ARLINGTON, Va. — At a time when all people are yearning for a message of hope, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington wants the church to be ready to use all manner of media to proclaim the good news of the Gospel.
In his pastoral letter released Sept. 14, “In Tongues All Can Hear: Communicating the Hope of Christ in Times of Trial,” Bishop Burbidge extols the importance of communicating wisely, especially when using digital media.
Communication “is integral to who the church is and to her mission” and needs “the full support of the church,” said the bishop, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Communications. He urged Catholics themselves to become effective communicators.
As soon as Jesus tasked the apostles with making disciples of all nations, the challenge of effectively communicating that salvific message began. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak the languages of those around them, bringing thousands to knowledge of God.
St. Paul, notes Bishop Burbidge in the pastoral, was a master missionary and communicator. “From a great social distance and in an age where communications were defined by delay, St. Paul forged communities of great spiritual closeness,” he said.
The current age is characterized by an upending of the communications world, said Bishop Burbidge.
“From the days of the Sermon on the Mount through the invention of the printing press and on to radio and television, the dominant means of communicating looked remarkably similar,” he said. “It was the few talking to the many. But then came the digital revolution.”
The democratization of media through websites, social media and other digital platforms has remarkable potential for spreading the Gospel, he said. “With the press of the button, one could potentially have an audience larger than any St. Paul could have reached in his day,” said Bishop Burbidge.
But the dangers of “trolling,” “cyberbullying” and “fake news” also have materialized in the wake of this revolution, he said, as well as the temptation to substitute digital interactions with in-person ones.
As people have been compelled to physically distance from one another during the coronavirus pandemic, the church has relied on communications as never before, particularly using livestreamed Masses as a way to bring people together in worship. Though often apart, the church always remained united in Christ, said Bishop Burbidge.
“The Holy Father modeled ways to unite us in prayer,” he said, including the livestreaming of his daily Masses. “Most famously, the extraordinary ‘urbi et orbi’ message and blessing on March 27 of this year, when the world was riveted on his lone figure in rain-swept St. Peter’s Square, as he rebuked the darkness and challenged all of us with the words of Christ: ‘Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?’”
During this time, Catholic communicators used the tools at their disposal to inform people about their communities while always proclaiming the hope found in Christ, said Bishop Burbidge. “Everywhere, Catholic media continued to unite us by telling the stories of heroism and of great need, inspiring, and encouraging others to act.”
The bishop sees the explosion in new media avenues as a “21st-century Pentecost,” with the same opportunities for spreading the Gospel to new ears as Pentecost was all those centuries ago.
“Social media networks have sprung up in parishes around the world. Ways to connect those confined to home in our communities, those isolated by infirmity or age, are suddenly plentiful,” he said. “Homilies, spiritual reflections and rituals can now be shared with a potentially much larger community, including those who do not know us or worship with us.
“This is a powerful moment of evangelization that must not be lost,” he said. “These tools can be used to mobilize people to get involved — whether it is to serve in a food pantry, to defend religious freedoms, to speak out against racism, or to walk in a eucharistic procession.”
Going forward, support is needed for different methods of communication, from radio and newspapers to podcasts and video, he said.
“The mission of the church yesterday, today and tomorrow is to evangelize, to broadcast the good news,” said Bishop Burbidge. “To evangelize is to communicate. To preach is to communicate. To share is to communicate. That is why communications demand the church’s full support. This is not an add-on or an optional expense. It is integral to who the church is and to her mission.”
In his concluding tips for sharing the joy of the Gospel, Bishop Burbidge urged Catholics to become effective communicators. Choose the medium carefully, he said: Invite, don’t push. Bring together, don’t tear apart. Be prudent and prayerful when posting. Take time to listen to others.
“Above all else,” he said, “see Christ first, and strive to see Christ in one another.”
Editor’s Note: The full text of Bishop Burbidge’s pastoral can be found on the website of the Arlington Catholic Herald, https://bit.ly/2H7tvzd.