In an effort to equip future priests to better encounter the mass media, one seminary in Rome now provides a hands-on workshop in social communications.
“We need to be part of the world-wide conversation that is happening on social issues, on religion, on faith – and we can do that by being able to give educated and effective responses to the media when asked,” explained instructor Ashley Noronha in an interview with CNA Nov. 19.
The goal of Norohna's “Media Training for Priests” workshop, held at the North American College seminary in Rome, is to offer “an opportunity for young seminarians and also for priests to learn how to work well with the media: to manage tough interviews, to navigate crisis communications and to learn to better, more effectively spread the message of the Church.”
Recent participant Michel Niemczak, a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico, described it to CNA as “an attempt to introduce us into the world of media relations and to see how we can evangelize, bring this good news of the Gospel to the world – the secular world as well as the Catholics who maybe don’t know what’s going on in our diocese.”
The workshop is offered in three sessions which move from basic lessons on media communications to practice interviews in front of a camera. The participants choose controversial topics to prepare and spend seven minutes discussing the issues on film. In the last session, the students receive evaluation on their interviews.
“We're really able to practice by doing, and that’s the best way to learn,” added Deacon Christopher Bernabe, also of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, who recently finished the workshop.
“I learned that I have so much to learn about how I communicate and present myself, but that its so important that we choose a topic and are prepared,” he said.
“That we take our central theme and try to work that through throughout the entirety of it – and to do so joyfully, because what’s most important about engaging the culture is to be certain that what we’re talking about is true, but also to present it with joy, because that’s who we are. We’re a people of joy!”
“Jesus Christ died for our sins, he came down to lead us to a new relationship with him – and if we can’t communicate that which is most important about our life, then we really have some problems,” he emphasized.
Noronha expressed her appreciation for the opportunity to work with such enthusiastic participants, noting that as the Church pursues a new evangelization, “right now more than ever young priests and seminarians, religious, are understanding the importance of the media as a vehicle to help spread the message of Christ and the Church to the ends of the earth.”
On how a lay woman came to develop a media training program for priests, Noronha explained that her background “goes back to business and marketing, and that was the world I worked in for many years until I did a Master’s in theology and then came to Rome to continue.”
“From that I did an STL (licentiate in Sacred Theology) in communications and I'm now pursuing my doctorate in that field, and the way that this workshop was born was a rather organic way,” recounted Noronha.
“I was asked by a priest who really saw the need for this. He knew my background in this field and asked if I would create this, and indeed, 'Media Training for Priests' grew from that.”
The workshop is offered every semester, but is limited to 12 students so that Noronha has “time to offer one-on-one personalized feedback to each of my students because of course that’s the way that they grow in these skills.” Ashley's husband John, a professor of theology and former engineer, offers additional classroom assistance in both apologetics and technology.
Deacon Bernabe believes that “Media Training for Priests” is a successful program in large part due to Noronha's personal dedication. He described her as “a woman who is deeply in love with the Church and incredibly informed.”
“She's willing to walk us through various steps through it, but also to help us on an individual basis. I remember there were times when I had a question or something like that outside of class – sent her an email: within hours she had already emailed me back,” he continued.
“The opportunities that she has to engage in our lives and to see her around – she really wants to see us succeed, to see the Church succeed in her mission which is to bring about the salvation of souls, and so if you have somebody who is engaged in that – she’s proficient, she’s professional, and just loves Jesus so much – I can’t conceive of any better combination,” Deacon Bernabe said.
Noronha has worked with the North American College since 2010, but she has also offered workshops on three different continents for people from lay organizations, seminaries, and religious organizations.
“I’ve been thrilled by the positive response that I’ve received to it,” she said.
Her desire to continue such work is fueled by her observation that there are “so many priests, so many religious, who through the media have the opportunity to reach people that they would never otherwise see in the pews on Sunday.”
Moreover, the skills taught in her course “are not only specialty skills: these are skills that they can use for homilies, for any public speaking engagement, also for one-on-one communication.”
Deacon Bernabe felt this lesson quite keenly: “It’s very important that you craft and form your words in such a way that people are able to hang on to them, and be able to take them to heart; and to be able to find the ways in which the gospel encounters one’s life and to be able to put 'feet on the gospel' so to speak, and so if I'm not able to do that in a homily, I’m not going to be able to do it in an interview, either.”
Neither Deacon Bernabe nor seminarian Niemczak had ever done any social communications work before, but both now feel much better prepared, as Nimenczak put it, to see an encounter with the media as “an opportunity rather than a challenge.”
Noronha noted that her hope for the future is to have a group of trained media-savvy priests, seminarians, religious “throughout the world who are able to confidently engage with the media and to spread the message of Christ and the Church to the ends of the earth.”