of networks and patterns of friendships, association and community that would have been unimaginable until a decade ago. Moreover, these networks have become fundamental points of reference for them in their pursuit of information and news, for self-expression, for shaping public opinion and for dialog and debate.

The more I reflect on this the more I am struck by the prophetic nature of Pope St. John Paul II’s insistence, articulated already in 1990 — imagine, 1990 — that a new culture was being created by modern communications. And I quote: “The new culture originates not just from whatever content is eventually expressed, but from the very fact that there exist new ways of communicating with new languages, new techniques, and a new psychology.” (Redemptoris Missio, point 37)

Given the centrality of the social networks and the connected media environment in the lives of people today, it is absolutely necessary that the Church should seek to establish a presence in the world. Allow me to repeat it: it is absolutely necessary that the Church should seek to establish a presence in the digital world. If the Church is not present and does not share the good news of God’s love for all people in this forum then we risk becoming marginal to the lives of many and are failing our mission to bring the gospel to the ends of the Earth.

In this context, I would like to mention briefly the Pontifex account which was launched by Pope Benedict XVI and which is currently employed by Pope Francis. The value of the account is now clear, and the presence of Pope in social media, with over 13.5 million followers, is undisputed.

Apart from the substantive value of the initiative it is worth noting that it has a symbolic value in that it serves as a reminder to all the Church of the need for us at all levels to engage in digital space. The real challenge is to establish a presence that recognizes and responds to the distinctive culture of that environment. Just as in previous times, missionaries had to understand the culture, languages and customs of the continents they sought to evangelize. Also today we have to be attentive to the language we use over our way of being present, our institutional strategies and our personal conversion.

On the topic of language, I would wish to highlight three issues. In the first place we must adjust our style of communication. As Pope Francis stated, “God is everywhere. We have to know how to find Him in order to be able to proclaim Him in the language of each and every culture, every reality, every language has its own rhythm.” (Address to CELAM, 28 July 2013)

In the past, the technologies tended to privilege one-directional communication: one person or institution broadcast the message and the audience, or public, passively consumed it. Today digital communication requires a more interactive participative style. Unless our message engages people who begin to share it, comment upon it and question us about it, it will remain without an audience and we’ll risk talking to ourselves.

Unless we take others seriously and enter into conversation with them we cannot expect them to pass much heed of us, or hope to achieve traction for our views and ideas. Secondly, we need to acknowledge that our traditional mode of expression was very text dependent, like today.

While the digital culture tends to highlight multimedia content words and text are still important. But our communication will be more effective if we can also express ourselves with images, video, music and gestures. At the council we are seeing this very clearly in terms of our use of Facebook and indeed with the PopeApp. I can tell you that within one month and a half we will have the second edition of the Pope-up. [Applause]. Thank you.

While both our Facebook profile and our application draw on the news and informational content that is aggregated on our website, we are noticing that it is materials of a visual nature, photos and videos, that are getting most attention and creating the greatest interest of the social platforms. Finally, in talking of language we should recognize that much of our church vocabulary, especially our theological and liturgical terms, can be problematic for our contemporaries. We are challenged to rediscover simpler words and to use more accessible metaphors if we are to capture the attention of the broader public.

Again, Pope Francis has expressed this most clearly, I quote: “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity, and import an intellectualism foreign to our people. Without the grammar or simplicity the church loses the very conditions which make it possible to fish for God in the deep waters of His mystery.” (Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil, 28 July 2013) The Holy Father however expresses this even more powerfully in the witness of his own preaching and his own extraordinary capacity to engage people through the use of seemingly simple words and memorable images and smiles.

When it comes to understanding how we should be present in the digital environment I am inclined to remind church communicators that the basic question is not about how we should use the new technologies to evangelize, but rather how we can be an evangelizing presence in the new world that has been brought into being by these technologies.

Clearly, believers have a right and a duty to be fully active citizens in the digital world and to share their beliefs and conventions. Our presence will only be effective, however, if we are authentic witnesses to our faith. We have to manifest our genuine concern for those who we encounter by “listening to them, conversing with them and encouraging them.” (Pope Francis, Meeting with PCCS, 21 September 2013)

Do you remember the question that Pope Francis was posing just recently: “Is the Church capable today to warm up the hearts of our people?” We cannot simply bombard people with our answers, but must take their questions seriously and allow them to fully express themselves. This is particularly important in an environment where any question is immediately likely to attract commercial and invite ideological responses and offerings. If we allow people to go deeper and probe further we help give soul to the Internet.

