Sunday, April 08, 2012

Speaking up on faith

When Kilcullen's Petra Conroy was asked to take on the coordinator's role for a new organisation called Catholic Comment, she knew it was a job right in tune with her own interests, writes Brian Byrne.

The organisation is a national group which aims to train people to be able to speak on the news media about their faith and the issues surrounding it.

"It was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for," says Petra, a woman of strong faith who was concerned that there's a dearth of Catholics able to answer questions in the media about the subject. "Because of the way the Church has failed people, it has become very hard for people out there to say positive things publicly about it, for fear they will be misinterpreted as trying to excuse what went on."

Though completely independent, the idea is to complement the work of Catholic Church leaders and 'assist the media in good faith'. A call for interest in forming a panel of such speakers pulled in a big response, not just from people who wanted training in speaking about matters of faith, but of others offering assistance in other ways, including training itself.

The first batch from among the applicants are taking part in a series of three weekends of training, in Maynooth, All Hallows and at the Emmaus Centre in Swords. Later, the programme will be developed in other centres around the country, to have available panellists wherever there is a need for comment on a local basis, such as for a local radio station.

"The process will help them to express the mission and teachings of the Church, clearly and reasonably, in a media context," Petra says. "After training, they will be available to speak on radio or television on Church and faith issues when called on, often at short notice."

The immediate goal is to have a strong team in place for the upcoming Eucharistic Congress, when there will be significant news media interest in Catholic matters. But eventually, Catholic Comment hopes to have panels of speakers in every city and other local communities.

With a background in communications, Petra has a direct overview of what Catholics need to be able to do to deal 'on air' and in other media with issues relating to their faith.

She has been involved in pastoral affairs in Kilcullen parish for several years, and also wrote a blog 'Is the Pope a Catholic?' which questioned a number of aspects of how the Church has been dealing with the serious problems made public in recent years.

The selected applicants for the Catholic Comment panels were chosen in the first instance as already having a strong knowledge of their faith. "This isn't a programme to teach people about points of their faith, but it is for those who are already enthusiastic about their faith and need to be brought up to scratch on how to communicate issues that come up. We're not giving people a message, we're helping them to express what they already feel strongly about."

The ethos of Catholic Comment is not to be confrontational, or trying to win debates, but rather to try and throw some light on the relevant topics. "We will try and stay positive, be respectful of the fact that other people may have different views, and that they may be very committed to those opinions for very good reasons."

The training weekends include discussions on specific subjects, and looking for the 'shared value' in debate on those issues, from which points of view can be developed and outlined. There will also be interview sessions in a live studio environment.

"The Church is often said to be a 'faceless institution' and part of what we're doing is putting faces on the Church as the ordinary people who work in parishes, have mortgages, raise children and are just living their lives. We will do our best not to be seen as the official representatives of the Church."

In that context, Catholic Comment speakers will concentrate on things like the mission of the Church rather than defending the hierarchy against complaints about what they did or didn't do. "We are also specifically doing this for people who don't already have a public profile in the Catholic issues debate. It isn't envisaged as extra training for those who are already commentators, but for ordinary Catholics who want to say their piece but need help with how to do it."

Down the road, the group plans to become pro-active, and look for opportunities to spread the word of the faith in an everyday context. "It's a case of not just reacting when there is a Church story running and journalists want a comment, but also being aware of when and how we can provide a story opportunity to the media."

While the initial group is limited to around 15, Catholic Comment expects to be able to work with many more from the large number of respondents to their first call for applications. The age range of those who have already applied is in between 19-80+, and there is a wide backgrounds representation.

Full information about Catholic Comment can be found on its website from where a brochure can also be downloaded.

This article was originally published in the Kildare Nationalist.

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