On June 19-23, the largest gathering of international Catholic communicators in North America
took place at Laval University in Quebec City.
Jennifer Hatt, Communications Officer for our diocese, was among the conference participants,
taking in five days of seminars, keynotes, and networking with journalists, communications officers,
artists and academics from across Canada, the United States and around the world.
Visit this page to see her blogs from Quebec City
on daily events, conversations, and lessons learned as Catholic communicators gathered
to share and promote Stories of Hope.
Sunday, June 18: Check-In Day
Quebec City today was 27C with the humidex in the high 30s. Lovely vacation weather, but much like hot yoga when squeezing off tiny planes and in and out of cabs, and traversing the various buildings required for attaining room keys, meal vouchers and the conference pass: the literal ticket to five full days of what is new, challenging, and progressing in Sharing Stories of Hope. This Sunday is one of settling in, first greetings of people you are sure to meet several times in the coming days, getting used to the room and the memories of university the compact arrangement releases, learning the doors that unlock and those that don’t, getting the wifi to work … in short, taking care of details that will allow the next five days to flow.
As the sun sets on the eve of Day One a storm emerges, dousing this campus of greenery and concrete with sheets of rain, strobe-light lightning and fierce eruptions of thunder. A fresh new day is on the way.
Monday, June 19: Day One
At an event with more than 100 countries represented, even the morning meal is a global adventure.
My impromptu breakfast club (one round table, eight chairs) turned out to be members of SIGNIS Pacific, so I dined with folks from Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia (near New Zealand) and Tahiti. Members from Fiji and Guam were still en route. Richard, (first name and country is how we make first introductions), the charming storyteller of the group, I found out later was Fr Richard Leonard, SJ, Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office and best-selling author. And this was all by 8 am.
The Opening Ceremony, featuring a liturgy of the word and introductions from SIGNIS chapters worldwide, showcased an organization both massive and cozy, its programs executed with cool professionalism, its members feeling as part of a family. Before the liturgy a slide show honoured the members who have passed on since the last Congress four years ago. There were many, of varied age and nationality, united in the commitment to SIGNIS as a communicator of peace, and the grief at their loss was palpable: across three languages and time zones too numerous to count, all were united in gratitude, vision, and determination. Their work was trailblazing, meanginful, and much still remains to be done. As past president Augustine (Augy) Lourusamy said in his tribute, Catholic communications must be intercultural, ecumenical, and interfaith, reminding us “Jesus didn’t just come for Christians. He came for us all.” (Photo below: SIGNIS Latin America gives an introduction and welcome at the opening ceremony)
Highlights from Monday’s presentations:
Plenary 1: Communicating Hope featured three stories of hope.
David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to China and now president of St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto, spoke of how embracing its Roman Catholicism rather than “dialing it down” has given new focus and energy to the once-ailing institution. Reclaiming its Catholic values through events, speakers, faculty and media image has given the school back its voice and made it a dynamic partner in the U of T family.
Sr. Norma Pimentel, MJ, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, shared how embracing a “problem” – an overwhelming number of refugees crossing the border from Mexico, grew into a humanitarian effort that involved the entire community in providing comfort and care to families and young children detained in the local processing centre. “We are restoring human dignity,” she told local reporters and from that moment on, she said, “support was 100%.” When asked if her job was made any more difficult by the election of President Trump, she replied diplomatically: “We continue to do our job no matter who is president.”
Johnny Zokovitch, Senior Communications Officer of Pax Christi International, spoke of Young Peace Journalists, a program of his organization that recruits and trains youth to interview and share stories of young refugees, stories that are published in a blog, other publications and used to support political action to foster change. The on-line training program has attracted participants ages 13-35 from all over the world, providing refugees and platform and voice, young journalists the ability to broaden their view and skills, while putting the humanity back into issues easily made political.
