Communicating by encountering people where and as they are: “Come and See” (Jn 1:46):

Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 2021 World Communications Day — May 16, 2021

May 16, 2021

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The invitation to “Come and see!”, which  was part of those first moving encounters of  Jesus with the disciples, is also the method for  all authentic human communication. In order  to tell the truth of life that becomes history  (cf. Message for the 54th World Communications Day, January 24, 2020), it is necessary  to move beyond the complacent attitude that  we “already know” certain things. Instead,  we need to go and see them for ourselves,  to spend time with people, to listen to their  stories and to confront reality which always,  in some way, surprises us. “Open your eyes  with wonder to what you see, let your hands  touch the freshness and vitality of things, so  that when others read what you write, they  too can touch first-hand the vibrant miracle  of life”. This was the advice that Blessed  Manuel Lozano Garrido offered to his fellow  journalists. This year, then, I would like to devote this Message to the invitation to “Come  and see!”, which can serve as an inspiration  for all communication that strives to be clear  and honest, in the press, on the internet, in  the Church’s daily preaching and in political  or social communication. “Come and see!”  This has always been the way that the Christian faith has been communicated, from the  time of those first encounters on the banks of  the River Jordan and on the Sea of Galilee.

“Hitting the streets”
Let us look first at the great issue of news  reporting. Insightful voices have long expressed concern about the risk that original investigative reporting in newspapers  and television, radio and web newscasts  is being replaced by a reportage that adheres to a standard, often tendentious narrative. This approach is less and less capable of grasping the truth of things and  the concrete lives of people, much less the  more serious social phenomena or positive  movements at the grass roots level. The  crisis of the publishing industry risks leading to a reportage created in newsrooms,  in front of personal or company computers  and on social networks, without ever “hitting the streets”, meeting people face to  face to research stories or to verify certain  situations first hand. Unless we open ourselves to this kind of encounter, we remain  mere spectators, for all the technical innovations that enable us to feel immersed in  a larger and more immediate reality. Any  instrument proves useful and valuable only  to the extent that it motivates us to go out  and see things that otherwise we would not  know about, to post on the Internet news  that would not be available elsewhere, to  allow for encounters that otherwise would  never happen.

The Gospels as news stories
“Come and see!” were the first words that  Jesus spoke to the disciples who were curious about him following his baptism in the  Jordan river (Jn 1:39). He invited them to  enter into a relationship with him. More  than half a century later, when John, now  an old man, wrote his Gospel, he recalled  several “newsworthy” details that reveal  that he was personally present at the events  he reports and demonstrate the impact that  the experience had on his life. “It was about  the tenth hour”, he noted, that is, about four  in the afternoon (cf. v. 39). The next day –  John also tells us – Philip told Nathaniel  about his encounter with the Messiah. His  friend is sceptical and asks: “Can anything  good come out of Nazareth?” Philip does  not try to win him over with reasons, but  simply tells him: “Come and see!” (cf. vv.  45-46). Nathaniel did go and see, and from  that moment his life was changed. That is  how Christian faith begins, and how it  is communicated: as direct knowledge,  born of experience, and not of hearsay.  “It is no longer because of your words  that we believe, for we have heard for  ourselves”. So the townspeople told the  Samaritan woman, after Jesus stayed  in their village (cf. Jn 4:39-42). “Come  and see!” is the simplest method to get  to know a situation. It is the most honest  test of every message, because, in order  to know, we need to encounter, to let the  person in front of me speak, to let his or  her testimony reach me.

Thanks to the courage of many journalists
Journalism too, as an account of reality, calls for  an ability to go where no one else thinks of going:  a readiness to set out and a desire to see. Curiosity,  openness, passion. We owe a word of gratitude for  the courage and commitment of all those professionals – journalists, camera operators, editors, directors  – who often risk their lives in carrying out their work.  Thanks to their efforts, we now know, for example,  about the hardships endured by persecuted minorities in various parts of the world, numerous cases  of oppression and injustice inflicted on the poor and  on the environment, and many wars that otherwise  would be overlooked. It would be a loss not only for  news reporting, but for society and for democracy as  a whole, were those voices to fade away. Our entire  human family would be impoverished.

