Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Mining for Gospel Gold

For our young women in formation and for their directors, too, this has already been one busy summer. The week-long St. Paul Summer Program for teens in various stages of vocational discernment drew a record 24 participants. Last month our five postulants, in their two-year introduction to religious life, arrived from St. Louis for their Boston hiatus, which includes vacation, annual retreat, classes, and internship in some very lucky departments of the Pauline Books & Media publishing house. As part of our twinning with Mexico, Julia Yanez, a Mexican postulant, is studying English, and will enter the novitiate program in September with three of the U.S. postulants. At the end of the month Carly Arcella and Chelsea Moxley will return to St. Louis for their second year of formation.

Part of the postulants’ year marked a first for us, too: It was the first time our postulants were able to go to Culver City (Los Angeles) to participate in the course for an advanced certification in media literacy education that Sr. Rose Pacatte offers at the Pauline Center for Media Studies (PCMS). This was made possible by the Dan Murphy Foundation in L.A., which regularly subsidizes speakers and materials for the course, as well as by the Outreach Trust Fund, administered by St. Mary Seminary, Wickliffe, OH. That’s the seminary for the diocese of Cleveland.

Among its interests, the Outreach Trust Fund supports “the promotion of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, with a special concern for the needs of minority groups.” It also reaches out to “the social needs of the larger diocesan community.” Because of the intimate connection between media and the social condition everywhere, the fund’s committee chose to invest in the course.

It didn’t hurt that one of the postulants, Sandy Lucas, is from Cleveland. Or that Cleveland’s Bishop Lennon, who approves the funding projects, served our Boston community for nine years as chaplain. But there was more to the decision than that. Fr. Donald Dunson, who endorsed the proposal for the postulants, told the committee, “This is a wonderful way to connect our school with a community that served this diocese for so many years”—almost 40, until 2002. We still go back at least annually now, to put on a Christmas concert at St. John’s Cathedral, and religious stores in the area stock our materials. Did I mention that Fr. Dunson and I were classmates in the seventh and eighth grades after my father was transferred to the city way back when? We Daughters definitely cherish our Cleveland connections.

Carly and Sandy
Sandy was excited about going to Los Angeles. It was, as she said, the farthest west she had ever been. She also felt she had no formal training in media before she joined us; she had had a career in law. So she was looking forward to learning, especially since in January Sr. Marie Paul Curley had introduced the postulants to media spirituality. “She whetted my appetite for more,” Sandy said. “I wanted to learn the basics. I was hoping for a practical application. The exit project we did helped with that. I knew that if I’d be speaking to a group, I’d be able to explain media literacy to other people. The course was geared to that. It’s designed for catechists, who need to be able to explain it.”

Carly, instead, had been a broadcast major in college. So the background offered in the media literacy (ML) course was familiar territory: “I wanted to integrate what I already knew with my faith and begin looking at media from a different perspective.” With that background, she was just as eager as Sandy to go out to California: “Being in LA was an amazing part of the experience with its pronounced attachment to the media culture.”

Our world, including every ethnic culture in the U.S.,  has largely been shaped by the communications media and is daily becoming more immersed in all forms of media. Business, politics, education, entertainment, and social relationships no longer exist apart from the media. As a result, even though in the new economic climate we all live in many people of every ethnic background have few resources at hand for “non-essentials,” the purchase of electronics and digital devices, as well as their content, has increased. Staying connected—and with current technology—is no longer seen as an extra, but as a need. The importance, therefore, of inculturating the Gospel within the current milieu created by the communications media is greater than ever, especially in view of the accessibility of social networking.

While the Daughters of St. Paul have been entrusted with this mission, we notice our own ongoing need to give media that same priority and acquire new skills that will equip us to, first, make media choices in harmony with our commitment to the Gospel, and second, to assist others to do the same within their media world. Sandy picked up on this. “It gave me a new lens to watch movies with and helped me develop a more critical thinking approach. I began being able to spot different things in a movie, a nugget of the Gospel.”

The media literacy education experience at the PCMS is unique. The 50-hour course awards an advanced certificate in media literacy education, which is accredited by four California dioceses for catechist and DRE formation, and has been attended by almost 86 clergy, religious, and laity from coast to coast since it began in 2007.

Participants learn how to analyze media texts and processes critically and apply the content across a variety of learning situations. They develop awareness of the experiences and opinions of those with whom they share faith, becoming co-learners. They learn how media function in relation to human emotions and how these shape attitudes in society. As Christians in front of the media and as evangelizers, that it, as ministers of the Gospel, they begin to acquire new respect for others, empathy, and a balance of freedom and responsibility.

