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VATICAN LETTER Nov-5-2010 (900 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Less is more: Vatican meeting cuts the speeches

Many Vatican meetings are dominated by delivery of texts by speakers. (CNS/ L'Osservatore Romano)

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- By Vatican standards, it's a small revolution: A pontifical council is holding a major assembly without prepared speeches.

Participants in the Pontifical Council for Culture's mid-November plenary meeting have been told to prepare for free discussion instead. The main theme of the encounter is communication, and someone decided that the old model -- hours of reading prepared texts -- just wasn't working anymore.

Those who have sat through Vatican meetings will appreciate just how radical this innovation really is. Reading speeches has been the main activity at Roman Curia assemblies for as long as anyone can remember.

There is no prize for brevity, either. Being long-winded is a point of pride at these encounters: The feeling among speakers is that if you don't go overtime, you shouldn't really be on the rostrum.

For years, outside participants, especially those from the United States, have quietly complained that such overly structured snoozefests left little or no time for real discussion. Their protests are now being taken seriously, aided in part by the digital media explosion.

Perhaps someone simply took a look around the room: At one recent Vatican meeting, as officials read their speeches, many in the audience were texting or working on their mini-laptops.

Archbishop Claudio Celli's Pontifical Council for Social Communications recently began looking seriously at the issue of language and made it the theme of its next plenary meeting in 2011.

Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the communications council, fired an opening salvo in an article earlier this year. He said bluntly that the church relies too much on texts, often using a vocabulary that is "unintelligible and off-putting" to its audiences.

Now the Pontifical Council for Culture has taken up the banner, too. Not only will written texts be absent, but its meeting is being moved out of the Vatican and into the public square -- to Rome's city hall, where guests from other walks of life, including the arts and business, have been invited to take part in the conversation.

The meeting will examine the characteristics of modern language and what makes it effective, including clarity, simplicity and interactivity. That almost guarantees self-criticism when it comes to traditional Vatican modes of communication.

"Our language often has little impact because it is very self-referencing. We have linguistic categories that are like code, and that are not understood on the outside," Cardinal-designate Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the culture council, said at a Vatican news conference Nov. 3.

Cardinal-designate Ravasi is an unlikely crusader for simple and concise expression. He has the gift of verbosity, and while his linguistic displays of intellect have impressed many, others find it heavy going. Nevertheless, he understands, as he put it, that a "radical shift" is occurring in communication, especially among young people, and that the church cannot afford to ignore it.

The news conference was unusual: Participants did not read speeches but spoke off the cuff -- presumably practicing for their plenary assembly.

Richard Rouse, an official of the culture council, outlined the characteristics of what he called the "grammar of our culture." The digital age is increasingly marked by a dialogue model that favors speed, brevity, efficiency, interactivity and a convergence of image, text and sound, he said. In this context, there are naturally problems with the "informative monologue" model that often characterizes the church's approach.

Rouse said the church is not ready to drop its traditional language of parables, metaphors and symbols, but needs to add new ways to reach younger generations.

Cardinal-designate Ravasi made clear that the church is not uncritically accepting of the new model of communication today. One major concern is the "virtual" nature of digital interaction.

"Our children no longer communicate with each other through the color and warmth of the skin, through voices and through physical encounter, but through the coldness, the iciness of the computer screen," he said.

When it comes to language, Pope Benedict XVI is an interesting figure. His love of the written word is well-known, and many of his sermons and speeches require study, not just a quick listen.

Yet the German pontiff can speak simply, too. Often his most direct and effective talks are with children, as he demonstrated in late October at a meeting with thousands of Italian young people.

The pope spoke from his own experience. He related that when he was young, he was one of the smallest boys in his class, and that made him want to do something big when he grew up. That "something big" became clearer when he entered into a friendship with Jesus, he said.

The pope frequently speaks to young people about friendship, because he knows how important those relationships are. He has also warned that the type of "friendship" promoted by the digital revolution is something different from real-life encounters in school, at work or at play, and that online communication can be obsessive, to the point of isolating young people.

And while the pope has spoken about the great possibilities computers have opened for the work of the church, his wariness is also apparent. He spelled it out for the Italian young people.

"Much of the 'love' proposed by the media or on the Internet is not love but selfishness, a closing-off of oneself. It gives you a momentary illusion, but it doesn't make you happy and doesn't help you grow up," he said.


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