Connected Toward Communion: An Interview with Daniella Zsupan-Jerome
Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome is assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans. She holds a bachelor’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame, a master’s degree in liturgy from St. John’s University in Collegeville, a master’s degree in religion and the arts from Yale Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in theology and education from Boston College.
Her research focuses on media and ministry, especially digital media and its potential for faith formation. She is a consultant for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Communication and has published a number of pastoral and devotional resources, including Liturgy Training Publication’s Daily Prayer 2013, Arts and Faith Advent and Lent from Loyola Press, and regularly contributing to Liturgical Press’ Give Us This Day series.
Today, I sit down with Daniella to discuss her newest book, a fascinating tour of the Church's teachings on media titled Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014).
BRANDON VOGT: In your new book, Connected toward Communion, you trace the Church's communication teachings from Inter Mirifica at Vatican II through modern teachings on social media. What are some of the most important documents in that span?
DR. DANIELLA ZSUPAN-JEROME: It is difficult to pick our just a few, because the documents really function together as a progression of thought on social communication. They build on each other, and reference one another. They form an ecology of thought on the topic, a reservoir for envisioning ministry, evangelization and being Church in our digital culture. Given this, there are a number of excellent entry points into the social communication documents and teachings of the Church.
I appreciate Communio et Progressio for the theological vision for communication it lays out. It offers the metaphor of Christ the Perfect Communicator as one that is immensely evocative for our digital culture. Along these lines, it talks about communication as a giving of self in love – a prophetic definition, especially as we observe the prevalence of verbal violence in our digital culture.
I am inspired by St. John Paul II’s final Apostolic Letter: The Rapid Development. It is theologically rich, culturally aware, pastorally wise and ends with his famous, inspiring exhortation: Do not be afraid.
I continue to be engaged by the World Communication Day Messages as carriers of the conversation on social communication into our digital age. These are brief but profound annual statements and have been able to focus on specific topics with theological depth and pastoral relevance.
BRANDON: These documents bear the fingerprints of many people: popes, bishops, communications experts, theologians, and more. Among their varied backgrounds and emphases, do you detect any common principles?
DANIELLA: There are two important threads, one building on the other.
First is the consistently constructive approach to media, intentionally envisioning the ways that these means of social communication can be used for the good. When Pope Francis spoke about the Internet as a "gift from God" in his 2014 World Communications Day Message, he was expressing this constructive approach, present in the social communications documents since the beginning. The Church is calling us here to engage the media, and now more broadly our digital culture, with openness, appreciation, creativity and an eye toward how authentic communication can emerge in and through these means.
This leads to the second thread, focusing on authentic communication. In his same 2014 message, Pope Francis uses the phrase true encounter to envision this. The social communication documents place communication on a trajectory, from connection to communication to community and then ultimately communion. Authentic communication is one that intentionally locates itself on this trajectory, on the path of moving toward communion. This kind of communication in our digital age is such that it seeks true encounter with the other as a person behind the screen; even if we are texting or connecting on social media. Out gadgets connect us but our screens can make us forget that on the other side there is another person there, a full, embodied complex human being. Communication toward communion keeps this in mind and forges true encounter.
BRANDON: Much of your book focuses on ministerial formation for the digital age. In particular, you cover three levels of training: Basic, Pastoral, and Expert. Can you describe these three levels and how the Church should form leaders in each of them?
DANIELLA: The three levels of training named here come from the 1986 document "Guide to the Training of Future Priests Concerning the Instruments of Social Communication." In Connected Toward Communion I describe how the Guide envisions these, while also exploring how these three levels speak to the reality of ministerial formation thirty years later in our present day. In 1986, training focused on three levels of increasingly specific media skills for ministry, starting with the basic facility to interpret media to pastoral facility to use it in ministry to ultimately yielding a small category of expert ministers who were media professionals.
In our present day, we all still need the basic facility to interpret media, now called digital media literacy. However, the category of who is an expert or a public communicator is shifting and broadening. The Internet has granted a public communications platform to anyone with access to a network and a gadget. It is an increasing responsibility of the Church to form pastoral ministers to be expert communicators even if they are not serving as a professional communicator in broadcast media. A new and more pervasive communication expertise has emerged around how to foster a public presence on the Internet in and through ministry. This is an expertise that is shared by all who carry out ministry in and through our digital culture – we all have a public voice and presence on this platform.
BRANDON: You admit that, "The topic of social communication can be a daunting one for pastoral workers and theological thinkers." In addition, many Catholics are just plain skeptical of the Internet. How would you respond to this fear and distrust?
DANIELLA: Our digital culture is marked by the ethos that technology moves much faster than people. It is overwhelming to keep up with it and seems impossible to get ahead of it. Innovation is one of our culture's core values, leaving us in this dynamic context to always feel one step behind. Those in ministry, already busy with its many demands, may find themselves sensing that the digital culture is important but feeling overwhelmed by what it takes to keep up with it and engage in it effectively. Others may be turned off by the violent language, pornography, consumerism, threat to privacy or simply the endless sources of distraction present to us online.
The sense of overwhelm and the negative aspects of digital culture are all true. Yet, there seems to me a deeply prophetic role here for Christians when it comes to digital culture. Christians are communicators of the Word, evangelizers call to proclaim the Good News since the inception of the Church. Our digital culture is thoroughly imbued by communication, and as such we cannot but take it seriously and to find our role in it as evangelizers. For me, St. John Paul II’s closing words from The Rapid Development are deeply inspiring:
To those working in communication, especially to believers involved in this important field of society, I extend the invitation which, from the beginning of my ministry as Pastor of the Universal Church, I have wished to express to the entire world “Do not be afraid!” Do not be afraid of new technologies! These rank “among the marvelous things” – inter mirifica – which God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use and to make known the truth, also the truth about our dignity and about our destiny as his children, heirs of his eternal Kingdom." (14)
I believe The Rapid Development was St. John Paul II’s last document. To end his last document with these closing words leaves us with encouragement as well as a powerful prophetic call. These are Pentecost words to move us from the upper room to engage culture today with the Good News in new ways people can understand.
BRANDON: Suppose Pope Francis handed you a microphone and asked you to address the whole Church on the issue of social communications, using just a few sentences. What would you say?
DANIELLA: First, since he is handing me a microphone, I would thank Pope Francis for his ardor, methods and expressions to share the joy of the Gospel in our digital age. He has taken on the smell of the digital sheep with selfies, tweets, iPhone videos and Google Hangouts, being a true bride builder between faith and culture.
Second, I would call us all back to the image of Mary, who said yes to the Word becoming flesh within her. Mary, true communicator, gave the gift of herself in love so that the Word within her may dwell among us and give us life. Carrying the life-giving word of Christ, the Good News, is our task as Church in our digital age. Mary, teach us to say yes.
On Tuesday, December 2nd, the Loyola Institute for Ministry at Loyola New Orleans is hosting a hybrid book launch in celebration of Connected Toward Communion. The launch will be accessible via webinar; please visit http://calendar.loyno.edu/