48 participants from all over Europe met online for the annual meeting of the Press Officers and Spokespersons for the European Bishops’ Conferences on the theme “Pandemic and ecclesial communication: new pastoral challenges”. It was a meeting to reflect on how to live up to the challenges of this time: the digital environment, new forms of socialisation and participation, potential and critical issues for communication, new pastoral challenges.
The pandemic showed us to be unprepared, at all levels, and forced us to stay indoors. Our habits, relationships, work, social contacts and even religious celebrations have changed. This, as well as all the personal, emotional, psychological, relational and pastoral implications that such a situation entails. We have found ourselves “all in the same boat“, as Pope Francis put it.
The media played an important role in this period: both traditional and social media. A huge effort was made by many journalists and information workers, on the front line, to tell the story of what was going on, to not betray their public service mission, and to build social unity. A delicate role, as pointed out by Vania De Luca, TG3 vaticanista and president of UCSI Nazionale, in her speech entitled: On the front line during the pandemic. The delicate role of information. “A ‘delicate’ role because information is a bridge between citizens and institutions, between the scientific community and the population, a bond and builder of community or – on the contrary – an instrument of division and disintegration. Our words not only interpret reality, but also contribute to shape and direct it. We have experienced this particularly clearly in this period of our history when, at the same time as the pandemic, what has been called the infodemic has also spread: namely, the abundance of information, not all of which is accurate, that “make it difficult for people to find reliable sources when they need them” (making it difficult to distinguish the truth from the false / the good from the bad)”.
In this context, the world of information is called upon “to choose the news, contextualise it, hierarchise it, starting with a question of foundation and of meaning: what kind of world do we want to build? What is important to pass on to the new generations and what is not?”
Today we are at the end of a long winter of living with the virus, – she continued – and the spread of vaccines gives us hope of a return to normality, even if the uncertainties and contradictions that we have experienced will be carried with us. We cannot think of going back to the world of before, as if nothing had happened, as if we had experienced a parenthesis”.
Then, quoting the motto of St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists, “One must have a heart capable of patience; great designs can only be realised with a great deal of patience and time”. She concluded: ” For the rebuilding, the rebirth, the resurrection, in the Christian sense which says, in the Latin etymology of resurgere, to put back on its feet what is bent, much patience is needed. However, time has become short. We do not have much of it.”
The coronavirus also prevented all pastoral activities, as we had always known them, and meant that the celebration of Mass with the participation of the faithful was not possible. It was an extraordinary situation in which, for the Church, the duty of charity and the protection of life and health prevailed, leading it to accept the restrictions.
Many bishops and priests have not lacked creativity and have begun to celebrate Mass from the rooftops of their churches in order to be visible to the surrounding buildings and closer to the faithful. Moments of prayer and liturgical celebrations have moved to the web, radio and television.
The undisputed protagonist was Pope Francis, who was first with the decision to broadcast the morning Mass live on TV from Santa Marta, and then with the prayer from 27 March in a deserted St Peter’s Square, but with the eyes of all and the hearts of many focused on him.
Andrea Monda, Director of L’Osservatore Romano, related what it meant to be “Comunicating with Francis. Symbolic Gestures and Daily Life”. Starting from the historic moment of prayer on the esplanade of St Peter’s Basilica with the “Urbi et orbi blessing” on 27 March, and confiding other episodes experienced first-hand alongside the Pontiff, he recalled the Pope’s communicative style comprised of closeness, which allows him to immediately enter into harmony with the hearts and minds of the faithful and which makes every meeting special, which makes even moments of private encounter an ‘event’. During this time of pandemic, with his simple and strong gestures, Pope Francis has awakened in many people the need for the sacred and has helped us to rediscover the desire for God.
The digital environment offers new forms of socialisation and participation. Communication – including ecclesial communication – has shown both potential and criticality during the testing time of covid. How can we inhabit the digital environment in order to reach and meet all those people who frequent social networks and the web? How can we safeguard the sacramental dimension linked to physical participation in celebrations? This was the focus of the Round Table: “Digital environment and ecclesial participation“. There were three accounts of personal experiences: Shona Cahill, from the Jesuit YAM (Young Adult Ministry) Team, presented “Spiritual accompaniment online” offered by the Jesuits to young people and adults in the period of restrictions; Simona Juračková, from Caritas at the Czech Bishops’ Conference, told us about the great work done by Caritas Czech Republic during this time and “Networking to help others“; Kornél Fábry, general secretary of the Committee for the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, reported on the preparation of the Congress after the postponement of one year, to ensure the physical participation of the faithful from all over Europe and presented the programme of the event.
In his conclusion, H.E. Msgr Nuno Brás, Bishop of Funchal and head of the CCEE Social Communications Section, after thanking the speakers and participants at the meeting, reiterated that this is a time of choices. The pandemic has shown us a new way of living, we have realised that our normal standard has perhaps changed forever and that we cannot simply start again, but rather must begin again. The key word is closeness: ‘it is necessary to accompany people in any context, even the digital one, and make them feel the closeness of the community and of God, to be companions on the road in the need for the sacred, for God that dwells within the human heart, to be able to open windows to the mystery of God’.