7 Sep

2018 Communications Congress Keynote: Communicating Hope to a Despairing World

Address by Catholic News Service Director Greg Erlandson at the Australasian Catholic Communications Congress in Brisbane, 5 September 2018. 

Thank you for this great honour of speaking with you at this Australian Catholic Communications Congress.

The title we gave this talk many months ago was “communicating hope to a despairing world.” Given many events of the past year, I have wondered if it might have better been titled “communicating hope to a despairing Church.”

At a time when the world needs the saving message of the Gospel more than ever, at a time when division, greed, and a pervading sense of spiritual drift, if not hopelessness, are afflicting our world, the Church seems paralysed by its own crises.

And at a time when we have a Pope who, from the first days of his pontificate, has encouraged the Church to take risks rather than to turn inward, we have turned inward, beset by scandal, by polarisation, by our own doubts and divisions.

We are in the upper room once again, behind closed doors, fearful, distrusting, waiting.

Outside our doors, the world finds itself at a crossroads. Statisticians of the factoid tell us that human knowledge is now doubling every year. All of our mighty progress has made some of us richer, healthier and, God knows, more entertained than ever before. And yet there is a profound unease afoot.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Since the dawn of the industrial age, secular society has adopted the creed that salvation would come from science and technology. Hope would be found in man’s mastery of the world, not in the hocus pocus of the priests.

Science has given us the power of the atom. Now we are subject to the threats and blackmail of rogue states. The risk of nuclear conflict grows the further we get from that memento mori called Hiroshima.

Technology brought us massive economies fuelled by energy production and voracious consumers. Now we face the reality of climate change. The physical world rises up against us, as if we were an invasive species that needs eradication by storm and drought and fire.

Science (or at least scientism) was supposed to replace religion, but something else is happening. In a book titled Bad Advice: Why Celebrities, Politicians and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information, Dr. Paul Offit decries “celebrity science,” where Hollywood starlets and crackpot articles on the Internet are given more credence than doctors and scientists. He concludes his book by saying: “I worry that in the age of anti-enlightenment, when science seems to be losing its place as a source of truth, we won’t be able to do [science] for much longer.”

Communism collapsed from the weight of its illusions, and capitalism is triumphant. Now we face growing wealth gaps within and between rich and poor nations, cruel exploitation and neglect of those who produce all the products we consume and discard. The economic tools and levers manipulated by the powerful serve their own interests, their complexity resistant to supervision – too big to fail until they do.

Democratic institutions were offered as a model for the world, but there is a growing impatience with the ability of modern politicians to address problems in an equitable and effective manner. Those who feel marginalized are turning to populist, nationalist, even anti-democratic movements on both the left and the right. Increasingly voters look for outsiders, white knights untainted by political compromises. Untethered to the traditional constraints of the political vocation, yet with access to the power of the state, these “saviors” turn authoritarian and corrupt, begetting further cynicism.

The Internet has entwined us in a 24/7 web of information. Now we find ourselves battling fake news and increasingly sophisticated tools of marketing and propaganda. Social media offered unparalleled connectivity, and we find ourselves face down in our devices, increasingly unable to see what is around us because of what is virtually in front of us.

And everywhere people are being displaced: migrants driven by economic need. Refugees driven by famine and war and failed social institutions. As the earth becomes hotter and less hospitable, as water resources become more scarce, National Geographic says that half of all the species on earth are on the move.

In the increasingly squeezed middle classes, there is a growing sense that our children and our children’s children will not enjoy the benefits that we have enjoyed. That their financial security will be less stable. That even their health may be worse.

In the United States, life expectancy rates for black men and women have always lagged whites. For the first time in decades, however, life expectancy rates for whites are stagnant or in decline. Researchers studying the rising death rates from suicide, drugs and alcohol for middle-aged white men and women describe the phenomenon as “deaths of despair.” Mortality rates that have been going down for the past century are suddenly reversing.

The researchers who are tracking this phenomenon explain it this way. “These deaths of despair have been accompanied by reduced labor force participation, reduced marriage rates, increases in reports of poor health and poor mental health.” As labor markets shrink in manufacturing, farming and other economic sectors, the undereducated and underemployed become less able to form stable marriages or function in stable communities.

Much of this has been predicted. The social scientist James Q. Wilson in 1997 described the “two nations” of America, with the nexus of division being the family: Do you come from an intact family or not. He described the impact on young men “unhabituated to responsibility and protecting others.” Mary Eberstadt, reporting on Wilson’s findings 20 years later, said that he demonstrated that family structure, “had become more important to positive outcomes than race, income, or one’s station at birth.”

