At the Catholic Media Convention on 3 November 2022 in Bonn, an international panel convened by CAMECO with experts from the Vatican, the Philippines addressed with the German participants what appears to be a global trend: The loss of influence and credibility of institutions and the increased importance of personalities in the media. Mass communication features that a few decades ago were only available to professional and institutional communicators are today in the hands of each of us through social media in combination with wide-reaching ubiquitous communication tools. They have driven the individualisation of communication and are structured around personal preferences and relationships. Influencers, individual personalities but also informal groups are now competing with established institutions, parties, organisations and the churches for reach and credibility. The panel discussed what draws attention and how Christian communicators are faring in this new world.
Three distinguished international guests, the Head of the Philippine Bishops Conference, Msgr. Pablo Virgilio Siongco David, the Director of the Theological-Pastoral Department of the Dicastery for Communication of the Holy See, Nataša Govekar, and Sr Mary John Mananzan, author, TV presenter and Director of the Institute for Women's Studies in Manila, helped to get to the bottom of this worldwide phenomenon. CAMECO’s President Michaela Pilters and Executive Director Michael Unland chaired the panel and the ensuing discussion with the German participants on what we can learn from each other’s experiences with this transformation for church communication.
Msgr. Pablo Virgilio Siongco David, in the Philippines better known by his nickname “Bishop Ambo”, has been Bishop of the Diocese of Kalookan, part of the capital region Metro Manila since 2016. He is considered one of the Philippines' leading Bible experts and was elected President of the Philippine Bishops' Conference in 2021.
In his Diocese of Kalookan many poor migrant workers from rural areas live in informal settlements, where drug abuse is also a problem. His outspoken opposition to the anti-drug war led by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in which an estimated 30,000 people have fallen victim to extrajudicial killings, has often brought him national headlines and confrontations with the government.
While Bishop David considers himself a "digital immigrant", he also has a strong presence on social media, with some 50k followers on his personal Facebook account and about 70k followers on his institutional account – figures that only few German church officials or other Catholic influencers reach.
When asked how he navigates social media as a church official, he said, “my personal account name has no ecclesiastical title. It’s just “Pablo Virgilio David”, even if most followers know that it’s the account of the Bishop of Kalookan who is also currently the president of the episcopal conference. I communicate God’s word, but I make it a point to personalize the communication, to give flesh and blood to it. I do not believe in generic homilies; my homilies are always personal, heart-to-heart conversations with a specific audience in mind.
Even if I know that some people treat me as a ‘personality’ in the social media, I prefer to conduct myself as an ordinary person with a message to convey. After all, it’s the message that matters, not me.”
Nataša Govekar is a theologian specialising in missiology and faith communication through art, images and symbolic language. In February 2016, Pope Francis appointed Nataša Director of the Theological-Pastoral Department of the Dicastery for Communication. In 2020, her department launched the Project “Faith Communication in the Digital World”, which engages young digital experts in the development of guidelines and tools as well as new ways for pastoral communication online.
She was asked if it is possible to stay human and authentic on the internet with the current design of social media platforms that spawn clickbaiting, attention industries, commercialisation of personal life and personality. And whether social media are good tools to convey faith and experience community.
She described the challenges that humanity faces in clarifying its relationship with technology and its relationship with itself in a synthetic reality in which human nature is losing its current meaning.
“We know that as human beings we are ‘made in the image of God’, we are created for communion, but we also know that from the very first moment human beings came into existence, we have tended to believe in a false promise of divinization. As soon as we turn away from the source of communion, we tend to use everything – nature, relationships, our own intelligence, and also all the technological extensions of our intelligence – to cover our fragility and our nakedness. As Christian communicators, we are called even more to bear witness to a style of communication that is not just an individual engagement, but a way of community b uilding and belonging”, Govekar said.
While some voices from the audience welcomed the fact that the Vatican had not reacted to the dynamic technological development in a hasty and restrictive manner, there were also those who wished for more spiritual, ethical and practical guidance to navigate this new digital communication world in a Christian way. Govekar acknowledged that in the face of these rapid developments, the Church's usual response of working on documents for several years with thorough discernment and analysis might not be the best response in the current context, and that the Dicastery is seeking to promote a common reflection as a “synodal process” and to encourage the exchange of best practices.
Sr Mary John Mananzan is a Missionary Benedictine Sister, born in 1937 in the Philippines and Director of the Institute of Women's Studies in Manila. Sister Mary John is a well-known personality through her books and her talk show on Filipino TV “NunSense makes sense”.
As a nun she is clearly shaped by her affiliation to the church. When asked if she would separate her communication as a person and her communication as a representative of the church, she just said: “Not at all”. For her there is no contradiction between her being in communion with other believers and communicating her personal views that might not be the same as the views of everyone within the communion. She also stressed the importance of the church not avoiding relevant topics and linking its communications to real life issues and issues that matter to people. This also includes sensitive cultural, social or political issues.