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Popularity Contest?

In our times, "knowledge" is seemingly accessible everywhere. Communications are instantaneous and, so it seems, are increasingly made without pause or reflection. For the seminarian reportedly defamed by the Irish broadsheets, the consequences of this state of affairs are all too real. Recently published apologies acknowledge that what was once considered good copy was in fact untrue. It is said that the first to identify the untruth was an Irish Catholic publication. Whether this was the case, or not, the episode serves as a cautionary tale as to the prudence required before feeding upon any journalistic text as though it enjoyed the certitude of scripture.

Nonetheless, the faithful of one diocese may have considered journalistic licence was also at work in the reporting of a bishop elect strutting his stuff with a dance group in an Irish City. For some, such conduct will be seen as the sign of a new era; one in which the episcopate is "up to date", "relevant" and "effective". For others, such behaviour might be considered unbecoming; the very thought of prelate pirouettes being most unseemly. Those who are parents are more likely to 'wince'; recalling the occasions when they have unsuccessfully failed to 'get down with' the children; to the mortifying embarrassment of all concerned.

No matter how such conduct is perceived, both the incident in question and the media's coverage of it, provide cause for reflection.

In an ecclesial context, the immediacy of media coverage and the cult of celebrity can serve up a heady cocktail; one as intoxicating as it is stupefying. In such a climate, it might be thought that modesty requires a more nuanced approach to communication; an approach which affirms the message without undermining either the messenger, or, the office which he occupies.

Sobriety takes many forms. However, experience has shown that there is nothing more sobering than the realisation that what seemed a good idea at the time, wasn't.

Today's gospel for the solemnity of St Peter and Paul reports the dialogue between Christ and the apostles: "Who do people say I am?" he asks. There is no denying the fact that in our own times, there is a far greater emphasis upon the "what" rather than the "who". To the modern observer, what I am, what I own, what I earn are all determinants of my value. They serve as indices for endorsement or displeasure. They provide all that is necessary to engender loyalty or enlist support.

In contrast, St John Paul II was wont to describe the role of the pastor as one who was called to communicate the love and salvation of Christ "in and out of season". It may be thought that the most effective means of discharging this responsibility is to provide society with a much needed counter-narrative. After all, the Church's understanding of the human person not only corroborates the value and dignity of every human life, but also leaves us in no doubt that the fundamental vocation of each person is to respond to the universal call to holiness. The character which St John Paul II clearly had in mind was one who bore witness to his dedication to others by his conduct; laying before them what their salvation required rather than what their preference demanded.

So what of the media? A priest may for very good reason ask "who do people say I am". However, given his irreplaceable role in the salvation of those entrusted to him, the question ought to take the form of a self-direction; reminding him of his own purpose and mission. Such a self-direction will necessarily keep in mind the assurance of Luke 6:22:

"Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil. on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy..."

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