The result of all this despair is an obsession with death. On the one hand, it is feared: We look for the perfect diets and work out routines and technologies to postpone it as long as possible. And at the same time, we turn to death as a solution for the persistently inconvenient. Euthanasia. Abortion. Infanticide. Suicide – physician-assisted or do it yourself – is growing. We are in some ways our own zombie apocalypse.


Accompanying this existential drift is a growing distrust of our institutions. “We live in an era of diminished trust and heightened cynicism,” wrote Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Breunig. “It is hard, now, to imagine someone expressing unqualified faith in government, the media, business – or even, for that matter, religious institutions.” Indeed, opiates, not churches, today are likely to be the opiates of the masses.

Churches that have done u-turns to accommodate modern mores are even less successful at attracting adherents than churches emphasizing traditional morality – but those aren’t doing well either. Mass attendance and sacramental practice are in decline in developed countries. Evangelical mega-churches face the challenge of churn: while many come in the front door, often just as many are leaving by the back door. Atheism gathers more believers, but the fastest growing segment are the “nones,” those with no religious affiliation.

All of this is impacting the Catholic Church, but our most grievous wounds come at our own hands.

You all know the purgatory that is being experienced by the Australian Church. The Royal Commission report and now the response. A convicted bishop under house arrest. A cardinal on trial. A critical, even hostile media who fixate on Catholic sins. You are not alone. It has been happening elsewhere: Chile. Ireland. Canada. Germany. Honduras. The Church is a tempting target. But it also suffers from a plethora of “own goals,” self-inflicted wounds from corruption, abuse and failures of leadership.

Many months ago, when I was contemplating this talk, I felt I might have some optimistic Yankee wisdom to share. After all, the U.S. Catholic Church has been a trendsetter of sorts in this area. We had our first major sex abuse crisis in 1985. Then another one in 1992. And then a bigger one in 2002. To adapt a popular quote once attributed to Winston Churchill: The American Church can always be counted on to do the right thing, after it’s exhausted all the alternatives.

We started to do the right thing in 2002. We instituted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. We have spent more than $4.4 billion on treatment for victims and treatment for offenders, on legal settlements, on training programs for adults and children, on background checks of Catholic employees and volunteers.

Yet here we are in 2018 with a crisis that seems even worse than 2002. In the last three months, we had our audit committee bluntly chide U.S. bishops for a “general complacency” in following procedures they themselves had established. We’ve had a diocese that for years refused to participate in the audit process convulsed by a seminary scandal, a scandal that is now spreading. We learned the news that there were credible charges of child abuse concerning a retired but high-profile leader in our church, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Most recently, we’ve had an explosive grand jury report on six dioceses in Pennsylvania that excavated 70 years’ worth of allegations and cover ups and named 301 priests, deacons and church workers responsible for more than 1,000 victims.

In some ways, the McCarrick scandal could have been a testament to how procedures adopted by the U.S. Church have been successful. A former altar boy in the Archdiocese of New York filed a complaint about abuses that took place 47 years ago. The Archdiocese followed the procedures outlined in the Charter, investigated the allegations and announced to the world that it has found them “credible.”

Unfortunately, that report was accompanied by the admission of two dioceses that there were other complaints about McCarrick going back to the 1980s, two of which had resulted in payouts totalling $180,000 for alleged abuses of seminarians.  These were not children, but this was a clear abuse by a superior of those over whom he had authority. For God’s sake, many Catholics are asking, how did he become the cardinal archbishop of Washington?

And if all this was not enough, the New York Times then reported a new claim by a man who was the first child baptised by then-Father McCarrick after his ordination. This man alleges that he had been abused for almost 20 years, starting at age 11, despite the fact that his father was a close friend of McCarrick. Upon hearing this news, one columnist tweeted three words: “Millstone. Neck. Sea.”

Indeed, social media is a new factor in the current scandal: In 2002, social media was in its infancy. In 2018, it is driving much of the narrative, both megaphone and echo chamber. Its torrent of commentaries, petitions and breaking news items are circulating far too rapidly for sober analysis and discussion.

The anger among Catholics, especially Catholics who work for the Church or who have high levels of commitment and practice has been white hot, but it is conjoined with depression. “I woke up sad,” one colleague told me recently. “Then I remembered why.”

