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The Prior General Addresses the Synod


Rome - Italy
October 2012

Mystery as an Antidote to Spectacle

At least in the contemporary western world, if not throughout the entire world, the human imagination concerning both religious faith and ethics is largely shaped by mass media, especially by television and cinema. Western mass media is extraordinarily effective in fostering within the general public enormous sympathy for beliefs and practices that are at odds with the Gospel (e.g., abortion, homosexual lifestyle, euthanasia).  Religion is at best tolerated by mass media as “tame” and “quaint” when it does not actively oppose positions on ethical issues that the media have embraced as their own.  However, when religious voices are raised in opposition to these positions, mass media can target religion, labeling it as ideological and insensitive in regard to the so-called vital needs of people in the contemporary world.

Three Augustinian Members of the Synod
Fr. Robert Prevost, Prior General, Archbishop José Ulloa Mendieta of Panama,
Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster England.

Moreover, overt opposition to Christianity by mass media is only part of the problem. The sympathy for anti-Christian lifestyle choices that mass media fosters is so brilliantly and artfully engrained in the viewing public, that when people hear the Christian message it often inevitably seems ideological and emotionally cruel by contrast to the ostensible humaneness of the anti-Christian perspective. Catholic pastors who preach against the legalization of abortion or the redefinition of marriage are portrayed as being ideologically driven, severe and uncaring, not because of anything they say or do, but because their audiences contrast their message with the sympathetic, caring tones of media-produced images of human beings who, because they are caught in morally complex life situations, opt for choices that are made to appear as healthful and good. Note, for example, how “alternative families” comprised of same-sex partners and their adopted children are so benignly and sympathetically portrayed in television programs and cinema today.

If the “new evangelization” is going to counter these mass media-produced distortions of religious and ethical reality successfully, pastors, preachers, teachers and catechists are going to have to become far more informed about the context of evangelizing in a world dominated by mass media. Magisterial Church teaching can be helpful in this regard, yet there is a great need for further development in this area. Noteworthy for its perception of the mass media context for evangelization is the post-conciliar document Aetatis novae (1992). This document observed that modern media not only distorts reality by telling us what to think, it tells us what to think about. The inclusion and exclusion of topics considered worthy of coverage by mass media is one of the most subtle devices employed for forming people’s ethical imaginations and determining public opinion.

The Fathers of the Church can provide eminent guidance for the Church in this aspect of the new evangelization, precisely because they were masters of the art of rhetoric. With their rhetorical formation, which, for many of them, constituted the best training available in the late ancient world, the Church Fathers offered a formidable response to those non-Christian and anti-Christian literary and rhetorical forces at work throughout the Roman Empire in shaping the religious and ethical imaginations of the day. The Confessions of St Augustine with its central image of the cor inquietum has shaped the way that western Christians and non-Christians re-imagine the adventure of religious conversion. In his City of God, Augustine used the tale of Alexander the Great’s encounter with a captured pirate to ironize the supposed moral legitimacy of the Roman Empire. Church Fathers, among them John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Leo the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, were not great rhetoricians insofar as they were great preachers, they were great preachers because they were first great rhetoricians. In other words, their evangelizing was successful in great part because they understood the foundations of social communication appropriate to the world in which they lived. Consequently, they understood with enormous precision the techniques through which popular religious and ethical imaginations of their day were manipulated by the centers of secular power in that world.

In order to respond effectively to the dominance of the mass media over popular religious and moral imaginations, it is not sufficient for the Church to own its own television media or to sponsor religious films. The secular media will always be stronger in this field, and while it is vital that the Church be actively engaged in and with the media, we cannot successfully compete with the secular media. Moreover, the Church should resist the temptation to believe that it can compete with modern mass media by turning the sacred liturgy into spectacle. Here again, Church Fathers, such as Tertullian, remind us today that visual spectacle is the domain of the saeculum and that our proper mission is to introduce people to the nature of mystery as an antidote to spectacle. In his City of God, Augustine teaches that mystery focuses the imagination on the darkness surrounding death, specifically on the darkness of Christ’s crucifixion which St. Augustine saw echoed in the deaths of the Christian martyrs. Spectacle, on the other hand, with its companion features celebrity and heroism, offers people a false comfort by distracting the mind from its instinctive fear of death. Augustine saw this false comfort present in Roman theatre, sports events, secular festivals, and military honors. Augustine’s argument has relevance for modern culture, where these same ancient features of spectacle are amplified by modern media into false forms of celebrity and heroism. Secularism as an anti-Christian force depends upon the grasp that the media have upon contemporary culture and, consequently, upon religious and ethical imagination. As a consequence, evangelization in the modern world must find the appropriate means for redirecting public attention away from spectacle and into mystery.

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