It is important to remember that we are not ourselves the soul of the digital arena, but our readiness to listen and our openness to the questions of others will enable them to express their deepest personal and spiritual yearnings. In this way we help to ensure that “the digital world can be an environment rich in humanity, a network not of wires but of people,” said Pope Francis, in his message for the World Communications Day 2014.

If we take others so seriously, show respect for them and their views, and avoid any form of manipulation or exploitation then we are both offering a consistent witness to our faith in Jesus and helping to humanize a social media. This is particularly necessary at a time when many are concerned about the increasingly shrill and violent nature of some of the commentary that is found in social networks. We were having a strong experience about this in our Twitter.

We need to add our efforts to those of other people of good will to ensure that humanity has the capacity for expression and communication, realizes its enormous potential to strengthen the unity of the human family, to foster an authentic culture of encounter. In terms of evolving an appropriate institutional strategy for our engagement with social media we are fortunate that we have within the church a great wealth and experience in terms of the people who are working with Church, newspapers, radio, television, websites as well as those who have been reading the way in social media.

I can understand the apprehension of some who are involved with what might be called a traditional media, but good communication will always require the skills of professional writers, editors and audiovisual producers. The development of an adequate strategy for the digital world, however, will require that these professionals rethink their of working.

It is not simply enough to take content produced for traditional media and to post it online. What is needed is more interdisciplinary collaboration in order to produce material that is truly multimedia and their location of resources in such a way as to permit real engagement with those who wish to discuss, question and deepen their understanding of such materials.

Convergence must be our hallmark. The communication — this is Pope Francis – “the communications apostolate is made effective by creating bonds. By making a series of subjects converge around a shared project and calls for unity of planning and efforts. We know that this is not easy, but if you help one another to work as a team everything will become lighter and above all, even your style of working together will be a witness of communion.” (Pope Francis, Meeting with CTV, 28 October 2013)

At the Vatican, our experiences in developing the platform has shown us how much more powerful is our communication when we can bring together, in a multimedia format, with complete integration and social media of material and content that might once have stood alone. There is content of Vatican Radio, where Salvatore Romano and the television center become more accessible and more attractive when united and aggregated in ways appropriate to digital communication.

Another institutional challenge is that we have to learn to communicate in an environment where traditional ‘authorities’ do not have the same influence as they once had. People will no longer pay attention, if they ever did, simply because a Church leader is speaking. We have to learn to command attention more by the quality of our interventions, by our responsiveness to others, and by our ability to engage meaningfully with those questions and debates that are already claiming public attention.

Part of the challenge for the Church in the area of digital media is to establish a networked or capillary presence that can effectively engage the debates, discussions and dialogues that are facilitated by social media and that invite direct, personal and timely responses of a type that are not so easily achieved by centralized institutions. Moreover, such a networked or capillary structure reflects the truth of the Church as a community of communities which is alive both universally and locally.

With reference to @Pontifex, it is gratifying to know that the high rate of retweeting by followers of the Pope is ensuring that his words are reaching ever wider and more disparate publics. We made an evaluation about the meaning of the retweeting, of the tweets of the Holy Father. The lower estimation says that more than 60 million people are receiving the tweets of the Holy Father on their smart phone. Somebody was saying about 200 millions; I prefer to remain with a lower estimation: 60 million.

By drawing attention to the importance of personal conversion, I wish to return to a basic truth of communications. Who we are, and how we behave, will always speak more eloquently than our words. Our words, our profession of faith and our expression of a desire to share this faith with others, will only speak to others if they come from our hearts. In order to effectively share our faith and our hopes, we must nourish our own faith and relationship with Jesus and allow his grace to change us. Conversion is at its deepest a change of heart, a metanoia. This will clarify for us whether we are simply members of a sect or true witnesses to Jesus.

If our faith is alive in our hearts, and is genuinely a ground for hope in our everyday existence, then it will be natural for us to desire to share it with others. Be servants of communion and of the culture of encounter! I would like you to be almost obsessed about this. As Pope Francis said in his speech with the Brazilian bishops in Brazil last 28th of July 2013: “Be so without being presumptuous, imposing “our truth”, but rather be guided by the humble yet joyful certainty of those who have been found, touched and transformed by the truth with Christ, ever to be proclaimed.” (Pope Francis, Meeting with Bishops of Brazil, 28 July 2013).

