UK Catholics Learn Media Skills Ahead of Papal Visit


  • Category:

LONDON, FEB. 3, 2010 ( If you've read the news this week, you've probably seen that Benedict XVI is against equality in England -- or that's what it sounds like.

The Pope's address Monday to bishops of England and Wales in Rome for their five-yearly visit generated news that the Holy Father was "swiping" and "attacking" a U.K. equality law.

In truth, he spoke about natural law and the freedom of religious groups to act according to their beliefs. Homosexual rights activists expressed chagrin, and the headlines reflected their opinions.

This kind of press response is precisely what the initiative "Catholic Voices" of the Catholic Union of Great Britain will try to head off when the Holy Father visits the United Kingdom in September.

It will be "an 'authoritative but unofficial' bureau of media-trained and well-briefed Catholic speakers," prepared to speak to the press about what the Pope is really saying and other related themes.

Ready for the spotlight

Around 25 people will be trained with twice-monthly briefing sessions imparted by "experts on contentious issues likely to come under the spotlight during the papal visit," a statement from the group announced. "They will also receive three day-long media skills training sessions during those months, and conclude their formation with a residential retreat at Worth Abbey in the summer."

Catholic Voices is independent of the bishops' conference, but approved by it.

The president of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, Lord Daniel Brennan, and the abbot of Worth, Christopher Jamison, are the project's patrons.

The project communiqué noted that the Holy Father had another message Monday that didn't make the news.

He called on bishops to "insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society" and "to draw on the considerable gifts of the lay faithful in England and Wales and see that they are equipped to hand on the faith to new generations comprehensively, accurately, and with a keen awareness that in so doing they are playing their part in the Church's mission."

According to Abbot Jamison, "Pope Benedict's address to our bishops in Rome show how important and necessary this project is."

Via media

Catholic Voices will not be setting out onto uncharted waters.

Jack Valero and Austen Ivereigh will coordinate the project, together with Kathleen Griffin, a former BBC producer and experienced media trainer.

Valero and Ivereigh already coordinated a similar project: the Da Vinci Code Response Group.

"The Da Vinci Code Response Group generated positive coverage of the Church from the unpromising start of a grossly misleading novel. This shows what is possible provided that you avoid defensive aggression on the one hand and naive enthusiasm on the other," Abbot Christopher said.

According to Lord Brennan, the Catholic Voices team will be a "good mixture": "Some might have a particular knowledge or expertise, but we are looking mostly for fresh faces, people who are willing to be trained in how to put across their views in the quick-fire settings of media interviews and debates."

And the project has taken on a mission statement from someone who promises to be a star of the papal visit: Cardinal John Henry Newman, expected to be beatified by the Pope while he is England.

Catholic Voices has espoused Cardinal Newman's desire for "a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men [and women] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it. I want an intelligent, well-instructed laity -- I wish [...] to enlarge [their] knowledge, to cultivate [their] reason, to get an insight into the relation of truth to truth, to learn to view things as they are, to understand how faith and reason stand to each other, what are the bases and principles of Catholicism."