Hearing the Message

March 27, 2003
Hearing the Message
By Howie Mansfield
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Formation for Ministry workshop day draws laity to learn about new ministry areas

Communication should be easy in an age when mass media are everywhere. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, according to Danielle Cummings, diocesan director of communications. Cummings was the keynote speaker for the annual Formation for Ministry workshop day at Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School in Syracuse on March 22. She spoke on the topic “How Can They Hear Our Message? Communication Challenges in this Millennium,” explaining what effective communication is, why it’s difficult and how it can be better.

Each year, the Formation for Ministry office has three full-day workshops to inform individuals enrolled in the program about potential ministry areas. The day began with a Mass celebrated by Bishop James Moynihan. After the keynote address and lunch, participants heard presentations on parish business administration, catechetical, evangelization, family, liturgical, parish outreach, pastoral care, youth and respect life ministries.

Deacon Joe Daniszewski, diocesan director of Formation for Ministry, said over 130 people attended the event. “This is a unique opportunity, to have Danielle speak to the ministers. It’s nice to have the workshops later on in the day,” Deacon Daniszewski said. “It’s a day for the ministers to mingle with one another and see what they want to do in their own parish.”

Cummings used a mix of storytelling, anecdotes and scripture passages to get her own message across to the workshop attendees. She began by thanking participants for taking time out of their busy schedules for the workshop day. “You have committed yourself to learning about your ministry so you can be yet another helpful hand of our Roman Catholic Church. Your faith is very impressive and as a member of ‘our Church,’ I thank you for all you are doing,” said Cummings.

The first area of the presentation focused on the definition and importance of effective communication. “Simply stated, I believe effective communication is knowing your message and successfully relating it to your audience. Communication comes from ‘com’ meaning ‘with’ and ‘union’ meaning one. Communication is making one with sender and receiver, speaker and listening, writer and reader, producer and viewer, message and response,” Cummings said.

Referring to a book written by Father Miles Riley entitled Tell the Truth with Kindness, Cummings said that people should not communication using “one way media” but by engaging the person or people. “‘The effective communicator counts not heads but hearts: who was touched and how were they changed,’” Cummings quoted from Father Riley’s book.

One example Cummings used about communication was a recent call she received in her office. An individual called the communications office to tell Cummings she was not going to fulfill her Hope Appeal pledge because the bishop had not made a statement on the war with Iraq.

“I explained to her, ‘ Maam, actually he has said quite a bit about Iraq over the past three years and recently came out with a joint letter from him and Bishop Costello.’ The response: ‘I didn’t see it’ I explained it had been in every regional paper, was mailed to every parish and covered on the news. The response: ‘Didn’t see it,’” said Cummings. “The result of that conversation was we created a page on our website called ‘Seeking Peace — War on Iraq’ and it has an archival listing of statements about Iraq and peace. But that happens all the time about events, meetings and statements. Of course, it has the potential only to get worse in a time of crisis when so much information is coming at once — it is difficult to tell fact from fiction.”

Next, Cummings shared some of the challenges to effective communication. She said people must be aware of the challenges in order to develop strategies to be more effective communicators. “The majority of us have such fragmented lifestyles, it is difficult to even concentrate on hearing the message — our message. We must be in three places at once and there is almost a sense of pride when you can multi-task. I’ve come to really dislike that word,” noted Cummings. “What it says to me is your are not giving your all to that particular task. We have all become so busy, me included.”

The craziness of life gives people little time to share one’s faith, Cummings explained. In his book Seeds of Peace, William Shannon refers to Thomas Merton’s comments on diversion, she said. “‘Diversion means systemic and planned distraction. … Diversion means engagement in inane activities that benumb our humanness. It is the constant turning to superficial or meaningless actions as a way to avoid facing the true realities of human life,’” Cummings said. “I talk about this concept of diversion quite a bit during retreats with confirmation students. These distractions are often due to living in a media culture. It allows us at the click of a button to be in a chat room with all sorts of people we have never met.”

The comment which shocked most people in the audience was Cummings’ description of a survey she does with young people. She asks ninth and tenth graders what their favorite form of media is. “On average, the top form of media with 9th and 10th graders with whom I’ve talked is computer — Internet, e-mailing, instant messaging, etc. Music is definitely second. Get this, on average, the use is 8 to 10 hours a day with that one form of media. That’s 56 to 70 hours a week on computer alone,” she said. “I then ask them in a given week how often do you pray, think about God or talk about God with your friends. Most responded an hour in Church, a little bit at night. As ministers in the church, as parents, as siblings, we must be aware if our young people are being so distracted, how can they be grounded enough to hear the message.”

Cummings offered a number of practical suggestions to improve communication. She said listening is a good place to start. “The best way to learn who we are is a practice most of us do not take advantage of and that is silence. Merton, Shannon, Rohr and Nouwen — all of these great writers see the absolute necessity of silence. And Father Riley says, effective communication begins with listen. He reminds us that God gave you two ears and one mouth so you would spend twice as much time listening as speaking,” she said. Another suggestion was to be aware of the message one is conveying to others. “One of the best ways to ensure that they will want to hear your message is to go to where they are — be aware of all of the other distractions surrounding your constituency,” said Cummings said. Jesus faced many challenges in communicating His message, Cummings said. She said in challenging times, we must be proud of our church. “There is no better time to spread the Good News,” Cummings said. “Stand tall and be persistent. Stand up and be proud to be Catholic or Roman Catholic with a big R and big C.”

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