Session: Emerging Spirituality and Religion in the New Media Age
Dr. Elizabeth Drescher, Adjunct Associate Professor of Religion and Pastoral Ministry at Santa Clara University in California, has written three books on the Why, How and What of social media as a tool of faith. The What to acknowledge today are the “Nones”: as in ‘None of the Above’ when asked what religion or faith with which they identify. ‘Nones’ are the fastest growing religious denomination, and where a generation ago many would return to church following marriage or baptism of their children, that tide is no longer turning. Some shifts in thinking are necessary, she suggests, including:
The Four Fs of Contemporary Spirituality:
A survey she conducted of ‘nones’ as well as regular churchgoers showed that Family, Friends, Food (preparing and/or eating) and Fido (spending time with pets) were the top areas where people found spiritual enrichment.
Beliefs experiential now rather than cognitive
Religion as practice rather than rules
Identifying church as an evolving narrative identity rather than a fixed institution
As Pope Francis tweeted: “Love requires a concrete response,” and “Life is about interactions.”
(In photo: Dr. Drescher with Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP, founding director of the Pauline Centre for Media Studies and the 2017 winner of the Gabriel Personal Achievement Award. The Gabriels honour the best in stories of hope in broadcast media. Past Personal Achievement winners include clergy and laiety such as Vin Scully, Gary Sinise, Betty White and Art Linkletter. CBC won several Gabriels this year, including one for Single News Story-TV for its coverage of the Hadhad family making a new life (and chocolate) in Antigonish.)
Plenary 2: Hope in the Future
Filmmaker Rock Devers was born in Quebec but considers himself a citizen of the world, devoting his life to making films that tell children and adolescent stories to audiences of all ages, made in languages and locations in nearly every continent. As a young man his teachers raised a scholarship to send him to a year of film school in Paris; finished his studies with $250 left, he headed for home and then changed his mind and headed to a café to consider his future: by living on $1 a day he could (and did) hitchhike from Paris to Tokyo. “I discovered that everywhere I went I felt at home,” he said, “and that major artists could make a living with work speaking to children.” His film Guerre des Tuques (The War the Dog Won in English) has become a generational favourite, and adhered to his promise to witness authenticity in the human spirit. “Children have the same intelligence and sensitivity as we do, the only difference is in years of experience of life.”
Session: Faith Formation, Storytelling and Social Media
Sr. Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, is Director, Institute for Pastoral Initiatives, for Dayton University. In response to dwindling people and resources in rural parishes, the IPI partnered with the university, local dioceses and curriculum writers and designers to create the Virtual Learning Community of Faith Formation. This virtual community now has 70 member dioceses in 40 countries, delivering on-line courses to catechists, Catholic school teachers, adult faith participants (many who are post-RCIA and wanting continued community formation) and permanent diaconate candidates in the United States and the Caribbean. This is among several major initiatives of the IPI to connect and collaborate.
“Evangelization requires formation, the network needs a soul,” said Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP, Director of the Pauline Centre for Media Studies. She said encouraging media mindfulness and searching for authenticity in messaging. Her Be-Attitudes of social media: be prudent, be truthful, be courageous.
A New Direction for Vatican Communications
This was a special presentation Monday night by Msgr. Lucio Adrian Ruiz, Secretary of the Secretariat for Communication at the Vatican. Pope Francis has launched a four-year plan to reform communication systems at the Vatican, but these changes are also seen as keys to strengthening communications in dioceses and other church institutions as well.
All secretariats, dicasteries, and offices associated with communications for all media have been consolidated under one office, the new Secretariat for Communications.
The consolidation is not driven by economics, but responsiveness. The system needs to be efficient to keep up with changes in technology, audience, and needs of the church
Programs and initiatives are to be developed with ‘user first’ in mind, rather than the traditional to-down approach. Think: Who do I want to serve? What do I want to offer them? Then design the service.
The Vatican is in year 2 of its plan. Years 1-3 are scheduled for changes. Year 4 is for fixing and improving, based on results and experience in the previous three years, with a new communications strategy at the end.
“The major challenge is that change and learning from it are permanent and we must all face that, from the smallest parish to the highest levels,” Msgr. Ruiz said. “But in this challenge is an opportunity to build a masterpiece.”
