World Communications Day (Sunday 16 May) was established by Pope St Paul VI in 1967. It is an annual opportunity for us to reflect on the opportunities and challenges that communication media poses to the church’s evangelical work. For 2021, Pope Francis has chosen the theme: “Come and See” (John 1:46).

In his message – which is replete with themes that have come to characterise the pope’s reflections on technology – Pope Francis pinpoints the complacency into which media seduces us: the narratives we consume convince us that we already know what is going on in the world, when instead we should never lose the impulse to “come and see”, to encounter people in their concrete lives, to hear their stories and not simply remain spectators behind a screen.

Interestingly, Pope Francis points out that the gospels, when understood as “news stories”, functioned in this manner. Jesus’ invitation to the disciples and those who were curious about him was to “come and see”: they then stayed with him, lived with him, learned from him, and loved him. The original excitement of the gospels comes not from any ethical framework or abstract philosophical ideas, but from the fact that people, real people, heard Jesus, saw him and touched him, after his resurrection. As John wrote: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have watched and touched with our own hands, about the Word of Life, this is our theme. (1 John 1:1).

The Gospel is something incarnate; it is something – someone – human. Communication media that does not cultivate deep listening and personal encounter (in other words, contemplation) is not a humanising media. It is precisely the opposite.

The iconoclastic controversy

At this point, it might be good to take a step back and reflect on a form of communication “media” the church has always relied on to draw people into its imaginative and narrative world. This media is that of art and iconography, which has both a powerful and controversial history. According to the historian James Hitchcock, icons were introduced ‘as a way of making Heaven concretely imaginable’, but they also became fundamental to one of the Eastern church’s greatest crises (History of the Catholic Church, 2012. 193). There emerged a controversy in the eighth century between two groups of people: the iconoclasts (“image-breakers”) and the iconophiles (“image-lovers”). In 730 CE, Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (717-741) officially prohibited the use of icons in churches. The claim was that such art was idolatrous. Unfortunately, much of the art of the Byzantine period prior to the eighth century has not survived because of this period of iconoclasm.

The emperor’s prohibition prompted a response from powerful voices within the church including that of Pope St Gregory II (715-731), who explicitly upheld the use of icons. Emperor Leo then tried to have Pope Gregory arrested, however the fleet he sent became shipwrecked en route. One of the most famous voices in defence of icons was that of St John Damascene (675-749) who quickly wrote apologetic tracts in response to the emperor’s edict. In 787 CE, the Second Council of Nicaea reversed Emperor Leo III’s ruling, but there was no peace over the issue until a later successor of Leo, Empress Theodora II, permanently restored iconography to the churches in 843 CE.

Communication and understanding

One of the themes that emerges from the writings of iconophiles in this period, particularly those of St John Damascene, is that iconography and sacred art are important means of communication. They are not objects of reverence in and of themselves but they speak of a transcendent reality beyond them. Take this, for example, from one of John Damascene’s sermons against the “image-breakers”:

‘What a book is to the literate, that an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to the sight as words to the ear; it brings understanding’ (§19).

And this:

‘The image was devised for greater knowledge, and for the manifestation and popularising of secret things’ (§93).

What John Damascene rightly sensed was that at the heart of iconoclasm was a gnostic impulse, that is: the temptation to disparage matter while elevating the spiritual – one of the perennial temptations of the church. On the contrary, St John writes:

‘I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation’ (§16).

God communicated himself to us through his incarnate Son. It was the affirmation and salvation of what is truly human. Iconography served to draw people imaginatively and spiritually into that world of real people, because it was through their artistic representation that the church could come and see how God had been working in history.

Communication and digital technology today

As Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti reinforces, for communication to be truly human it must honour people. This is precisely the point of his World Communications Day message. To the extent that media technology obscures the personal aspect of human existence, we must rethink our approach.

As Pope Francis writes, ‘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.’ He also notes that ‘great communicator who was Paul of Tarsus’ would surely have made use of today’s communications tools but it was his faith, hope and charity that impressed his contemporaries who would have heard him preach or have spent time with him in a crowd or in individual conversation.

The beauty of old art is that it is human, it is physical, and it exists almost inherently as an invitation to “come and see”. Maybe the temptation of digital media is also a gnostic one: the temptation to avoid the sometimes confronting realities of the human experience that ask something more of us and seek to move us forward (and not simply towards the “like”, “hide” or “share” buttons). Perhaps we can contemplate how to recover these older forms of communication even in a digital world, lest we lose that part of evangelisation that is always an invitation to “come and see”.