It might seem paradoxical, but the best way to counter rejection of the Gospel message is with the message itself. This is the reflection of Fr. Michael Remery, secretary of the CCEE Commission for Social Communications, who says that in order for people to accept the message of the Church, they must first hear the fundamental element of that message: the great love of God for each of us.
Fr Remery spoke to ZENIT after a seminar recently held to prepare journalists for this July’s World Youth Day in Poland.
We asked him not only about that event, but about Church communications in general, and about his own project, Tweeting with God.
ZENIT: How did the Seminar go in preparation for the WYD? It was the first time that it was possible to bring together so many Christian European journalists and spokesmen, no?
Father Remery: The seminar in Krakow for journalists, press spokespersons and journalists from all around Europe, organised by CCEE in preparation of World Youth Day, can indeed be called a success. In the first place, the seminar served a material goal: to collect and share information regarding the press coverage of World Youth Day in July 2016. We worked closely together with the World Youth Day organisation and the Local Organisation Committee in Krakow to obtain all the information necessary for a good preparation of the media coverage of this event from all around Europe.
The seminar also served a second aim, which is related to a deeper level of communication. The exchange between journalists and staff members of bishops’ conferences all around Europe has proved to be very fruitful in the sense that it served to create contacts between people that work in the same field, but do not always know each other. Thus the breaks between the plenary sessions and the bus trips were useful in themselves. This is the first seminar of its kind organised by CCEE, and we are very happy with the double success of the meeting in Krakow. Also during World Youth Day in Krakow, CCEE will be present and offer its help in different ways, especially to delegations and journalists from Europe.
ZENIT: In your opinion, what are the limitations of communication in the Catholic field? One is often constrained to answer criticisms and accusations. The secularized world believes that the Catholic Church is too moralist and dogmatic. What should be done to be more effective and brilliant in dealing with modernity?
Father Remery: The possibilities of communication today are virtually unlimited. As Catholics, we have many means of communication at our disposal, and I believe that we need to continue to try new methods and keep up with technological and social developments in order to spread the message that we have received from Jesus. Our Christian message is such a treasure for the entire world! Even though not everyone will be able to admit it to themselves, everybody desires to hear good news, a positive message of hope, support, consolation, prospect, even beyond the lives we live here on earth. It is up to us to spread the positive message of our faith, which can change people’s lives and bring them from darkness towards the light.
Obviously, communication is more than the means which we use: it is also and especially about the way in which we employ these means in the spreading of the Christian message. I am convinced that the best way to counter the sometimes negative way in which the message of the Church is received by our secularised European society, lays in the essence of this message itself. If you do not know the great love of God for you, it is very difficult to understand certain elements of the moral or doctrinal precepts taught by our Church. Of course we have a moral duty to denounce that which we know to be morally wrong. But often we start by saying “no” even before speaking of the big “yes” to life in all its aspects. Jesus himself started to reach out to people, building a relationship with them, going to where they were, before inviting them to embrace the love of God and to change their lives.
Too often we start with the message we want to tell, instead of with the people to whom we want to communicate. The true revolution we need in our communication is that we should start with the situation of the other person, with their questions, with their needs, with their desires. That is a very Christian approach indeed! God loves every human being. The Christian message itself is profoundly human and can be understood by everyone who honestly tries to understand his or her origin. However, in order to successfully proclaim and explain the message of the faith, we need to start where people are. All of us working for the communication of the Gospel know that in our contemporary society the message of the Church is often met with scepticism, criticism and even with accusations. However, there is no need to be discouraged by this. Obviously, where necessary, we need to make amends for our faults and change our ways. But let us never be afraid to continue to spread the Word of God to everyone.
Pope Francis is a great example of doing precisely that in today’s world. He often starts his discourse with a commonly shared value. This may be the need to care for our neighbour, for the poor, for the homeless, for the refugees, or for all those who are marginalised in other ways. But he does not stop there! Pope Francis continuously speaks about the love of God and the need for people to change their ways. The Pope speaks to the entire world. Our challenge as Catholic communicators is to pick up on his discourse and to continue it with in mind the specificity of the lives of the people we are communicating to in our local situation.
ZENIT: In what way is the revolution of the net influencing the world of communication? And what are Catholics thinking of doing? How can they not remain marginalized?
Father Remery: The novelties in online communication during the past decades can indeed be called a revolution. And I believe it is a revolution that can be of great help to our desire to communicate the Gospel. As with every instrument we use, there are certain dangers of which we need to be aware, and to limit these as much as possible. However, just as I do not stop driving my car because I might one day be injured in an accident, we should not be afraid of using the great and positive potential which is offered by online services and the internet.
If we wish to be there where people are, we also need to be present at the different online platforms with the Christian message. And when we manage to find a language that people at these platforms can understand, we can start to dialogue with them about what really matters in life. God’s message of love is eternal; it does not change. But as we are using human words and means of communication which continuously change, we also have to change the way in which we spread the eternal message. If we do not wish to be marginalised, we will have to keep up with the developments of modern communication and put them to good use.
ZENIT: You are the inventor of a project of communication to have the history and essence of Christianity known in a modern, brilliant and joyful way. Can you explain it?
Father Remery: The project Tweeting with GOD intends to start communication about the faith where people are, both offline and online, and to use a language and argumentation they can understand. It is based on 200 questions about faith and life by young people in secularised Europe. The brief answers (“Tweets”) have been formulated together with those young people, always looking for the reasons and argumentations behind the answers that theology and philosophy have to offer. The project intends to use multiplatform means to do so. Thus we have written a book called Tweeting with GOD, an application for the mobile phone, a website www.tweetingwithgod.com, brief videos, and a presence on different social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
The aim is always to engage into a dialogue about the faith on the basis of questions by the people involved. When you start looking together for an answer to these questions, you can be sure that they will be much more interested and involved than when people have to sit through a standard class. As soon as people have discussed a few questions, they will hopefully start to see the larger picture of God’s love for them and their role within the entirety of creation. This is rather like making a jigsaw puzzle: the more pieces you have in place, the better you start to see the picture. Each of the 200 questions or Tweets of the project is like one piece of the large jigsaw puzzle of our human existence in the light of God.
The project is surprisingly successful: we launched the website in the Netherlands by the end of 2014, and today Tweeting with GOD is followed by people in over 100 countries. The book is currently being translated in more than twenty languages all around the world.
The project was started together with young people, and those running it today are almost all young people themselves. It is interesting to see that the youthful language we use to speak about the faith also appeals to people of other generations: we have followers from all different age groups.
Very recently we prepared a programme of preparation and follow-up for World Youth Day. In my own experience, the great youth event is only really successful when the young participants are well prepared, and especially when there is a follow-up project for when they come back to their countries. Tweeting with GOD has been discovered by a number of countries as a great solution to answer adequately to the many questions with which the pilgrims to World Youth Day return home. Also, it is a great help in linking the unique World Youth Day experience to everyday pastoral care and ordinary life. During World Youth Day, we will be present on the vocations market, and invite everyone interested to come and find us there. Furthermore, we shall soon be launching a few specific online World Youth Day events, about which people can find more on our Facebook and other online accounts. We do all this with the one aim to help people to get to know God, to start themselves to “Tweet with God”, and search him in their prayer.
Father Michel Remery is Vice General Secretary of the Council of European Bishop’s Conferences (CCEE), secretary of the CCEE Commission for Social Communications, Research Fellow Liturgy and Architecture at the School for Catholic Theology of Tilburg University, and founder of the multimedia project Tweeting with GOD. He was born in the Netherlands in 1973 and before his current function has served for many years as an assistant priest in several parishes, working especially with youth.