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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter Novecosky

Advice on communications

Pope Francis has attracted a lot of attention from his freewheeling style of communicating. He is known to speak his mind — to the delight of many but to the consternation of some who prefer a more tightly scripted style of papal speech.

Pope Francis sat down with Dominique Wolton, an expert in media and communications, for a yearlong series of interviews and insights into his philosophy of communication. Wolton compiled his 12 interviews in the book Politique et Societé (Politics and Society), which was released in French on Sept. 6. An English-language translation is pending. Catholic News Service has provided a summary.

Pope Francis traces his philosophy back to advice he received as a student from an old Jesuit: “Listen up, if you want to get ahead, well, think clearly and speak obscurely.”

Wolton calls the pope a man who is “one of the most exceptional intellectual and religious figures in the world.” He suggested the pope write an encyclical on the challenges culture and technology pose to communication today. “Maybe,” the pope replied, given that “there are very serious problems,” such as today’s suppers in which family members are each plugged into their own device, silently eating their meal.

Pope Francis said that, in his experience, the media and communicators tend to “catch what suits them,” and they are prone to the following four dangers:

— Disinformation, which offers only some or partial facts and leads people to make mistaken judgments about reality.

— Calumny and “tarnishing others,” which, like the “Barber of Seville” says, builds from a light wind into a destructive storm.

— Defamation by publicizing a repentant, reformed person’s past mistakes in order to undermine his or her authority.

— A “sad, unpleasant, nasty disease” of “wallowing in the most risqué, vicious and voyeuristic stories and references” possible.

He also offered a list of suggestions and guidelines for real communication. This includes:

— Being able to “waste” time by giving it freely. A priest, for example, who is too busy to be available and talk, is “anti-communication and anti-Gospel.” Jesus was always busy, but he never saw requests as a bother and always insisted on helping.

— Humility, because it takes humility to be able to listen to people, and it opens the door to communication by creating a sense of being on equal footing. “If you want to communicate only from the top down, you will fail.”

— Never seeing people as adjectives, but speaking to them as “nouns,” as a man, a woman, a human being. Finding things in common to talk about and listening with respect despite different points of view.

— “Joy and lightness,” because it’s not enough to tell the truth if a text or discourse is “terribly boring.”

— Building a bridge by shaking hands, hugging, crying, eating, drinking together. In Argentina when people want to talk, they say, “Let’s get a coffee,” because real communication cannot happen “without making a bridge, and without eating. Words alone are not enough.”

— “Rediscovering the sense of touch,” because it is the most important of the five senses. “Perfect communication” doesn’t require the latest technology, it can be just giving a hand or a kiss “without words.”

— Building relationships with concrete gestures of charity, which is why “the church communicates best when it does so with the poor and the sick,” when it is following the path of the beatitudes. “It is very interesting, communication is at work in the beatitudes. If you read them carefully, these are also the rules for better communication.”

In an age of fake news and spin doctors, Pope Francis offers valuable advice to reflect on. And it applies to those silent “supper meals” too.