Then it was supper, where my table mates were SIGNIS Latin America. I don't speak Spanish, yet it was perfect: I could eat uninterrupted, listen to a language that sounds beautiful regardless of what they're saying, then excuse myself quietly to rest up for Day Two.
Tuesday - Day 2
Plenary 3: Building Peace and Hope in a World of Cultural and Religious Diversity
Abdul-Rehman Malik, a filmmaker born in Canada and now living in London, chaired this session that was particularly meaningful: Laval is just minutes away from the mosque where an armed gunmen opened fire on worshippers last fall. Bringing together people of different, cultures, faiths and opinions into spaces fostering meaningful conversations is the bridge needed to connect different worlds before fear and violence can take hold.
All forms of media have their purpose and with these forms, now anybody can take leadership to get their stories out. We each have a responsibility to do that. (Patrice Brodeur, associate professor, Institute of Religious Studies at the University of Montreal and Senior Advisor at the International Dialogue Centre, Vienna, Austria)
We need joy even in tragedy. (Jaime Carril Rojas, President, Latin America Inter-Religious Network on Peace Education)
“We asked children: what values are important? Children 6-7 years old are telling us the most important value is to listen.” (Jaime Carril Rojas)
“Why do we have a Jew on our show? Or an Imam? I get letters asking me this. It’s because it’s what the church asks of us – to become a culture of dialogue.” (Fr. Tom Rosica, founder of Salt+Light Media)
There is a paradigm shift from debate to dialogue which is better, because dialogue is open-ended and puts people at the centre, rather than at opposite ends. (Patrice Brodeur)
“Indifference is one of our biggest challenges. The most important things we can offer are joy and hope, weapons of mass construction.” (Fr. Tom Rosica)
Session: Promoting Stories of Hope about the Environment
Dr. Erin Lothes is assistant professor of theology at the College of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, New Jersey and is the only theologian to serve as an Earth Institute Fellow at Columbia University.
Use the word ‘fairness’ rather than ‘justice.’ The latter can imply a wrongdoing or judgment , which can make audiences uncomfortable.
Think Integral Ecology: Love of God, then love of our neighbor, then love of the Earth, all integrated into the Common Good.
From Laudato Si: The role of the church is not to settle conflicts or dictate policies but encourage debate and highlight the Common Good.
Climate Echo: Youth-Driven Social Media Campaign Toward a Greener Nation
Perry Paul Lamanilao is social media coordinator of the Titus Brandsma Media Centre in the Philippines. Located on the ‘highway of typhoons’, his country gets a devastating lesson each year on the destructive power of climate change, and in fact has the most weather-related disasters in the world.
Climate Echo is the response, which includes a Greener Nation Campaign, Technology and Social Media, and Youth + Online Networks. Youth teams for the environment have been sharing the message via social media, face-to-face gatherings, and general awareness campaigns to support a cleaner environment for the Philippines, and for the world.
Plenary 4: The New Generation of Catholic Communicators: Experiences and Challenges
Lawrence Mberi was teaching catechism in his native Kenya when he noticed at a certain age, kids didn’t want to engage with the textbooks and at mass, they increasingly spent time on their mobile devices. Why, he asked them. It’s boring, they replied. He offered seats to some youth on the parish Communications Ministry, but the youth declined, saying they felt the ministry was for adults, and it was the adults’ job to tell the kids what to do.
After attending his second SIGNIS conference in 2014 in Rome, he had an idea. He formed a Communications Lab and recruited youth to learn filmmaking and tell stories as they saw them. The team presenting in Quebec City on Tuesday had members from Kenya, Canada, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia and India. Each spoke of how filmmaking awakened a passion within, bringing them closer to themselves as well as their faith. Vi Cao, who like Lawrence Mberi is a SIGNIS Media team leader and youth ambassador in Asia and Africa, worked with a youth team at World Youth Day 2016 in Poland, where proceedings were translated into 23 languages and posted on Facebook. As one panel member said, “I want to give them knowledge for their life to be better, and I want to give the media knowledge to carry the message of peace.”
