PHILADELPHIA - Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s visit the United Kingdom in 2010 was supposed to be a disaster. Several people were calling for his arrest upon arrival. No one was expected to show up for his audiences, except maybe a few protestors.
But by the time Benedict arrived and began his visit, the wind had shifted significantly. Catholic Voices, a project founded by lay people specifically for the pope’s visit had stepped in and provided media training to faithful Catholics who wanted to convey the joy of the Gospel through the media.
“There were some beautiful conversations about the faith on mainstream media during a visit that sparked something of a renewal in the Church there, thanks be to God,” said Kathryn Lopez, founding director of the United States branch of Catholic Voices.
After successfully reshaping the narrative of Benedict’s UK visit, the media training initiative spread to 12 other countries. The U.S. branch has been working hard to prepare Catholics to speak with the media for Pope Francis’ visit in the fall for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
“The international media will be there and Catholics there are eager to talk to them about the joy of family life in the light of the Gospel,” Ms. Lopez told CNA. “In his encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis says the light of faith illuminates everything. Oh how our nation and the world – and the people of Philadelphia – need this gift.”
Ms. Lopez said the goal of Catholic Voices is not to tell people exactly what to say, but rather to help people frame compelling arguments in a compassionate way, even when faced with hostility against the Church. They are trained in simple communications principles and are encouraged to draw from their personal experiences of faith and God.
Sharla Cloutier went through Catholic Voices training in the U.S. right before the election of Pope Francis. She said Ms. Lopez put her through the paces during mock interviews by springing difficult questions on her right away, like: “So Sharla, why does the Catholic Church hate women?”
“You haven’t lived until you’ve sat across from Kathryn in a TV studio for a mock interview, lights shining down, all miked up,” she told CNA. “They really prepared us for anything!”
Because the training involved learning how to better communicate rather than memorized messages of exactly what to communicate, Ms. Cloutier said she felt better prepared to handle tough questions about her faith and to stick to her talking points. Ultimately, she believes the training led her from her job in business consulting to full-time pro-life work as a regional director with the Vitae Foundation.
The communication principles are helpful in every day conversations about faith as well, Ms. Cloutier noted. Once she found herself explaining Catholic teaching to relatives who thought the Church hated abortion only because it potentially decreased their numbers. She also had to explain to friends why she couldn’t donate to an organization that supported human embryonic stem-cell research.
“Sometimes the Holy Spirit leads you into discussions whether you’re ready for them or not,” she said.
The training sessions in Philadelphia are especially focusing on issues of marriage and family life leading up to Francis’ visit to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia at the end of September this year.
“Catholic Voices is working with folks in Philadelphia who want to tell that story to do so – talking about the challenges face the family, what works in helping families flourish, even why family matters,” Ms. Lopez said.
Catholic Voices USA has teamed up with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the World Meeting of Families volunteers to provide training to a variety of people before the papal visit. Ultimately, the goal is to present the Church in a compassionate and compelling light, and to lead people back to the sacraments.
“Obviously Saul won’t fall from his horse on account of every three-minute interview you do on radio or TV, but Heaven knows what God will make of each media opportunity,” Ms. Lopez said. “So best we be faithful and civil!”