The abuse crisis in 2002 eventually morphed into an episcopal authority crisis, a point not always appreciated by episcopal authorities. In the 16 years since Boston exploded, a number of the bishops in charge at that time have retired or passed away. Their replacements occasionally sound a bit resentful that they are still tarred with the same brush.

But in 2018, the Pennsylvania and McCarrick revelations almost immediately became a narrative about the lack of trust in bishops. The rage is not just being felt by Catholic laity. Many priests are giving angry and tearful homilies decrying the latest round of scandal reports. Since 2002 priests have felt that they were the expendables: Cast off by zero tolerance rules, left without defense funds of any sort, and presumed guilty until they could prove otherwise. Now many are willing to criticise their own leadership from the pulpit.

What is so devastating about the scandals is the hypocrisy of both those who sinned by their actions and those who sinned by not acting to address those crimes forthrightly.

It didn’t help matters when Catholics realised that the 2002 Charter drafted by the bishops did not actually apply to bishops, only priests. There were canonical reasons for this, but it looked like the kind of self-serving loophole we’d expect from the U.S. Congress, not our Church leaders.

After the Pennsylvania report, Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the Church’s National Review Board that oversees the annual audit of charter compliance said of the bishops: “Their credibility is gone and the trust of the faithful is gone.”


So the world is in crisis and the Church is in crisis. In his 2007 encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict diagnosed our ill: “The present day crisis of faith…is essentially a crisis of Christian hope.” (SS17) But how does one communicate hope to another if one is feeling hopeless? It is the question I have struggled with these past weeks, locked in my own upper room of distrust and anger.

In an interview, Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila recently said: “When we look at the Scriptures, we realise that the theological virtue of hope blooms precisely in the most terrible of times.”

A priest recently told me that hope is when faith meets the darkness. We are sitting in the gloom of the upper room. Jesus is gone. The naysayers abound. As Psalm 69 says, “Those who sit in the gate gossip about me; drunkards (or late night comedians) make me the butt of songs.”

Yet the psalms are reminder that it has always been this way: In crisis, we turn to the Lord. For the same psalm goes on to say, “God, in your abundant kindness, answer me/ with your sure deliverance/ Rescue me from the mire,/ and do not let me sink.”

What Scripture reminds us, history confirms: The Church has faced many crises. Its faith has been tested. Its leaders shamed. Its people confused. People often cite the Renaissance as a time of epic corruption and leadership failure. From the ashes of its corruption rose Ignatius, Theresa of Avila and Francis de Sales. Or go back to the 11th century and St. Peter Damian, a reformer who challenged a sexually licentious and corrupt clergy and episcopacy, upbraided popes, and enlisted the help of the laity in his reforms. He became a doctor of the Church.

We have been here before. And Pope Benedict reminds us that because we are free, and because “freedom is always fragile,” it “must constantly be won over for the cause of good.” (SS24)

“Every generation,” he continued, “has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed.” (SS25)

What we are facing is a huge challenge. It is our challenge to be embraced. This mire we are sinking into serves one purpose, to turn us back to the Lord. If we are to bring hope to a despairing world, we must first participate in the renewal and purification of ourselves and our Church.


This reformation, this purification, starts with Christ. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis quotes his predecessor: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (EG7)

“Our hope is in the Lord,” and the person we must encounter is Jesus. Pope Benedict in Spe Salvi says that this encounter should change us. “Is the Christian faith also for us today a life-changing and life-sustaining hope,” he asks. “Is it a message which shapes our life in a new way,” or “is it just ‘information’” to later be replaced by “more recent ‘information?’” (SS10)

I find hope in the words of these two very different popes. Benedict and Francis both have foreseen in some way the storm that is upon us. Benedict identified today’s crisis of faith as “essentially a crisis of Christian hope.” Francis urges us to be courageous: “’Mere administration’ can no longer be enough,” Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (25). “Throughout the world, let us be ‘permanently in a state of mission.’”

If our faith is more than just rules and ritual, if we have made this encounter truly our own, then we become missionary witnesses whose lives testify to the power of Christian hope.

And it is in the testimony of witnesses that we find hope. The world is not in need of more polemicists and ideologues. It has no need for those who lecture them on their sins, particularly if the teacher is guilty of similar or worse sins. People “thirst for authenticity” and “call for evangelisers to speak of a God whom they themselves know and are familiar with.”(EG150) In a cynical and despairing world, this witness is the only one that is credible.  It is the missionary witness of Mother Teresa. Of Stanley Rother who was murdered because he refused to abandon his Guatemalan parishioners. Of your own Sister Mary MacKillop and of Caroline Chisholm, who in her time in Australia helped thousands of poor women and families as well as immigrants.

