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November 22, 2011
The meaning of silence in a media age
By Russell Shaw *

By Russell Shaw *

I have to admit that it really didn’t impress me very favorably the first time I read it: “Silence and Word: Path of Evangelization”—that will be the theme of next May’s World Day for Social Communications, the Vatican announcement said.
 
That’s really strange, I thought. After all, even as it stands World Communications Day isn’t exactly a red-letter event in most people’s calendars, and giving it an obscure theme like that one is hardly calculated to help.
 
For those who may not know—and that’s probably quite a few people—World Communications Day is one of several annual “world days” sponsored by the Vatican to focus attention on particular issues and the apostolates of the Church: World Day of Peace, Mission Sunday, World Day of the Sick, and so on.

They generally don’t get a great deal of attention from the media or the public, but they do provide a measure of recognition from the Church for important causes. The World Communications Day has been on the list ever since Vatican Council II called for it almost a half-century ago.

But the theme chosen for 2012, with its emphasis on silence, struck me at first as passing strange. As I thought about it, though, it began to grow on me.

Spiritual writers have always stressed the importance of silence as a necessary setting for contemplative prayer. It’s virtually impossible after all to speak deeply to God and hear his reply in the midst of a constant racket. And that message may be more needed than ever today, when, as Pope Benedict remarked recently on a visit to a Carthusian monastery in Calabria, “some people are no longer able to bear silence and solitude for very long.”

This is true, but it’s also a familiar thought. Where the Communications Day theme adds a new twist is precisely in linking silence and communication. At first that may seem like an uncomfortable fit. But is it really? The brief Vatican statement announcing the theme puts it like this:

“In the thought of Benedict XVI, silence is not simply an antidote to the constant an unstoppable flow of information that characterizes society today, but rather a factor that is necessary for its integration. Silence, precisely because it favors discernment and reflection, can in fact be seen primarily as a means of welcoming the word.”

Now here is an interesting and important insight. In today’s media-saturated world, where all of us are at constant risk of inundation by the sheer quantity of communication, making sense of media requires regular cultivation of reflective silence to sort out all those incoming messages.

Which of the multitude of factoids constantly demanding my attention on the grounds of being “news” do I really need to notice? Which of the pundits night and day clamoring for my ear deserve to be taken seriously—and which do not? And—most important perhaps—have I taken trouble to weigh conflicting points of view or gone the easy route of hearing only those messages that reinforce my prejudices?

To judge from blog postings and letters to the editor, some people have mastered the art of being discerning, informed media consumers. But many haven’t, instead preferring slogans lifted from ideological sources to the hard work of silent study and analysis.

“Silence and the Word”—that theme for World Communications Day is onto something important. Put the media aside at some point during the day, settle down a bit, and just think. You might even find that you enjoy it.

Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books, including three novels and volumes on ethics and moral theology, the Catholic laity, clericalism, the abuse of secrecy in the Church, and other topics. He has also published thousands of articles in periodicals, among them The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, L’Osservatore Romano, America, Crisis, Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Reporter, and many others. From 1967-1987 he served as communications director for the U.S. Catholic bishops and from 1987-1997 was information director for the Knights of Columbus. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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