Communication Day: a layman’s two bits

Communication Day: a layman’s two bits

The World Day of Social Communications was formally celebrated on Sunday 2 June – the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord – which falls on the Sunday before Pentecost Sunday. That’s part of the tradition behind this annual opportunity for reflection, established after the Second Vatican Council to generate insights about how we’re all getting along with each other via the mass media.

Pope Francis has chosen the theme “We are members one of another (Eph 4:25) From social network communities to the human community”.

 “The net works because all its elements share responsibility.” Pope Francis praises the power of the digital media to spread an abundance of information and bestow a sense of vast, interactive community. But he cautions that too much of the information we share is used to defame others, spread untruths, violate human dignity, and affirm our narcissistic identities by defining our social-network communities in terms of whom we exclude. Real communities, in physical places or in virtual “social media,” require us to build connections of trust and interdependence, he says. The most resilient communities contain networks we form with others not because they are “the same” as us, but because they are unique, bringing different perspectives.

Cedric Prakash, Jesuit human rights activist and writer, in his recent reflection on ‘World Communication Day’ says that Communications in the Church in India today has primarily to be contextual; it cannot be divorced or isolated from the realities that have a stranglehold on the common citizens of our country today.

Collaboration is the essence of a Communicating Church. ‘Communications Day’  falls on the feast of the Ascension. Jesus invites us to be his collaborators in his mission here on earth. We cannot remain neutral in communicating the “good news.” We cannot be in competition with one another.

In Bihar, the Church has been a communication pioneer . Church historian Jose Kalapura SJ points out that the very first printing press and publication house was opened by the Church in 1897. Prabhat Prakashan, another major printing and publication unit was started in the 1940s in Patna. It provided printing services not only to the Christian community, but to Patna University, Patna Medical College, and the government of Bihar for some 30 years, before it closed down in the late 1970s.

As Patna Diocese celebrates its centenary this year, I would like to reflect upon a few things. This is a purely layman’s perspective, a look at the communication dynamics as one on the outside looking in.

A few days ago, I was privileged to hear Archbishop William D’Souza address the young men in formation – a gathering of seminarians. He touched upon the lack of communication between the two ‘main streams’ of the Church. He was referring to diocesan priests and religious congregations. There was a time when religious congregations like the Jesuits felt that it was a bad idea for their seminarians to mingle with the diocesan seminarians. (This was probably because the formation regimes of Diocesans, Jesuits, Salesians etc. are very different from one another and this was seen as causing confusion in those days.) Eventually, this caused a kind of distance between the diocesan clergy and the other congregations.

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It was heartening to hear that the Archbishop eventually endorsed regular interaction programmes for all seminarians, so that our priests are no longer seen to be ‘in competition with one another’. The two day special get together of Seminarians was part of the Centenary celebrations of the Archdiocese. It is an indication that Patna Archdiocese is alive to the need for effective communication within the clergy and religious.

While touching on the nature of communications within the Church in Bihar, one of the crucial areas is Pastor- parishioner communication. I have had the joy of visiting parishes in both Patna and Buxar dioceses where the connection and communication between the parish priest and parishioners are really  positive.

A year ago, I shifted to a new area, and became part of another parish. It’s a small parish with about 30 families, some of whom actually live along the boundary wall of the church, a kind of cheek-by-jowl relationship.  A couple of months later, the parish was blessed with a new, enthusiastic, diocesan priest, who set about cleaning the cobwebs, and ‘laying down the law’. Unfortunately, dialogue with disgruntled parishioners (especially those who live along the boundary walls) is not happening. The pastor is an earnest man, full of the fire of faith. He wants to revive the ‘sleepy’ congregation. Unfortunately many of the churchgoers feel that he is a classic example of clericalism. He is said to have told an argumentative parishioner, “Look here, I’m a priest and only I can change bread and wine into the body of Christ. So that’s the reality. You are just a member of the parish council!”

It’s a good thing to remember that we are communicating even when we are not communicating.  Our inaction becomes negative action. When there is a wall of silence between the presbytery and the public, the pulpit somehow loses its prophetic power.

Clearly, the Archdiocese may have to plan some communication training in the context of the current socio-economic and political reality of the parishes, keeping in mind the directives of Pope Francis and the Archbishop, and  what the Holy Father means when he talks about communication, clericalism, and  community.

To quote from Cedric Prakash, the Church in India must speak ‘truth to power.’ Communications for a disciple of Jesus – is never about diplomacy or anonymity.

Looking back at the Regional Audio Visual Institute,( Ravi Bharati) the first catholic communication and training centre  in Bihar at the time, one can see how the farsighted vision of the founding director gets diluted due to several factors.

One of the harsh truths is that for the past decade or more, media and communications have been treated as a kind of ‘add on’, by pastoral planners and religious congregations alike. Just like the Congress party and other socialist outfits chose to build their own narrative that their voter base were the poor who had no business messing with modern communication, it seems to me that our dioceses and religious congregations have kept harping on the theme that ‘ours is a pro-poor Church, we reach out to the Dalits and disempowered, and so social justice can be achieved through nukkad nataks, audio cassettes and so on. Who needs to invest or train personnel in the expensive, new technology?