We have such witnesses today. “We must not forget, says Pope Francis, “how many Christians are giving their lives in love.” (EG76)

It is the encounter with Christ that produces witnesses, and it is witnesses who boldly unlock the door in the Upper room and go into the world with the Spirit of hope.

To communicate the saving hope that is our faith in Jesus Christ, we must start by renewing our own faith. Ordained and lay, we must start by renewing our own Church. For the world to hear our message, we must embrace our own need for reformation and purification. We must put away the comfortable trappings of a bourgeois Church, the compartmentalized life of weekly pietism. We must demand more of ourselves, our priests, our leaders. We must summon the saints.


For reform to take place, we must believe wholeheartedly that God will not, cannot, abandon us. Paul VI laid out the challenge that faced the Church 50 years ago, and faces it now:

“The Church must look with penetrating eyes within herself… This vivid and lively self-awareness inevitably leads to a comparison between the ideal image of the Church as Christ envisaged her and loved her as his holy and spotless bride, and the actual image which the Church presents to the world today… This is the source of the Church’s heroic and impatient struggle for renewal: The struggle to correct those flaws introduced by her members which her own self-examination, mirroring her exemplar, Christ, points out to her and condemns.” (EG26)

Perhaps now is when we see the promises of Vatican II, so fresh in the mind of Pope Paul when he wrote those words, bear fruit. Perhaps now is when we see the People of God, lay and ordained, recover their zeal, rejecting corruption and clericalism and the privatised trappings of a religion that has forgotten its mission.

Here is how we understand the missionary ideal of Pope Francis, a Church which, thus purified, becomes confident enough and fearless enough to set out for the deep, bringing a message of hope, which is a message of God’s love, to a hopeless world.


Reform and renewal of our Church and our world are intimately connected with the task and the vocation of communications. As communicators we play a vital role in how the Church “looks with penetrating eyes within herself,” and at the same time how the Church brings a message of hope to the faithful and the world.

Obviously, there are different roles for different communicators. Each of us, when talking to a neighbor, a family member, a person calling our parish, is a communicator. We represent the Church. For that moment of encounter we are the Church.

Communications or media affairs staff are charged with representing the positions of the Church as assertively and consistently as is appropriate. This too means many encounters with secular journalists, with politicians, and with the public. And here too we are the Church during this moment of encounter.

A bishop, pastor and catechist teach and inspire, speaking the truth with a loving kindness so as to bring as many as possible to experience the joy of the Gospel, and to represent authentically the God they serve. And here too we are the Church during this moment of encounter.

Finally, there is the journalist, the editor, the blogger – all who serve by reporting the news. We are not called to be propagandists or mouthpieces. We are called to honour our vocation as journalists first and foremost by a dedication to truth, to living out in daily labor our faith that “the truth will set us free.” We are the Church in this work we do.

Pope Francis in his 2018 World Day of Communications message calls for “a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans and sensational headlines. A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all especially those … who have no voice.”

This is a weighty responsibility, particularly at this time of great polarisation and division. Sometimes there are those in authority who are not pleased with what is being communicated. There are the political and the powerful who do not want the voiceless to be heard. There are many who view journalism solely through an ideological lens, and who equate works with which they disagree as disloyalty. All of this is more complicated if the journalist or editor in question is employed by a Church institution.

At times like these, we who toil in the print and digital fields can be unsure what best serves. We can be concerned that we will err. That we will be criticised unjustly or justly for what we’ve reported or what we have written.

Recently I was in Sweden, and I visited the town most associated with St. Bridget of Sweden, co-patroness of Europe and a most remarkable and holy wife, mother and foundress. In the Lutheran cathedral that was once the abbey church of her order, the Brigittines, I found this prayer of hers that seems worthwhile to make our prayer:

O Jesus, Son of God,

You who were silent

In the presence of Your accusers

Restrain my tongue

Until I find what I should say and how to say it.

Show me the way and make me ready to follow it.

It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward.

Answer my petition and show me the way.

I come to You as the wounded go to the doctor

In search of aid.


Give peace o Lord to my heart!


“It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward. Show me the way and make me ready to follow it.”

Written in the 14th century, today these words encourage us, challenge us, direct us. To the Lord we pray for the zeal and for the humility to serve the Church and her people.

