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Interview With Pope Reveals His Communication Philosophy

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Interview With Pope Reveals His Communication Philosophy

Francis sat down with an expert in media and communication for a yearlong
series of interviews, those discussions offered some fascinating insight into
the pope’s philosophy of communication and suggested guidelines for the media.

The pope also explained what
motivates his signature style of spontaneously speaking and engaging with people, including the papal plane’s “lion’s den” of journalists, despite knowing the risks and slip-ups that might result.

“When I was a student, an old
Jesuit gave me this advice: ‘Listen up, if you want to get ahead, well, think
clearly and speak obscurely.’ But I’ve been trying to speak clearly,” the
pope told the book’s author, Dominique Wolton, who immediately noted, “Then
you must have run into many problems. …”

“Oh yes,” said the pope, “But I hate hypocrisy. If I can’t say something, I don’t say it.”

But the pope found plenty to say
to Wolton, who compiled the 12 interviews in the book, “Politique et
Societe” (“Politics and Society”). The publisher, Editions de l’Observatoire,
released the book in French Sept. 6 and was in the process of negotiating
English-language rights.

Wolton, a 70-year-old French
sociologist who specializes in communication, globalization and cultural
diversity, said he wanted to meet and talk shop with a man he sees as “one
as the most exceptional intellectual and religious figures in the world.”

As the author discovers, over time
with increased excitement, that many of his own views closely mirror those of
the pope — that the media must safeguard human dignity — he eagerly prods the
pope to speak out more and write an encyclical on the challenges culture and
technology pose to communication today.

“Maybe,” the pope replied, given that “there are very serious problems,” such as today’s
suppers in which family members are each plugged into their own device,
silently eating their meal.

Pope Francis said that, in his
experience, the media and communicators tend to “catch what suits them,”
and they are prone to the following four dangers:

— Disinformation, which offers
only some or partial facts and leads people to make mistaken judgments about

— Calumny and “tarnishing
others,” which, like the “Barber of Seville” says, builds from a
light wind into a destructive storm.

— Defamation by publicizing a
repentant, reformed person’s past mistakes in order to undermine his or her

— A “sad, unpleasant, nasty
disease” of “wallowing in the most risque, vicious and voyeuristic
stories and references” possible.

However, “It is possible to
do good things,” he said, offering a multitude of suggestions and guidelines.
Real communication, he said, requires:

— Being able to “waste”
time by giving it freely. A priest, for example, who is too busy to be available and talk, is “anti-communication and anti-Gospel.” Jesus
was always very busy, but he never saw requests as a bother and always insisted
on helping.

— Humility, because it takes
humility to be able to listen to people, and it opens the door to communication
by creating a sense of being on equal footing. “If you want to communicate
only from the top down, you will fail.”

— Never seeing people as
adjectives, but speaking to them as “nouns,” as a man, a woman, a human being. Finding things in common to talk about and listening with respect despite different points of view.

— “Joy and lightness,”
because it’s not enough to tell the truth if a text or discourse is “terribly

— Building a bridge by shaking
hands, hugging, crying, eating, drinking together. In Argentina when people
want to talk, they say, “Let’s get a coffee,” because real communication cannot happen “without making a bridge, and without eating.
Words alone are not enough.”

— “Rediscovering the sense
of touch,” because it is the most important of the five senses. “Perfect communication” doesn’t require the latest technology, it can be just giving a hand or a kiss “without words.”

— Building relationships with
concrete gestures of charity, which is why “the church communicates best
when it does so with the poor and the sick,” when it is following the path
of the beatitudes. “It is very interesting, communication is at work in
the beatitudes. If you read them carefully, these are also the rules for better

Pope Francis said that the best
communicator of all is God, because communication requires moving outward and
toward others.

“He communicates by showing a
path for his people” to escape slavery and “God communicates by
lowering himself” in Jesus Christ, he said.

“Because man is made in God’s
image, he must lower himself for there to be true communication,” to be “on
par with another,” not because the other is inferior, but as “an act
of humility, of freedom.”

This free outpouring of words and “primordial
gestures” means that “communication always has something messy about it. Deep down, it increases spontaneity,” he said.

When asked whether he was worried
his fondness for speaking informally and off-the-cuff so much posed any risks
to his official pronouncements or his credibility, the pope said, “I
believe prudence is necessary, not ‘cold’ prudence,” but just enough to
know “how far we should go.”

But he said, “I myself have
made mistakes. I was wrong two or three times in the way I said things” on
the plane with journalists.

“The plane is dangerous,”
Wolton replied, because the journalists are “looking for what is
forbidden. They like that.”

“What I can say, I say. And
some are appalled, that is true,” the pope said.

Asked whether knowing whatever he
says will go global caused him any distress, the pope said while he does not
feel anxious, “there’s a lot of pressure.”

“When I get on the plane with
the journalists I feel as if I am descending into the lion’s den. And I begin
by praying, then I try to be very clear,” but there have been some “missteps,”
he said, without specifying what.

The pope’s vision of communication
parallels his overall vision of always needing to be in movement, meeting
others, opening doors, sometimes taking wrong turns, but always walking,
because a person who is not on a journey “is a mummy, a museum piece.”

“It’s hard to communicate,
but we communicate despite it all. I say this because we must not reject people
who are on the move, since it would be to reject communication.”

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