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The Sisters of Notre Dame ran a TV production training studio from 1977. NDCC- Notre Dame Communication Centre- trained not only the early Doordarshan staff, but several Catholic youngsters ( now comfortably middle-aged) who made their careers in TV and film media. It shut down in 2008. End of story.

The role that Ravi Bharati played in society, our motivation and ability to speak truth to power slowly died. At one point of time, the studio was frequently used by All India Radio, auditions for the Patna AIR artistes were carried out in Ravi Bharti, Major training programmes in low cost communication for most of the leading NGOs would be a year round feature. Visionaries such as Jacob Srampickal, and Sebastian K started the Ravi Bharati Video festival that encouraged local documentary makers to show issue based critical films. I was privileged to have been part of the organizing committee for several years. It was Ravi Bharati that first gave activist directors such as Sri Prakash and Meghnath screening space. Films like ‘Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda’, and ‘Development from the Barrel of the gun’ were first screened at Ravi.

Later on, directors of Ravi Bharati were uncomfortable with screening of films ‘criticizing  the government’ and this annual three day event was stopped.

Liaisoning with important organisations such as UNICEF and Pathfinder stopped under one priest administrator who felt that it was not necessary to reach out and deal with secular organisations. “We should stick to training of our Church personnel and people in formation,” was the reasoning.

It was only a matter of time. The landmark festival of street plays- a unique and pioneering event of Ravi Bharati started under Jacob Srampickal SJ – died a couple of years ago, and all that remained was dance and vocal music classes. The street plays, which were performed by several leading troupes over three days, for well over a decade and a half, perhaps touched on too many uncomfortable truths.

The new narrative of the gasping communcation centre was that the focus was on establishing a credible school of the Indian classical performing arts.

When the Vajpayee government was at the centre, there were a lot of of anti-minority sentiments fomenting in Bihar, I had suggested to Fr. Paul Mariadass, the then administrator that we should have more public Christmas events, and he immediately gave me the go-ahead. That year, Ravi Bharati organized ‘Songs of Joy’, a Christmas carol evening that had far greater participation by non-Christians than Christians. I was privileged to be the presenter of this annual event till its last edition in 2017. It was our way of speaking truth to power. The truth that religious faith has the power to unite, not divide!

Lay Catholics and religious of Patna Archdiocese who are members of SIGNIS- Bijhan ( the social communications wing of the Catholic Church) are largely lethargic and over the past decade and a half haven’t come up with any significant media event or interaction, apart from their own regional meetings and annual conventions. Over the past 15 years, the Bihar members haven’t held a meeting to decide how they can, as a group, and raising their own resources, help out the Archdiocese . The one refrain that is heard whenever somebody suggests some meaningful activity, is ‘where is the fund’? One year, Signis Bijhan Patna unit did celebrate a special mass on World Communication Day at the Kurji Parish, led by the regional communication centre, Ravi Bharati. But there was no follow up. No evaluation. And of course, no repeat performance.

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There are always voices raised within Signis that it is a lay organisation and should be led by the laity, but the bitter truth is that the lay members of the organisation are disunited, disinterested, and distracted by their own misadventures and miscommunication. Being a member of Signis, I have observed that we never sit down to really introspect, and most members don’t want to discuss ‘uncomfortable’ things. Of late regional business days have just become formalities to pass minutes and approve budgets.

Writes Prakash : It is no state secret that those who take a stand for truth, who promote communications of justice and peace, have often to pay the price: they are sidelined, denigrated, false accusations are foisted on them and some are even killed.

We have to take our ostrich heads out of the sand and look around us. How many of our youngsters have been trained to communicate our values to the media? How many Catholics are working in the media? How many of our priests and religious have been formed for a media apostolate? I have to literally beg priests and sisters to record a simple homily or reflection for our small you-tube channel. They are very reluctant when they realize that they have to face a camera! It’s partly camera fright, but I also suspect that they want to avoid controversy within the community.

So what’s my take? The Church in Bihar and that goes for all dioceses and parishes, needs to revisit the pastoral communication plans. Build networks and collaborate with lay professionals who can help with programmes and activities, especially for the youth and for those who guide and empower the youth.

The Pope has many other inspiring thoughts in his World Communications Day message. Here’s one: God is not Solitude, but Communion; He is Love, and therefore communication, because love always communicates.”

Pope Francis  extends the network and community metaphors to God as Trinity, a relationship between the lover, the beloved, and the very act of loving. We humans participate in that trinitarian love in our life-giving encounters with others. He says that we must always communicate love, thinking not in individualistic terms—as the media often encourage us to do—but in personal and interpersonal terms. Let us use “the Net” to share stories of beauty and suffering that build up our best selves and encourage us to pray and learn together.

[Frank Krishner is a journalist, documentation expert, and media trainer based in Patna, Bihar. ]

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