Have you ever seen a priest or Bishop being interviewed on TV and thought how badly they performed?
It’s not easy, being grilled on controversial topics, but sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s worth fronting up at all. Frankly, and frustratingly, some of our Church spokespeople seem to do more harm than good.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York recently appointed a woman as his first media relations officer who wasn’t from the clergy or religious life.
He trumpeted that it was “the best thing we ever did”, describing the lawyer and Princeton-graduate as “attractive, articulate and intelligent”.
Let’s be honest. Having attractive people to sell your case in the media helps. Having attractive, intelligent and articulate people is even better. But, in the case of the Catholic Church, do they have to be priests, bishops or nuns?
Not at all, says UK journalist and author Dr Austen Ivereigh (pictured above with his wife Linda) who, in 2010, started a group in the UK called “Catholic Voices” with Jack Valero, one of the leaders of Opus Dei in the UK.
Catholic Voices are ‘ordinary’ Catholic people – mums, dads, singles, accountants, lawyers, nurses and labourers – who have volunteered for a media training course, so they can present the Church’s message in TV and radio studios.
These media savvy men and women are the new faces of the Catholic Church on our screens and airwaves, acting as spokespeople on topics ranging from same sex marriage, sexual abuse by clergy, our new Pope – the list goes on.
Check out their website (www.catholicvoices.co.uk) and you’ll find a smorgasbord of people – who also seem to be “attractive, articulate and intelligent” – who form a lay army ready to go into battle on the latest Church controversy or debate.
The idea came in 2009 when Austen and Jack, over a pint of beer in a London pub, lamented how badly the Catholic Church performs in the media.
“In October that year there was a debate in London that ‘The Church is a force for good in the world’, but the result was devastating,” Austen explains.
“The more Catholics who spoke, the more people voted against them. It was a rout. We thought, why is it that Catholics are so bad at putting across what they really think about the major issues of the day?
“The visit of Pope Benedict had been announced for the following September and we thought that would be a disaster as well.”
Three years earlier, the pair had created a team of speakers – the “Da Vinci Code Response Group” – who they made available to the media to speak about the Church’s position about Dan Brown’s popular book.
“The media loved our positive, flexible and professional approach, so we thought, for the Pope’s visit, rather than have a bureau of experts, why not have a team of ordinary young-ish Catholics who we can train to understand the techniques of communication, so they can quickly respond to criticisms of the Church,” Austen explains.
A team of 25 people were trained over six months, and the results were impressive – hundreds of sharp TV and radio interviews with ordinary Catholics sharing their views of the Church in a positive way that people could understand. The Church started to do well in the media spotlight.
Now, just three years on, there are Catholic Voices projects in 10 countries worldwide, with a group just formed in Melbourne.
Austen says the key to success has been the participants’ enthusiasm (what he terms their ‘apostolic zeal’) plus the ‘method’ he and Jack teach which they call ‘reframing’.
“Basically, when people are angry or have an issue with the Church, it’s often because they have a positive value they hold dear, such as the dignity of people or tolerance, that they believe is being violated,” he explains.
“We have to understand that value, or the frame that society often puts on a question. We have to connect with it and affirm it. If we don’t, we just reinforce the idea that the Church is trying to impose its views, and some people will watch with a wry satisfaction.
“It’s all about being listened to. By acknowledging the underlying issues, we can open up the possibility of communicating, and then sharing the Church’s position. You should be able to quickly ‘reframe’ so that, within the first 40 seconds, you can open up the conversation.”
So what do these seasoned church communicators look for in the people they train as the public image of the Church?
“Basically, we want people who are happy in their faith and not angry that the Church is too conservative or too liberal,” Austen explains.
“People who are engaged with the world, who attend Mass, who trust the Church’s teachings and want to communicate them. They are people who share our frustration that that message often doesn’t get across.”
There’s been no shortage of ‘ordinary’ Catholics lining up for media school, believing they have a vocation to be Catholic communicators while also raising kids, doing the 9 to 5 grind, keeping a house and working out at the gym.
“Our object is to have our people ‘studio ready’, meaning they can carry off a really good, four minute, one-on-one interview with BBCNews 24 or something equivalent,” Austen says.
While Austen says there have been no major disasters or stuff-ups on air, he believes the ‘failures’ are the missed opportunities, when an interviewee has been unable to take control of the interview and seems caught in the crossfire.
So are ordinary Catholics better media talent than our priests and bishops?
While Austen stresses he doesn’t want to set up a ‘them and us’ scenario, he believes lay people are powerful in the media, because viewers are more able to relate to them.
“I think there was a certain truth to Cardinal Dolan’s funny remark that the era of the fat, balding Irish bishops in the media was over,” Austen says.
“Ordinary Catholics who are loyal to the Church but not working for it can be more credible because they’re not seen as having an interest in promoting the institution. We know our Church fails but we still love it and trust it. On some issues it’s good to have a lay person say, ‘Here’s why we turn up each week’, but there are other issues, like celibacy for example, where a priest’s direct testimony is called for.”
The Catholic Voices team are encouraged to be ‘real’ and share their personal stories, again so their audience can relate to them.
“On an issue like homosexuality, instead of saying something like, ‘The Church welcomes gay people’, it’s much better to say, ‘In my parish, I pray alongside gay people and together we run a food van for homeless people’,” Austen says.
“On the issue of condoms and AIDS in Africa, instead of citing statistics like the Church treats two thirds of all patients, it’s more powerful to say that, in every African village, you’ll find a nun working tirelessly to improve the lives of those families.”
The year 2010 was a big one for Austen. Not only was Catholic Voices launched, he also got married. He and his wife Linda, who works for Rio Tinto and often travels to Australia, attended the same church in London, and actually lived in the same street.
“After a lifetime of travelling, I married the girl on my street, and moved from no.5 to no.43a,” he laughs. Today they live in a thatched cottage in South Oxfordshire.
Catholic Voices has been an enormously satisfying project for Austen, 46, and Jack, who are amazed at how quickly it has grown. Austen says it’s a project for our times and one that is helping a Church in need.
And he’s delighted that Australia has come on board.
“The Australians seem to be better looking than our teams in the UK,” he jokes. “You’ve helped us raise the bar a few notches, and for that we’re extremely grateful!”