It’s really interesting how Pope Francis is underlining such an attitude without being presumptuous, imposing our truth. Do you remember Pope Benedict in his famous speech in Lisbon 2010, when he was daring to say that we must be able to have a respectful dialogue with the truth of others. This is a leading point of reference for our communication. And I like that Pope Francis is in perfect symphony with his predecessor, be so without being presumptuous, imposing our truth, but rather be guided by the humble yet joyful certainty of those who have been found, touched and transformed by the truth who is Christ.

Here, as ever, we remember that good communications begins with listening: we must cherish God’s word and meditate on it so that it reshapes us, so that our words will be born from our encounter with the Word. By keeping alive the intensity of our communion with Jesus in prayer, the sacraments and service of the poor, we will become credible witnesses to the power of God’s grace and help others find their way to Him. This is the challenge: to bring the person to Christ.

This must be done, however, in complete awareness that we ourselves are means of communication and that the real problem does not concern the acquisition of the latest technologies, even if these make a valid presence possible. It is necessary to be absolutely clear that the God in whom we believe, who loves all men and women intensely, wants to reveal himself through the means at our disposal, however poor they are, because it is he who is at work, he who transforms and saves us (Pope Francis, Meeting with PCCS, September 21, 2013). Conversion is especially required of those believers who try to bring their faith into social media. They will often find themselves subject to unfair criticism and confronting expressions of hate and strong rejection. It is important that they resist the temptation to respond in kind.

Jesus’ command that we ‘turn the other cheek’ has, perhaps, found a new relevance in social media and is, certainly, more radical and counter-cultural than ever. They need never be afraid to contradict untruths, to explain misunderstandings and to present our faith and the Church in a positive light but they should strive to do so with a tolerance and forbearance. They will be more effective witnesses to our faith and hope if they ‘speak the truth in love’.

I would like to reassure you that I remain convinced that the Church’s efforts in this area will not be without fruit. Even the most superficial familiarity with digital media is sufficient to show that the main drivers of social media are activities related to the human need for connectivity and friendship, the search for knowledge and information, the desire for self-expression and to share, and hope for guidance and direction expressed in the ‘following’ of others.

All these are called human activities, which I believe point to the enduring openness of human persons for an encounter with Jesus. He alone can satisfy the human yearning for friendship and love; He is the Truth who frees us from sin and weakness; He calls us to the fullness of self-giving in love, and He leads His follows to the abundance of life in unity and communion.

We should never doubt what Pope Benedict XVI called the power of the word of God itself to touch hearts, prior to any of our own efforts (Message, 2013). As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55, 10-11)

Finally, in accepting this award, I would like to acknowledge my appreciation of the efforts of the wide community of Catholic institutions and individuals across the globe who are helping to establish the presence of the Church in the digital world. Their willingness to talk about their work, to honestly evaluate their initiatives and to share their learning and experience provides our Council with insights and indicators of best practice that we in turn can share with others.

Additionally, I would wish to express my appreciation of the work of what I might call the ‘home team’, the many people working at the Vatican in the area of communications, and their willingness to make the changes necessary in order to achieve the forms of collaboration that will ensure we continue to offer accurate, timely and accessible news and information from Rome with a view to strengthening the unity of our global Church. I thank you very much.



Moderator: Thank you so much. We’re going to open up the floor. We only have time for about two or three questions. If you could just raise your hand and we’re kind of floating around the room with microphones. Before you ask your question if you could just identify yourself, your name first and last and the organization that you’re here with. Thank you.

Audience: Hello, my name is Suzanne Ramirez de Arellano and I am a Hispanic media consultant and I am also the very proud producer of the show “Tu Fe al Día” from the Dioceses of Brooklyn.

I would like to thank you for your words. I wanted to ask you, in a digital world where one voice becomes thousands of voices, how do you keep the message clear?

Archbishop Celli: I think this is, again, a new challenge of this world that today is really difficult for somebody to have a deep discernment about all the messages that he’s receiving. And I think that this is one of the tasks of the mission of the Church today.

I would like to stress two points only. I think that our mission is to help every human being in this search for truth. The dignity of the human being is in his freedom to search for truth. And also this aspect is not so easy in the world today. We need to help people in such a searching activity.