Session: Voices of Hope from Traditional Cultures
Filmmaker Denis Boivin has spent four years documenting personal stories by Innu citizens in northern Quebec. The village in which he works is more than 1000 km from Quebec City, about 14 hours by car. The greater challenge, however, is a dialect of Innu he discovered: Innu de bois or wood dialect Innu, understood by no one except the few people who speak it. He has committed the stories on film, hoping greater interest will enable the stories to be translated and shared before the few remaining speakers of this dialect are gone, and the language and stories with them.
Monica Villanueva Galdos (Peru), former president of SIGNIS Latin America shared the preservation of a native language in northern Peru through children singing. As children learned the song and it was shared on video, the catchy beat drew mainstream attention.
Paserio Furivai is Chairman of the Fiji Rotuman Association. Rotuma Island near Fiji is 45 square km and home to 2,000 people. It is also the place of origin of the Rotuman language. About 8000 former Rotuman residents live on the main island of Fiji and another 15,000 in areas around the world. Less than one third speak Rotuman.
Furivai began a radio broadcast, twice monthly inviting guests to discuss issues of culture and current affairs, in the processing connecting listeners and participants to their stories and language, and encouraging them and others to take an active role in preserving the Rotuman language. It isn’t easy: parents often choose to teach their children English rather than their native language, and many potential guests are too shy to speak on air, but Furivai perseveres. “We are sustaining our traditional wisdom.”
Wednesday - Day 3
If one conference was amazing, two simultaneously are astounding, information highways, vast and far-reaching, yet not always travelling at the same speeds.
Wednesday was the joint program between the SIGNIS World Conference and the Catholic Media Conference, the annual event of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada. Our diocese is indirectly a member of the CPA through the Association of Roman Catholic Communicators of Canada (ARCCC). Yes, a lot of letters, and a lot of people. By the end of the day our combined group numbered about 600. A world of knowledge, and a brilliant example of different world views. The SIGNIS group, with more than 100 countries represented, was highly visionary, positive, all about what is possible and boldly taking action to create, share, and innovate. In my first session with the CPA, there were words like ‘control’, ‘careful,’ and ‘limited.’ There are some great innovators in this group as well, many of them large organizations, but there was also an attitude of practicality over vision, concrete over faith, a caution not felt in the company of SIGNIS. Also interesting to note that several dioceses I encountered are entering a phase of redevelopment, and have communications at about the same stage, or even newer, than our position and initiatives.
In remarks to close the SIGNIS portion of the week, two days of workshops and networking were boiled down into four themes:
The challenge of the new, not just technology but new audiences and their expectations, as well as competition for their attention
Collaboration, and how essential is is to build the bridges needed to reach the people w are serving an want to serve
Creativity: how much possibility there is to tap and unlock, as long as space is created to allow that to happen. Listen first, talk second.
Hope: Telling stories are an act of faith in the future, and we as communicators must trust in the ability of stories to shape the world and touch the human heart.
That leaves the question: What are we going to do?
I have two more days of workshops and then discernment and conversations ahead to figure that out.
One man who ‘did something’ was showcased on Wednesday: film director Martin Scorcese. We screened his 2016 movie Silence, about the attempted evangelization of Japan in the early 1600s. Breathtaking in beauty and brutality, the movie raises fundamental questions about what is God and what God asks of those who serve Him. The audience didn’t make a sound during the whole screening, remaining silent even as the final credits scrolled up. Is that the silence that inspired the title, that of each of us searching ourselves for answers? While Mr. Scorcese entertained with an hour of memories and musings, that was one question left for us to figure out. Humble and humorous, he painted the figure not of an Oscar-winning Hollywood celebrity but a boy from the streets of New York who grew up with an early love of movies and books, who lasted in the seminary for three months before acknowledging his call was not on the altar but behind the camera. “It’s not what’s on the screen, but what is behind the image,” he clarified. “What is the spiritual evolution, if any? The image is there to move us to see more.” SIGNIS this year presented Mr. Scorcese with a lifetime achievement award, which he and his wife graciously accepted in person at the evening’s banquet.