Many situations in our world, even more so in  this time of pandemic, are inviting the communications media to “come and see”. We can risk reporting the pandemic, and indeed every crisis, only  through the lens of the richer nations, of “keeping  two sets of books”. For example, there is the question of vaccines, and medical care in general, which  risks excluding the poorer peoples. Who would keep  us informed about the long wait for treatment in the  poverty-stricken villages of Asia, Latin America and  Africa? Social and economic differences on the global level risk dictating the order of distribution of antiCOVID vaccines, with the poor always at the end of  the line and the right to universal health care affirmed  in principle, but stripped of real effect. Yet even in  the world of the more fortunate, the social tragedy of  families rapidly slipping into poverty remains largely  hidden; people who are no longer ashamed to wait in  line before charitable organisations in order to receive  a package of provisions do not tend to make news.

Opportunities and hidden dangers on the web
The Internet, with its countless social media  expressions, can increase the capacity for reporting and sharing, with many more eyes on  the world and a constant flood of images and  testimonies. Digital technology gives us the  possibility of timely first-hand information  that is often quite useful. We can think of certain emergency situations where the internet  was the first to report the news and communicate official notices. It is a powerful tool,  which demands that all of us be responsible  as users and consumers. Potentially we can  all become witnesses to events that otherwise  would be overlooked by the traditional media,  offer a contribution to society and highlight  more stories, including positive ones. Thanks  to the Internet we have the opportunity to report what we see, what is taking place before  our eyes, and to share it with others.

At the same  time, the risk  of misinformation being spread on  social media  has become  evident to  everyone. We  have known  for some time  that news and  even images  can be easily manipulated, for  any number of reasons, at times simply for  sheer narcissism. Being critical in this regard  is not about demonising the Internet but, is  rather, an incentive to greater discernment  and responsibility for contents both sent and  received. All of us are responsible for the  communications we make, for the information we share, for the control that we can exert  over fake news by exposing it. All of us are  to be witnesses of the truth: to go, to see and to share.

Nothing replaces seeing things at first hand
In communications, nothing can ever completely replace seeing things in person. Some  things can only be learned through first-hand  experience. We do not communicate merely  with words, but with our eyes, the tone of our  voice and our gestures. Jesus’ attractiveness to  those who met him depended on the truth of his  preaching; yet the effectiveness of what he said  was inseparable from how he looked at others,  from how he acted towards them, and even  from his silence. The disciples not only listened  to his words; they watched him speak. Indeed,  in him – the incarnate Logos – the Word took  on a face; the invisible God let himself be seen,  heard and touched, as John himself tells us (cf.  1 Jn 1:1-3). The word is effective only if it is  “seen”, only if it engages us in experience, in dialogue. For this reason, the invitation to “come  and see” was, and continues to be, essential.

We think of how much empty rhetoric  abounds, even in our time, in all areas of public life, in business as well as politics. This or  that one “speaks an infinite deal of nothing...  His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in  two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere  you find them, and when you have them, they  are not worth the search. The blistering words  of the English playwright also apply to us as  Christian communicators. The Good News of  the Gospel spread throughout the world as a result of person-to-person, heart-to-heart encounters with men and women who accepted the  invitation to “come and see”, and were struck  by the “surplus” of humanity that shone through  the gaze, the speech and the gestures of those  who bore witness to Jesus Christ. Every tool  has its value, and that great communicator who  was Paul of Tarsus would certainly have made  use of email and social messaging. Yet it was  his faith, hope and charity that impressed those  of his contemporaries who heard him preach or  had the good fortune to spend time with him, to see him during an assembly or in individual  conversation. Watching him in action wherever  he was, they saw for themselves how true and  fruitful for their lives was the message of salvation that, by God’s grace, he had come to  preach. Even where this servant of God could  not be encountered personally, the disciples  whom he sent bore witness to his way of life in  Christ (cf. 1 Cor 4:17).

“We have books in our hands, but the facts  before our eyes”, said Saint Augustine in speaking of fulfilment of the prophecies found in sacred Scripture. So too, the Gospel comes alive  in our own day, whenever we accept the compelling witness of people whose lives have been  changed by their encounter with Jesus. For two  millennia, a chain of such encounters has communicated the attractiveness of the Christian  adventure. The challenge that awaits us, then, is  to communicate by encountering people, where  they are and as they are.

Lord, teach us to move beyond ourselves,
and to set out in search of truth.

Teach us to go out and see,
teach us to listen,
not to entertain prejudices
or draw hasty conclusions.

Teach us to go where no one else will go,
to take the time needed to understand,
to pay attention to the essentials,
not to be distracted by the superfluous,
to distinguish deceptive appearances
from the truth.

Grant us the grace to recognise
your dwelling places in our world
and the honesty needed to tell others
what we have seen.

Rome, St John Lateran,
January 23, 2021,
Vigil of the Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales


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