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Prepackaged Media Images of the Church (Presidential Address)

National Conference of Catholic Bishops

"On a global level there is often a prepackaged story" about the Church said Cardinal-designate William Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U. S. Catholic Conference, in a presidential address Nov. 14 to the U. S. Bishops meeting in Washington. This prepackaged story tells "of an ailing pope trying to impose an outdated morality on a resistant world, a church preoccupied by sexual issues, hostile to social progress and, now, deaf to the nuances of inclusive language. It is a story of a church of confrontation, entrenched in the past and resisting the aspirations of ordinary people today." But, Keeler asked, "where is the story of the pope who still does more in a week than most do in a month, of an older man who connects instantly with youth wherever he goes, of a tireless witness to respect for human life and human dignity?" Keeler told the bishops, "You and I have seen the real church as peacemaker. "The church also is an educator, healer, developer - and much more. "Most of all the church is a unique community in the Lord, " Keeler said. He added: "Our advocacy does not fit ideological or partisan categories. Our witness is not politically correct, but it is unfailingly consistent." Keeler urged that the discussion he called for a year age (see Origins, Vol. 23, pp. 417ff) between the church and representatives of the media continue. "We in the world of religion do need to be educated, to learn that we must reach out to our people and approach our world through the media whenever we can, "he said. Keeler expressed concern "about some often unreported aspects which reflect the vitality of the Catholic Church in our country, the real Catholic Church. "His text follows. A year ago in this address I spoke about the Catholic Church in the United States, the real church in which we live and worship. And I spoke about the other Catholic Church, the one so often found in media coverage. The response to my talk was heartening, especially the response which came to me from those in the media. Some said I painted with too broad a brush, but most agreed that a real issue had been raised. They took up the discussion among themselves and with their readers and viewers. That discussion should continue and involve in candid dialogue people of faith and those who report on religion. A beginning came when Commonweal magazine, assisted by a grant from the Catholic Communications Campaign, conducted three forums on the media and religion, open exchanges to educate both sides. And we in the world of religion do need to be educated, to learn that we must reach out to our people and approach our world through the media whenever we can. We have said we want to be part of the world of contemporary communications. We have done this in our dioceses and in our conference as well. But how far have we come in our own Catholic communications efforts? Have we become professionally skilled in engaging the media effectively? Many voices are competing for media attention. Have we learned to speak what Pope John Paul II calls "the language of the media" with sufficient force and clarity? Let us take a look at the inclusive language issue - we see it in the context of our church; here we are called to be faithful to our tradition in worship and in proclaiming God's word, and called also to make that word as intelligible as possible for those who hear it preached. To be faithful - the task of the Holly See - is to see in one world of many tongues and cultures the one faith proclaimed in accord with the Gospel witness of the past and in one voice with the living church throughout the world. As I have pointed out twice publicly in the past two weeks, those with worldwide responsibilities in Rome do want to work with us expeditiously in publishing a new lectionary, collaborating in the task of treating the tradition faithfully - and in the language which our people speak today. The decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith not to require the withdrawal at this time of the Canadian New Revised Standard Version lectionary shows a sensitivity to genuine pastoral concern. A year ago I spoke about some often unreported aspects which reflect the vitality of the Catholic Church in our country, the real Catholic Church. There are two more I wish to mention now. At a press conference recently in Rome a reporter asked me why I thought Pope John Paul's new book could be a best seller. I answered, "Because the Catechism of the Catholic Church is already a best seller in the United States, with well over 2 million copies in print within six months of the publication of our English edition." Many wonderful efforts were led by members of this conference. Programs before publication stimulated interest in the catechism; careful planning here made possible a prompt response to the need for more than four times the number of copies originally estimated as required. These steps have helped our people to begin to see the catechism for the treasure that it is: the point of reference for teaching about the faith at every level; the practical resource for preacher and teacher; the portable school for one who wants to know and live the faith in a world often confused, sometimes by media reporting. I am delighted to acknowledge that some responsible reporters did take a serious look at the catechism and told the story with highly satisfactory thoroughness; others did not. Another sign of the vitality of the church in the United States had its start exactly 25 years ago today on Nov. 14, 1969, when this body adopted the resolution which created the Campaign for Human Development. We now mark a quarter-century of helping poor communities, poor groups, poor people break the cycle of poverty. Through the generosity of our Catholic people, this effort has raised $237 million to support 3,200 local projects, in addition to educating people to understand the true needs of the poor, the causes of poverty and some remedies. CHD does more to help poor people help themselves than any other agency in the United States. CHD-funded groups have helped generate literally billions of dollars: billions of dollars in private and public funds to assist low-income people, creating and saving jobs; billions for building and rehabilitating family homes, for providing hope and a future for farm workers and immigrants. Join me now in congratulating CHD on its quarter-century of accomplishments. After participating in two synods in Rome, I am once again