Speaking of images and Mr. Scorcese, there are none in my collection at the moment because organizers (assuming at his request) asked that there be no photos or video taken of the discussion, except by the conference photographer. Everyone that I could see, including me, had camera, phone or tablet at the ready, yet when he came in, not a single device was in view. It was a proud moment, being part of a group choosing to live our values, literally beyond the images.
The day ended with Mass at Basilica of Notre Dame in Vieux Quebec, celebrated by Gerald Cyprien Cardinal Lacroix, Archbishop of Quebec . A popular and engaging man, he walked slowly in procession so he could smile and make eye contact with as many of us as possible, and during the banquet, he visited every table to share greetings, ask questions, and offer a joke or two, posing for endless selfies with delegates amazed to be in such informal and comfortable presence with a Cardinal of the Church. “They had no Facebook, there were no tweets, no 4K video cameras or internet, yet the Gospel spread all over the world,” Cardinal Lecroix said in his homily. We as communicators have all the tools he described and more at our disposal, but it was his blessing, gratitude and invitation to continue our work that encouraged us, even tired and overwhelmed, to own our calling and keep at it.
Old Quebec, with its founding history, deep roots, modern existence, is a living lesson for our church and its communicators
Thursday - Day 4:
A lighter schedule today, with the morning reserved for board meetings to which I don’t belong. A time to begin sorting through the ‘complimentary literature’ that fills the conference bags, and to begin packing for the trip home.
Some session highlights:
How Catholic Media can join the Podcasting Revolution
For those who may not have listened to one, a podcast is an audio program available for download, usually for free unless it’s immensely popular. A podcast and a radio program are similar, except with a radio program the listener tunes in on a receiver, whereas a podcast is downloaded as a sound file for individual play at the user’s choice.
Why should Catholic communicators care? Well, according to numbers presented by Matthew Palmer of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, podcast users equal Twitter users, and monthly listening to podcasts has increased by more than 75 per cent since 2013. It’s a huge market that some Catholic dioceses and media are tapping successfully, as a way to share their stories and engage people in our faith. Podcasts can be of any length, whatever seems to work for you and your listener , 20 minutes or longer is a rough average. The most popular podcasts are both professional and personal, featuring good storytelling and stories that touch feelings and encourage thought. Our Sunday Visitor, for example, created an eight-part podcast series following the release of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, called Searching for the Joy of Love, featuring clergy and lay people sharing analysis and stories.
The other rapidly growing content on social media is video. In a separate session, again co-hosted by with Matt Palmer, in the next two years more than 80 % of global internet consumption will be video content. More than half of us watch video on line every day. The good news is that planning, imagination, and partnering (for equipment, skilled advice, or both) puts production of both podcasts and social media videos within reach of even small organizations. All that is needed is a good story to tell, an audience to reach, and commitment: there is time involved and consistency is a key, especially when starting out.
Friday: Day 5
CPA Plenary Session: Babble-On, The Role of The Word in a Barrage of Words
Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut and in his address, words themselves were honoured, discussed, and illuminated as tools of great power. “Words are not just a conduit of communication but a conduit of grace.” In this time of ‘alternative facts, false news … and the collapse of distinction between fiction and historical data,’ he said Catholic communicators have both the ability and a duty to ground their commitment to the word to a commitment to The Word. “Language that welcomes and invites is a companion to divinity.”
Listening to Dr. Higgins is to be surrounded in the smooth richness of informed eloquence. The rhythm of his word choice is not done justice here. If you have an opportunity, search his videos on YouTube; his messages and delivery are both inspiring.
nmFrom left: Michael La Civita, Helen Osman, Penny Wiegert, Anne Marie Cox
Panel: How Did You Handle This?
Four experienced diocesan and organization communicators shared their front line stories in dealing with everything from spot news crisis to ongoing relationships.