The purpose of the course has been the training of educators, administrators, librarians, and parents, in view of integrating media mindfulness both within and across the curriculum and within faith formation in other educational and ethnic contexts. Even though our sisters don’t teach in a parish faith formation program, we’re constantly in contact with those who do. In addition, our publications and outreach programs for kids and teens always need to keep current with the world of these “digital natives” and their parents.

In view of this, the course introduced the postulants to a deeper study of how to “read” different forms of media through a technique called “Media Mindfulness.” This mindfulness on the personal level is designed to spill over into mission: vocation presentations, Bible/movie nights, school book and media fairs, parish displays and presentations, and informed service to those who walk into our PBM centers. Especially in view of the tri-lingual (English, Spanish, and Portuguese) American continental project now underway among all our communities in the Western Hemisphere, such an approach has already been very helpful in the international collaboration among us. Sr. Rebecca Marie Hoffart, postulant director, said:
“From the beginning of their formation the postulants are encouraged to use the many forms of communications media that are available as tools of evangelization and we instill in them the freedom to be creative and zealous in the use of these means for the spread of the Gospel. Understanding how media is constructed and being able to seriously reflect on the meanings and messages presented by the media is imperative for carrying out our mission.”
"Lady Gaga Meets St. Paul"
Carly was ‘impressed with the well-roundedness of the course, with its variety of topics, and with the speakers.” Both she and Sandy loved two of the sessions best: actor Michael Harney’s “Art and Vocation,” on the craft of acting and living in the present moment, and Sr. Nancy M. Usselmann’s “Lady Gaga Meets St. Paul,” on music and popular culture. They said: “[Sr. Nancy’s] class explained the dialogue between music and Word of God, especially how the lyrics contrast with Paul’s message. The great thing about the presentation was the way it answered the question: ‘What does Paul offer in response to what Lady Gaga is crying out for?’ She is the voice of her generation, and it’s important to hear her, even if we don’t agree with what she’s saying. We have to understand where it’s coming from.”

When I asked them why this is important to them and to all Daughters of St. Paul, Carly answered, “It’s so important to be in touch, to know people’s needs and hungers and know how to respond with the message of Christ.” Sandy added, “We can’t presume to know where people are coming from. We have to listen to what they have to tell us.”

In case you were wondering, these five young women and Sr. Rebecca didn’t just sit back and absorb. Part of their learning came through doing. Each was responsible for designing an exit project and presenting it to the group. This gave evidence of how she integrated learning and experience, previous and new. Further, it demonstrated how the postulant internalized the Church’s understanding of human dignity, community, family, and society. These are consistent with the principles of social teaching articulated most recently by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, notably in documents and messages regarding the media. I know from having taken the course, that the pressure is on at this point, also because we’re trying to beat the clock. The consolidation is an important aspect of the learning experience, though, and I was able to use what I prepared in a presentation to seminarians and catechists in San Antonio the following year. I have no doubt these bright young women will do even more. As a deacon-participant from Fremont, CA, wrote:
“This is a course you can’t afford to miss!  Media needs to be embedded in our evangelization….Teachers know the merits of a lesson plan that instructs through multiple intelligences. This course unlocks the tools that are embedded in media-rich lesson plans, tools that you can use immediately.”
Both Sr. Rebecca and the postulants hope we can find ways of including it on a permanent basis in the postulant formation program. Lack of funding is the greatest challenge here. Making it always more relevant to life and mission is a cakewalk by comparison. Sandy summed up everyone’s wish: “I hope every Daughter of St. Paul would have a chance for this early on, so we can continue to mine the culture as we go forward.” Carly gave the reason why: “Media are gifts of God. If we’re working so close to media, we don’t want to forget the tremendous good that they can offer.”

To me, the greatest challenge is this: broadening its appeal to religious communities beyond our own. Dedication to social justice and engaging in the “New Evangelization” cannot be done without reference to media, the cultural context in which the people—and evangelizers—of our time live, believe, pray, and relate. Including this in formation programs has become necessary, not only for us, but for clergy, religious, and all those who are entrusted with a mission to witness to Christ and his Gospel in our modern world. (Who isn’t?)

Media mindfulness doesn’t just “happen.” Like all areas of intentional living, it’s the result of a process of information, guidance, reflection, decision-making and experience. We cannot exclude media mindfulness from initial formation and reasonably hope that suddenly after ordination or profession, young priests and religious will magically have been infused with the tools and skills to be media responsible. Even more, with a little creativity and inspiration, we can easily imagine a ministry that speaks the language people understand. Media literacy is not a panacea for the Church’s rift with modern culture. Nor is communication a matter of simply using media to dazzle. It’s a matter of learning the art of communicating—and here we’re perpetual students—knowing that it’s not a one-way street, but for all of us a goldmine of “nuggets of the Gospel.”

Photo credit: Carly Arcella

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