profoundly struck by the differences between this church as I know it, serving its own people and all of humanity, and the church I see reported in the news media. Like the national story I spoke of last year, on a global level there is often a prepackaged story. It is the story of an ailing pope trying to impose an outdated morality on the resistant world, a church preoccupied by sexual issues, hostile to social progress and, now, deaf to the nuances of inclusive language. It is a story of a church of confrontation, entrenched in the past and resisting the aspirations of ordinary people today. But where is the story of the pope who still does more in a week than most do in a month, of an older man who connects instantly with youth wherever he goes, of a tireless witness to respect for human life and human dignity? While there were examples of responsible journalism, on Nightline for instance, these were more than offset by the drumbeat of a fabricated story line. That story described a myopic church imposing its outdated values on the world. I recall especially reports on National Public Radio. You will no doubt remember the classic anti-Catholic cartoons and the daily reports which trumpeted the absurdity that the church was in a dark alliance with an international fundamentalist religious front to enslave women. The true issue, of course, were the dignity of women, the value of family and the sanctity of human life. That is why the pope - and we were with him - entered the discussion with great commitment and passion. (Incidentally, the last time the Holy Father took on a moral issue with such determination a wall fell and a continent - indeed the world - changed.) You and I have seen the real church as peacemaker. We remember how in recent years in the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos and his attempts to thwart democracy came up against believers with rosaries, Cory Aquino, Cardinal Sin and people power. In South Africa the successful struggle against apartheid was advanced by the nonviolent witness of believing church members working together across racial and religious lines to build a just and nonracial future for all South Africans. In Mozambique a long, long civil war ended because Archbishop Goncalves, the community of St. Egidio in Rome and other Catholics brought the opposing parties together and forged a peace which now seems sealed in the recent free elections. In the Middle East Catholic patriarchs have joined again and again with other religious leaders in seeking to lead their people on a peaceful path to overcome hate-filled divisions of the past. And the Holy See, through its new diplomatic links, is supporting peacemaking in the land held holy by Jew and Christian and Muslim alike. In troubled Zaire, Archbishop Monswengo is a reconciling leader in building a new internal structure that will make for justice and keep the peace. In Northern Ireland for decades now, Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians have worked publicly and behind the scenes to lay the foundations in friendships and in principle for the peace which is now unfolding. In Central America our bishops are the ones both sides have trusted, seeking to bring peace in areas where the very poor still hunger for the most basic kind of justice. Some weeks ago, when the bishops of Cuba asked for a public dialogue among all parties within their land and a dialogue between their country and ours, our conference responded with words of public support. I believe that if our own government listens to this plea, it will hasten the day of justice and peace for those in Cuba who have suffered so bitterly and so long. The church is a peacemaker, but perhaps even more than that the church is an educator. Take the enormous effort of our church to educate the poor people across Africa and Asia, where more than 20 million children are enrolled in Catholic schools. And the church is a healer: In hospitals, dispensaries, leprosaria, people of faith care for the sick, comfort the dying, prevent disease and now face the scourge of AIDS together; and the sick are treated without regard for race or religion. The church is a developer, helping those who have had no hope to tend more productive farms, to catch more fish in new ways, through the wonderful work of Catholic Relief Services, Caritas Internationalis and other agencies which work with local dioceses. The church is something more: much, much more. During the recent synod on consecrated life a person with a sense of history told of how religious institutes began: The founder, the foundress, came with a charism, a special apostolate, a work which seemed unique, but always something more. The new gift in action would also reveal the face of God and ignite a passion for holiness. In his homily at the synod's closing Mass, Pope John Paul II evoked the memory of those spiritual giants who brought such a passion for holiness to different days of history: St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, St. Francis and St. Clare, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and nearer to our own times, St. Theresa of Lisieux, St. Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Faustina. Most of all, the church is a unique community in the Lord, a Lord who asks for witness and service from his people, who has conquered sin and death through resurrection, who plants the seeds of holiness and who is in the church, sustaining its life and growth. And so it is in the United States: We in the church stand with the unborn and the vulnerable, the hungry and the homeless; we stand in the defense of human rights and human life. Our advocacy does not fit ideological or partisan categories. Our witness is not politically correct, but it is unfailingly consistent. - We oppose punitive welfare provisions which harm poor children and break up families. - We oppose abortion mandates. - We oppose condoms in the schools. - We oppose assault weapons on the streets. - We support family leave in employment. - We support family choice in education. - We support vulnerable children both after and before birth. - We defend human life wherever it is threatened. We do indeed have a story to tell. It is a story of accomplishment as well as a story of hope. It is a story of a God who loves and a God who helps. In this age neither our story or our God can easily be captured in the printed word or the electronic image; but our story is real; it is palpable; and it is full of hope. We proclaim divine life which transforms hearts, gives courage and, more and more, please God, reawakens and sustains a passion for holiness.