And secondly, we need to help people to make a deep discernment among the messages that he’s receiving. I am accustomed to say that sometimes he’s more responses than the questions that he has in his heart. He’s overwhelmed by messages. And it’s not so easy — especially I’m talking about our young generations, to know exactly what is the message meaningful for his life. But I think that this also is a mission for the church, and is a communicative activity to sustain people in his search for truth and to help persons to make a discernment among the messages that are circulating, especially in the social media.

So I agree with you: it is not an easy task, especially in this moment.


Moderator: We just have time for one more question.

Audience:  Good afternoon, Your Excellency. My name is Deacon Carlos Velasquez. I’m schedule to be ordained for our diocese in just about a month. I have a question; I’m here with some of my classmates who are also going to be ordained. And in seminary we’re often warned about how involved we are in social media and in how much time we give to that. So I might ask you how much do you think, how much time is appropriate for the parish priest? How much time should he give towards social media? Should he delegate it off more to some of this parishioners? I mean what’s appropriate for the parish priest in this field?

Archbishop Celli: Oh, don’t be surprised I don’t have my profile in Facebook. I was meditating if it was necessary, and we made an evaluating that in my capacity now as president of the pontifical council it was necessary to have such a profile.

I give you only two or three points of reflection, stories of life. I was receiving a visit some years ago during a visit of some bishops. And a retired archbishop was asking me, “What do you suggest for me?” And I told him, “Why don’t you open a blog?” One year and a half later he came to see me. And he told me exactly this: “I am coming to thank you because now I have opened a blog, and I have a deep relationship with around 900 people.”

It was discovering the meaning of an apostolate that a retired archbishop was not thinking about. I think that every priest has to make a discernment about his life, and how is he an apostolate. For example, if you are a young priest and working with young generations sometimes it’s much better to give information, to give some points of reference via Facebook than through the notices of your church.

I was having a parish priest, a friend of mine in Spain was telling me in a very nice way, “I have more visitors in my blog in my website of the church than people coming on Sunday for Mass.” And if you allow me to say something like this: normally in our church we are always fishing in the aquarium. And we forget that the majority of the fishes are outside the aquarium.

There is an expression that was already resounding in my heart of Paul VI. It was a saying like this: to have an experience of a deep nostalgia for who is our Father. And I think that Pope Francis is helping us strongly and openly about this. Did you hear — I think that you read about that in the Evangelii Gaudium also is repeating this openly and often. It says that the doors of the church must be open in order that everybody that is passing through the road can enter, notwithstanding his status of living. But the doors are open also because we have to go outside.

And here behind Pope Francis is all the Latin American bishop’s conference Aparecida, disciple and missionary. But not dividing the two terms, but being disciples you are, at the same time, missionary. And really think that this is the communication that is a culture of encountering people. And I think that this for a priest working in a parish this must be, or can be the soul of his presence also in the digital world. So really I don’t give you, I would say, a recipe. I just tell you you will decide, you will see, you will analyze, you will make a discernment if this is important for you or not.

Certainly the problem for me is how to reeducate young generations to be present in Internet, in the social networks. And this is a problem — and I don’t know too much America I tell you honestly; I am more paying attention to what is happening in Europe. As you know, in Europe the 76.4 percent of the kids are on the Internet without the presence of the parents. This is a challenge. On the Internet, as I was saying, I was giving a positive evaluation but on the Internet you can find everything, also negative. And our kids — and you can imagine in Europe the perspective of a kid of ten years old is spending from three to five hours a day on the Internet. And they do this and they navigate without the presence of the parents.

How do I educate the kids and the young generations to be present, how to be present, how to be witnesses? And I think that this is passing through the activity also of the parish church.

I tell you, for example, during a visit to Latin America… And I tell you this, just smiling a little bit: when I was a kid and I was going to my parish the priest was offering us a place to go to play. So we were having some games offered by the parish. And now in Latin America I discovered that many parishes are opening a room for Internet. And the parties of the priest or the educator is with the kids, educating them how to behave on the Internet.

I think that this is a big challenge, like for example the pastor for the families. In Europe, the majority of the families they don’t put a filter to the computer of the family. And I was attending a meeting of the Council of Europe. Can you imagine, for example, the big point is the protection of minors on the Internet? And it was really for me very, very interesting to see that France and Sweden, that are considered in Europe like the more open ones, the more liberal societies, how the delegates of these two countries were worried about how we protect minors on the Internet.

I think that this is a subject, is a problem that is touching the life of the Church, and also your mission as a priest in a parish. And we needed to help parents to rediscover this. Thanks.