Conference at the School of Institutional Communication

Some 300 communications professionals from 52 countries gathered in Rome from April 27 to 29 for the Fifth International Seminar on Church Communications. The meeting, organized by the School of Institutional Communications at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, was entitled “Strategic Management of Church Communications: New Challenges, New Directions.”

The conference explored ways to communicate the Church’s message in a clear and positive manner.

The first day, April 27, dealt with the organization and direction of a communications department. The first address, by Juan Manuel Mora, instructor of institutional communications at the Pontifical University, was entitled: “Key Principles for Managing Church Communications Offices.” For a Church institution, Mora stressed, “to be clear does not mean renouncing mystery, negating transcendence, or trivializing one’s message, which would amount to forgetting one’s own identity.”

The second conference dealt with the need to be enterprising and creative. The new communications environment demands that a communications office be a source of abundant ideas and contacts. Professor Julia Prats, from the IESE Business School, described some of the characteristics of an enterprising person: “the ability to identify opportunities, skill in evaluating their feasibility, and the capacity to transform them into tangible realities.”

In the next part of the conference, dedicated to the evaluation of different communications programs, the focus was on the specific experience of the Church in Italy and in the United States.

Msgr. Claudio Giuliodori, director of the Office of Social Communications for the Italian Bishops’ Conference, described the communications strategy adopted for the 2005 Italian referendum on in-vitro fertilization. After noting some of its positive consequences, Msgr. Giuliodori said that “the referendum also served to redefine the role of Catholics in the country. Catholics showed themselves to be conscientious defenders and promoters of the fundamental and irrevocable values of social life: the value of life, the centrality of the family, science, culture, solidarity and subsidiarity. One interesting point worth noting is the important convergence with many non-Catholics in what relates to the value of life.”

On his part, the Director of Communications for the United States Bishops’ Conference, Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco, offered a picture of “The Church in the United States after the Crisis.” A lively discussion followed these two presentations moderated by Dr. Leticia Soberón from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

The evening session was a round table discussion on the topic: “Taking the initiative: experiences of diocesan and bishops’ conference offices of communications.” The session was moderated by Jesús Colina, director of the Zenit news agency. Participants included Maria Hasselgren, director of the press office for the Diocese of Stockholm, Victor Khroul, director of the press office for the Russian Bishops’ Conference, and Jan-Wilem Wits, spokesman for the Netherlands Bishops’ Conference.

The session on Friday, April 28, opened with the address of Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who spoke on “Presenting the magisterium in a mass-media world.” Afterwards, Diego Contreras, professor of Information Analysis at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, spoke on “Framing and news values in providing information on the Catholic Church.”

“The magisterium and communications are closely related, given that it is the magisterium’s task to faithfully interpret and authoritatively communicate the Word of God to the faithful,” began Archbishop Amato. Confronted with conditions that can hinder this from being carried out effectively, the challenge lies “in formation, which implies creative planning of a high cultural quality and, above all, a solid education in the faith.”

Professor Contreras pointed out that “a certain level of reciprocal mistrust between journalists and Church communicators is perhaps inevitable.” “But it is absurd,” he continued, “to think that there can only be authentic journalism when one attacks the Church. Or (on the part of a communications office) to think that every criticism is, by definition, an attack. Rather, one needs to emphasize that which unites both parties. For example, both share a common enemy: the public’s ignorance.”

The second case study session featured Austen Ivereigh, director of public affairs for the Archdiocese of Westminster (London). His address was entitled “To speak or to remain silent? Responding to news in a post-Christian environment.” Following him, Marco Tosatti, Vatican correspondent for La Stampa, spoke on “The media’s agenda vs. the Church’s agenda: a journalist’s perspective.” “What journalists hope to find in a Church communications office,” said Tosatti, “is credibility, sincerity and availability.” The moderator was Cindy Wooden from the Catholic News Service.

The second round table, coordinated by the dean of the organizing school, Norberto Gonzalez Gaitano, was entitled: “Is it possible to communicate the essential? The difficult passage from ‘ecclesiastical’ information to ‘religious’ information.” Taking part were Maria Grazia Murru and Patricia Thomas, Vatican correspondents for Associated Press Television News, who spoke on the topic of “Religion in the secular media,” and Gennaro Ferrara, from Sat2000, who read an address by the director of Avvenire, Dino Boffo, on “Religion in the Catholic media.”

In his address Boffo insisted that, in the Catholic media, “we must speak about everything, without letting ourselves be infected by the widespread view that religion is outmoded. We also have to communicate unpleasant news, referring to it with prudence, but without reticence or fear, because God is greater than our sins.”

The final day began with a Mass in honor of St. Catherine of Siena, patroness of the School of Institutional Communications, on the School’s tenth anniversary. Officiating at the celebration was Archbishop John Foley, President of the Pontifical Council of Social Communications. The Mass was held in the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, where the remains of the saint are interred.

This was followed by a practical session with Barry McLoughlin and Laura Peck, from Canada’s McLoughlin Media, entitled “Navigation Code for Spokespersons in the Church.”

The seminar concluded with an address by the director of the Vatican Press Office, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who spoke about the transition period between the pontificate of John Paul II and that of Benedict XVI. “I would like to stress something that is absolutely essential for a Church communicator,” said Dr. Navarro-Valls: “access to the facts and to persons. If the communicator himself is unsure of what he is going to communicate, he will never transmit certainty to the one listening to him.”

Through more than 30 communications, teachers and media professionals offered different perspectives on the work of the Church’s communications offices. For example, Miriam Diez Bosch spoke on “Communications and the media in the Spanish Bishops’ Conference”; Klaus Klein-Schmeink offered reflections on “World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne in the German press”; and Andreu Rocha Scarpetta addressed the question of “The responsibility of the Church’s communications offices in an ecumenical and inter-religious context.”

Romana, No. 42, January-June 2006, p. 122-124.

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