Among the hints:
The virtue of patience
“We don’t have to say anything right away. We don’t always have all the information.” This from Mike La Civita of the Catholic Near East Association providing care for refugees. While not everyone works in a literal war zone, the need to be accurate, to avoid inciting fear and to avoid victimizing people a second time are paramount.
The virtue of persistence
Often the most affective approach is “responding before it happens,” said Helen Osman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. That means having processes in place to quickly handle situations or information requests _ who to call first, who to call next, how to maintain confidentiality, and how to maintain trust.
The delicacy of balance between being proactive and being patient
Anne Marie Cox, as Communications Director for the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, treads that line carefully, especially when confidentiality of a person has been assured. “We do need to get our story out and quickly,” she said. “ With the speed of social media, news can be shared in lightning speed, and it is best if news can come from us first.”
Knowing your community
Penny Wiegert has worked in communications for the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois for 30 years. Her diocese has three distinct areas – urban, suburban, and rural, “and what plays well in one does not in the others.”
News stories are built on conflict, but relationships with reporters can be collaborative to a degree. It means understanding they may not be familiar with church teachings or terminology: take every encounter as an opportunity to inform, while conceding that they have a job to do which may not be what you or your organization prefers. “When I compliment the media, I comment on the balance, because that is what they as journalists should be striving to do. If I have a criticism, it’s about the lack of balance.”
It is a bittersweet day, exciting as always because of the conference lineup, yet weighted by the lifetime of experiences packed into the past four days, and the questions arising with thoughts of home. Have I absorbed enough? Will the energy and vibrancy contained in every breath during this conference stay with me or evaporate as I step on the plane? Can I carry the visions and plans unlocked by these days of spirit and example all the way home and into reality?
For these questions, as always, there is a Mass for that.
Within the sturdy brick walls of the university chapel, Bishop Claude Champagne of the Diocese of Edmunston engaged our whirling minds and tired bodies in what has been for millennia the greatest story of hope. As Catholic communicators we have in our midst the best of all worlds, with collaborations and connections to some of the world’s leading intellectuals and greatest innovators, fuelled by love of God, passion, and faith. It is easy in this wondrous sea of opportunity to be overwhelmed, even lost, as in what direction to turn, but as in our faith itself, if in need of help or guidance we only need to ask. In five days I stepped into this sea of imagination, action and hope that is global Catholic communications, a mere speck on the map, an infant in the field compared to the years and decades of experience in those I met, yet my only times of isolation were ones I created myself. I leave those five days as part of a global family, with connections all over the world, with handshakes and hugs and invitations to keep in touch from anywhere in the world or any aspect of communications I wish to learn more about. As we each received communion and I received a smile from Bishop Champagne, I was flooded with a longing to be home, a gratitude for those in my own diocese who continue to work so diligently and faithfully for all of our ministries: Bishop Dunn, our communications team, our priests and deacons and candidates to the diaconate, our staff and volunteers and ministry leaders. As mass was ended I was no longer wondering how to take these conferences home, but letting go into prayer for everyone in our diocese that we continue to feel and share the healing, hope, and growth that has been our diocesan journey for the past several years. In the secular world, it is easy to judge ourselves harshly and limit ourselves unfairly: we’re small, we’re rural, we have few funds and fewer people and is church important nowadays, anyway? But it is because of all of these things that we have so much to share. It is our story of hope, our experience, that is uniquely ours and that can in turn bring hope to someone else.
I think back to the panel of communications directors and our counterparts met throughout the conference, with more demanding issues and in some cases fewer avenues of support than in my work to date. What helps these front-line communicators maintain their own sense of balance? Time with children, connection to parish life, and getting out of the office for a day of creativity. “We are creating change and changing hearts,” Anne Marie Cox said proudly.
Yes, we are, each one of us, unique in our talents but definitely not alone.
The SIGNIS World Congress and Catholic Media Conference 2017 are now over, but I’ll be unpacking everything I’ve learned in that week - the sessions, conversations, chance encounters, and aha moments, for the weeks to come.
This was a truly full, and fulfilling, five days: indeed, a story of hope, with much work to follow ... stay tuned :).