By David Gibson
June 25, 2009 - The church’s great communications challenge today is “to capture the attention, keep the interest of people who have so many places to turn,” Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., told the annual meeting in Philadelphia of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management.
Bishop Kicanas, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ vice president, was named coadjutor bishop of Tucson in 2001, becoming its bishop in 2003.
The church should not hesitate “to engage the modern digital technologies,” which “can be vehicles for communicating,” he said. Given recent advances in communications technology, he noted that people today Twitter and blog, they e-mail, use Skype, Blackberries and I-phones, and choose Facebook partners.
Still, “communication, while enhanced by technology, rests on the power of the message and the authenticity of the communicator,” Bishop Kicanas said. “Technology facilitates the fundamental desire” people have to communicate and engage one another.
With “effective communications” as its theme, the June 24-26 Leadership Roundtable meeting examined the potential of a new universe of communications for the church. Participants included Catholic bishops, educators, leaders in business, finance and philanthropy, and priests, sisters and lay leaders. “Effective communication is inseparable from effective leadership,” said Kerry Robinson, Roundtable executive director.
Bishop Kicanas told the meeting how much he enjoys theater and commented on its relevance for communicators. “Great actors and actresses communicate,” he said. “The language of theater needs to be crisp, punctuated with images and to resonate with feeling,” he noted.
Similar qualities are needed in effective church communications, Bishop Kicanas proposed. He said, “Abstract, theoretical, disembodied language has little place on the stage or for that matter from the pulpit or in most communication by the church.”
He cautioned, though, that “the greatest blow to the integrity of the church’s message and its effectiveness occurs when those who deliver that message are simply play-acting.”
Bishop Kicanas described himself as a blogger of sorts. The online “Monday Memo” he writes weekly to the Tucson Diocese is “presented as a kind of blog on our Web site and sent out to an e-mail readership,” he said.
The “Monday Memo” helps him “teach, inform and bring people’s attention to the good things happening in the diocese.” It amazes him “how many people respond,” but “people today want to be in the know,” he said. “We live in an information society, a mass media culture.”
Bishop Kicanas accented the importance of trust for effective communications. The church’s sexual abuse crisis “harmed far too many, but also damaged the church’s ability to communicate,” he said. Some judged the church hypocritical, “more concerned about its reputation than about children who were harmed. Some stopped listening.”
Thus, restoring trust became his goal in Tucson, “as it has for so many bishops in their dioceses,” he said.
And as the diocese emerged in 2005 from the bankruptcy protection it sought in 2004, Bishop Kicanas said he was “deeply moved …to hear [abuse] victims say to the media that they had been treated fairly and respectfully.” The church “embodied her message. They sensed the church cared,” he concluded.
At the time of the bankruptcy, Bishop Kicanas said the step was taken in the belief that it represented “the best opportunity for healing and for the just and fair compensation of those who suffered sexual abuse by workers for the church in our diocese.”
Another lesson learned from the bankruptcy was that “openness and transparency” are critical, Bishop Kicanas said in Philadelphia. He recalled struggling “mightily whether to put out information that was embarrassing, disturbing and potentially harmful for the church.”
But “there are no secrets in our cell-phone, Internet world,” Bishop Kicanas stated. “It was best and right to get out the story as it was. That alone could heal. Tell the truth.”
People today live “in a concrete world” where they “hope to find some deeper meaning, Bishop Kicanas remarked. He believes the church “holds that meaning, but it must be communicated.”
However, “we need to grow more comfortable and skilled” at communicating with a world that has little patience for “the abstract theoretical language which we are accustomed to speak,” he advised.
Bishop Kicanas urged the Leadership Roundtable to “help the church at every level to acquire and become proficient in communications and information technology” and to help it “develop interactive forms of communication that engage others, especially the young.”
But conversion “underlies communication of the word and makes that communication convincing,” he said. The type of communication that “influences, convinces, changes lives” has to begin “by taking on the person of Christ.”