By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia

Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the 44th World Communications Day, to be celebrated on May 16, was released at the end of January. The theme of that day will be: “The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word.” From this document, we take our title and topic this week.

The New Evangelization

The 1974 World Synod of Bishops was dedicated to the theme of the “New Evangelization.” Following upon this Synod, Pope Paul VI wrote an Apostolic Exhortation on this theme (Evangelii Nuntiandi), which elaborated on the concept of the means of evangelization for today’s world.

The very title of Pope Paul’s Exhortation, which means “announcing the gospel,” reminds us that we are dealing with a treasure, namely the Word of God as found in the Gospels and consistently proclaimed by the Church, which is perennial. However, the concept of the new evangelization reminds us that the manner and presentation of the teaching of this same Gospel must ever be done according to the needs and challenges of the times.

In this way, the Synod Fathers and the Pope were reflecting the main purpose of the Second Vatican Council, proclaimed by Pope John XXIII at its opening when he said: “What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else” (Address, 11 October 1962).

Pope John Paul II and the New Evangelization

In Pope John Paul II’s book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” which he wrote in 1994 as a prelude to the celebration of the new millennium, he expands upon the idea of the new evangelization. He says that the work of evangelization is always set within the context of history and is “the encounter of the Gospel with the culture of each epoch.” In reiterating his call for a new evangelization, he says: “There is the need for a proclamation of the Gospel capable of accompanying man on his pilgrim way, capable of walking alongside the younger generation” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope; pp. 105-117, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).

It is important to remember that the early preachers of the Gospel used the means of their times to proclaim the Truth taught by the Eternal Word, who had become Flesh, and who suffered and died for our salvation. It is important to remember that while God’s Word was eventually written down, from the beginning it was essentially a spoken and a preached message. The language, means of travel, and imagery of its time was used to express the truth it was, and is, meant to teach.

So much of what we see around us as outward signs of the Church are meant to be vehicles to teach the truth. One of the Prefaces of the Church’s Liturgy speaks of the Church building as “the true house of prayer signified by these visible buildings, the temple where your glory dwells, the seat of unchangeable truth, the sanctuary of eternal charity.”

The buildings themselves are meant to be a means of evangelization. Our schools always have as their underlying mission the preaching and teaching of Jesus. Our own Archdiocesan Seminary takes its motto from the Gospel: “the sower went out to sow.” Our young priests are sent forth to preach and teach the changeless truths of Jesus, using the means of communication of our own day. This brings us to Pope Benedict XVI’s message.

The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World

The Holy Father places his Letter in the context and continuity of what we have already said when he writes towards the beginning of his document: “All priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, and the communication of his saving grace in the sacraments.” This is the timeless mission Jesus has given to His Church and, most especially, to those called to preach the Gospel and make Him present through His Sacraments.

In this age of such marvelous technological advances, we are given new means to spread the Gospel. This technology is very much a part of the lives of people, especially young people, in our modern world. The zeal which a St. Paul manifested in his preaching; which a St. Thomas Aquinas manifested by his writing and which the famous Bishop Fulton Sheen manifested by his use of the then-modern medium of television, to such great effect, is all motivated by the same Truth and the same desire to spread it throughout the world.

As we encourage and pray for priestly vocations, which are so needed in the Archdiocese, we can be both consoled and encouraged by these words of the Holy Father, who speaks of “the lofty dignity and beauty of the mission of the priest, which responds in a special way to the challenge raised by the Apostle Paul: The Scripture says: No one who believes in him will be put to shame. But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:11; 13-15).

Modern media is always at the service of the Word. We do not make use of this technology merely because it is new or stylish. It is the recognition of the reality that this is a great tool in order to preach the Gospel today. This is what people listen to and are exposed to and so this is the place to meet them and share with them the message of Jesus.

The Holy Father reminds us that “priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ. This will not only enliven their pastoral outreach, but also give a ‘soul’ to the fabric of communications that makes up the ‘Web.'”

In a previous topic, in which we addressed the dangers of modern digital communications, we addressed a caution which must be brought up here as well: the danger of replacing genuine human contact with “technological” or “faceless” intercommunication. Experts tell us that this is a great danger among young people today, who can often spend many hours at the computer but who may eventually find it difficult to engage in interpersonal relationships.

The role of the priest in the Church is always a physical one because he is the instrument of God’s presence in the world, most of all through the sacraments and also through the preaching of the word of God. Likewise, the presence of the priest with the sick in the hospital, with the troubled who come to seek his counsel in the rectory, with parish organizations which need his leadership, with children in the classroom and within the community, by his very presence as a witness to Christ by his life and vocation, are all indispensable. They cannot be replaced by technology, just as prayer and intimacy with Christ cannot be replaced by it.

We are always called to bring the fruit of our prayer and of our relationship with Jesus to the people we are called to serve. In our modern age we can meet God’s people through marvelous technological means.

The Holy Father is reminding priests to make use of those means with knowledge, adaptability and zeal. Used as a tool for evangelization and used by those with a solid foundation in their relationship with Christ and His people, this is the latest instrument through which we are called upon to carry the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

11 February 2010