The Church has long recognised the power of media, a power that has only grown with new technologies. In 1992, before social media, at the dawn of the Internet age, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications issued “Aetatis Novae” (“On Social Communications on the 20th Anniversary of Communio et Progressio”). It states: “The power of media extends to defining not only what people will think but even what they will think about. Reality, for man, is what the media recognizes as real; what media do not acknowledge seems of little importance.”

It goes on to urge that Christians “find ways to furnish the missing information to those deprived of it and also to give a voice to the voiceless.”


This remains a critically important task of Catholic media. Catholic media both provide that missing information to those deprived of it and give the Church its own voice. We know that whatever one thinks of the quality of the secular media, its coverage of the Church is uneven at best. At a time when Catholic leaders seek to engage the great issues of the day, their voices often barely rise above a whisper in the secular press. And just as unfortunately, most Catholics are like non-Catholics: That is, they get their information about the Church from non-Catholic media.

The Church needs its own voice to engage society and be heard in the public square. It needs a voice to inform Catholics about religious persecution or ethical conflicts, life and human dignity issues, social concerns such as the treatment of immigrant and refugees, or threats to the family. It needs a voice to tell the stories that are not being told, or not being told well, and it needs a voice to mobilise Catholics.

To have this credibility, however, and to play its own role in the Church’s renewal, Catholic media must be able to confront, and report on, the challenges that the Church is facing. It plays a critical role in the transparency and the truth-telling that is necessary if the Church is to regain its credibility with its own members and with society as a whole. In the United States, even with all the myriad scandals and the massive media coverage that has resulted, there are still diocesan editors that are being told to play down these events.

Such avoidance neuters the Catholic press, proclaiming its irrelevance both to its Catholic readers – who will surely diminish in number – and to society at large.

“Informing others means forming others,” Pope Francis said in his communications day message. Indeed, information is formation.

It is my belief that the Catholic press in particular and Catholic media in general remain the primary means of adult faith formation. The formation they provide is not the same as catechetics. It is not narrowly pedantic in intent, nor is it propagandistic. But in reporting on the world and in letting Catholic voices be heard unfiltered by secular media or the prevailing biases and values of the dominant culture, it plays a vital formative role more effective than any classroom. Today the Catholic press needs to be intentional in this role.

Catholic media not only informs and forms. It also is capable of inspiring.

It is often stories of faith that inspire us. The Gospel comes alive in stories. In the Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear the stories of the first followers of Jesus, and we seek to model our lives on them. When we see the shortcomings of Peter and the Lord’s forgiveness of his denials, we understand the mercy that is extended to us. When we hear the stories of the early Christian community – its idealism and its conflicts – we know that we are not so different.

Today, Catholic media can seek out the stories of Catholic laity at home and abroad who are modelling for their fellows what it is like to live the faith and fully engage the world. These stories can be found in our parishes and our lay movements, among those who struggle to live according to the Church’s teachings in a modern world, among those who care for the defenseless, the hidden saints and healing sinners.

These exemplars, these missionary witnesses of the power of faith will always be the most effective, eloquent means of communicating hope to a despairing world.

Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek is one of my favourite examples of such trust. For 23 years held captive in the Soviet Union. Lubianka prison. Labor camps. Banishment to Siberia.  In 1963 he returned to the United States. In the spiritual memoir of his journey, called “He Leadeth Me,” he recounts his moment of absolute despair when he had been broken by his interrogators in Lubianka. It was at that moment of near suicidal despair that he realised what God was asking of him.

“God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal. He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservations, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or seem to hesitate.  He was asking a complete gift of self, nothing held back. It demanded absolute faith: faith in God’s existence, in his providence, in his concern for the minutest detail, in his power to sustain me, and in his love protecting me. It meant losing the last hidden doubt, the ultimate fear that God will not be there to bear you up. It was something like that awful eternity between anxiety and belief when a child first leans back and lets go of all support whatever – only to find that the water truly holds him up and he can float motionless and totally relaxed.” (p.77)

For us as Christians, as for Father Ciszek, hope inextricably tied to our trust in the Lord. We trust that this is where God wants us to be. Right here. Right now. We trust that when we leave the upper room, descending those stairs into the tumult and dangers below, God is always with us, no matter what, as we communicate a Gospel of hope to a despairing world.

Thank you.

Greg Erlandson is Director and Editor in Chief of Catholic News Service

Image by Fiona Basile.