St. Paul in time of COVID-19: need for pastoral communication

Quiet Storm by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 11 June 2020
Painting by Raphael (1515) of St. Paul preaching at Areopagus in Athens, Greece. From wikipedia.

With houses of worship still closed despite the opening of most business establishments, here is the final installment of reflection in our series on how the life and teachings of St. Paul may help us in our ministry during this time of COVID-19 amid a perceived government “persecution” of the Catholic Church.

There is no doubt that like during his time, St. Paul would be using modern means of communication to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ especially in this most trying time of our history, using the internet as the new “Areopagus” with social media in particular.

Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: “You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To An Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it…”

Acts of the Apostles 17:22-24

Social Communication

Perhaps before we go into our reflection, it is imperative especially for bishops and priests to be reminded anew of some important terms in communications; this is more than about names or nomenclature because for as long these terms of communications are not clear with us, all our evangelization efforts would be askewed as it is now showing with an explosion of online Masses and other religious celebrations.

First priority is to stop using the words “mass media” and even “social media” in our church communications because these are very limited in scope and context.

It is important to note that in the 2000-year history of the Church, it was only in Vatican II that we have issued a conciliar document on communication wherein the Fathers also introduced the term social communication as a new name for communications in the Church.

How sad that there are still bishops and priests using the terms “mass media” or “media” and lately “social media” when more than 50 years ago the Church through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit coined social communication to refer to “the communication of and in human society including all the ways and means used in this process” (Fr. Franz-Josef Eilers, svd, 2009 BISCOM-FABC, Bangkok).

Social communication is a very prophetic term because it is theological and rooted in God who is communication himself, sharing with us his power to communicate so we may also communicate with him and with others. Most of all, God continues to communicate with us and from that lies our task as a Church to communicate him to the world.

This is the reason why we have to keep on using this term “social communication” in our Church communications to keep us Christocentric, meaning, every communication in the Church and by the Church has Jesus as Message.

And that is essentially the kind of communication process followed by St. Paul the Apostle. In fact, reviewing his letters and the various accounts about him would show us that early, this great apostle has been into social communication, specifically “pastoral communication” that is an emerging field in Church communications whose realities have long been espoused by St. Paul himself.

Pastoral Communication

Pastoral communication is anchored on Jesus Christ, the “Good Shepherd” who sets himself as the norm and standard of our Church communications.

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.”

John 10:11, 14-15
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

St. Paul has always been very clear with this in all his communications that towards the end of his life, he had beautifully written his disciple this wonderful piece:

Beloved: I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; per persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient… For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

2 Timothy 4:1-2, 6-7

Communicating Jesus Christ is always about self-sacrifice, about giving of one’s self like our Lord and Master. In whatever form of communication we use, it is always a call to “enflesh” the Word. In short, communication is spirituality that indicates the kind of relationship we have with God. How we reflect that relationship with God in words and in deeds, in our clothings and everything is communication.

Like St. Paul, he was able to offer himself wholly to God as reflected in his writings and preaching because he was more concerned with the needs of the flock and not with his own needs.

And this is where I sadly feel our bishops sorely absent and silent except for just two, Lingayen-Dagupan’s Archbishop Soc Villegas and Manila’s Apostolic Administrator Bishop Broderick Pabillo.

Where are the other bishops?

Business establishments are almost all opening, even dine-in restaurants and yet, until now for no valid reason, the government continues to ban religious mass gatherings except for maximum of ten persons in areas under GCQ.

When are the bishops and priests going to speak out against this and open the churches so people may be spiritually nourished?

What an auspicious time for the clergy and hierarchy to speak against this continued closure of churches as we are on the eve of our 500th year of Christianization when under serious persecution. Has the Church grown timid in the face of an unfriendly government?

Worst are some priests who seem to follow more the secular world in their digital presence but empty of Jesus Christ, concerned only with popularity measured in number of likes and shares as well as followers.

Many of us have become more of personalities than as priests and ministers, unconsciously trying to be more popular than the Lord himself that we no longer have sacrifice of the Mass but a variety show, complete with sound effects and digital characters, some wit dance numbers and raffles!

When God is displaced, then our love is misplaced, then, we lose all communications too.

Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level it is the giving of self in love. Christ’s communication was, in fact, spirit and life.  In the institution of the Holy Eucharist, Christ gave us the most perfect and most intimate form of communion between God and man possible in this life, and, out of this, the deepest possible unity between men. Further, Christ communicated to us His life-giving Spirit, who brings all men together in unity. The Church is Christ’s Mystical Body, the hidden completion of Christ Glorified who “fills the whole creation”.  As a result we move, within the Church and with the help of the word and the sacraments, towards the hope of that last unity where “God will be all in all”. 

Communio et Progressio # 11
From Google.

Problem with online Masses and religion

Every communication presupposes presence. That is essentially the meaning of God’s “I AM” in the burning bush to Moses and the “I AM” declarations by Jesus in the New Testament, especially in the fourth gospel where we find him saying “I am the good shepherd”.

Even St. Paul in his letters always began with his standard salutations like “I, Paul…” to indicate his very presence among his “parishioners”.

However, in the digital media, presence is not so essential and can even be faked both ways, either by being “taped” or “replayed” by viewers.

And there lies the great danger of online Masses and other celebrations: whether we like or not, online religious celebrations give the impressions on people that God is a “consummable”, a product or a show that can be had when most convenient to us like video on demand or the streamed shows of Netflix.

That is why we have to open churches soon to stop these online Masses except for those in the Cathedrals and in existence long before COVID-19 that cater to the needs of the sick and elderly in their homes.

Pope Francis has always been clear with this, stressing that these online Masses and religious celebrations are very temporary due to the extraordinary situation brought about by the pandemic.

From Pinterest/Aleteia.

Imagine the problem at Corinth that reached St. Paul’s attention, prompting him to write them another letter to reprimand them but at the same time to encourage them to mend their ways. It was a problem of abusing the Eucharist when St. Paul was no longer with them.

It is the same thing happening in many of our online Masses that have become variety shows to impress viewers. Long before we got into this lockdown, many priests have crossed the boundaries without knowing they have made fools of themselves as they rely more on “likes”, on being viral or trending, dishing out shallow reflections covered with cute song numbers, litany of greetings on air, and so many other inanities that Jesus is lost in the process.

Unfortunately, many laypeople are now also having their own digital preaching or evangelization with their own “productions” taking their cue from their showbiz pastors.

If St. Paul were with us today, he would surely write again to express his dismay at the people seeking more of entertainment than having Jesus Christ.

“But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts may be corrupted from a sincere and pure commitment to Christ. For I think that I am not in any way inferior to these “superapostles”. Even if I am untrained in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.

2 Corinthians 11:3, 5-6

Church communication is Jesus Christ and his Cross as St. Paul reminds us in his writings (1Cor.15:1-3); it is never about techniques or gadgets.

Though we need to be present online, the cutting edge of real communication remains in pastoral communication that means being present with others who need us most including those without internet access, witnessing to the values of Jesus in relating with people, bringing people together into a communion and helping them find answers in their search for meaning and directions in life, in making the right choices and in living their convictions and faith.

What we are speaking of are real people, persons and lives that matter so much, more precious than goods and commodities.

Let us not fall into the trappings of this “media revolution” that made one futurologist describe our contemporary society as

Technologically Intoxicated Zone defined by the complicated and often paradoxical relationship between technology and our search for meaning.

John Naisbitt

According to Naisbitt and other experts, while people prefer quick fixes online of everything, from religion to nutrition, while at the same time fearing and worshipping technology that had blurred the distinction of what is real and fake, the more they live their lives distanced and distracted — something we are already seeing even before the coming of social distancing!

To communicate in the Church at this time is to imitate St. Paul: be present for and with the people wherein we help them find their way to God by being their companions and “co-journeyers” in life, witnessing to them the Cross of Jesus Christ with our very lives as an offering and sacrifice, not as a commodity or a show to be “liked” on Facebook and Instagram.

And, lest we forget, it is God whom people must follow and worship, not us.

So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.

Ephesians 5:1-2
Pope Francis praying before an empty St. Peter’s Square last March 27, 2020 at the height of COVID-19 in Italy.

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