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  • John Thavis

A medal with an illustrious past

This week I was in Windsor, Ontario, the guest of Assumption University, which awarded me the Faith and Culture Gold Medal for 2013. Father Tom Rosica, founder and head of the Salt + Light Television network, presented the medal and introduced a lecture I gave on the Vatican and modern communication.

The first thing to say is that the more I learned about this award and its past recipients, the more I was humbled by joining their company. Established in 1941 to highlight the accomplishments of lay Christians, the medal has been conferred on Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, Marshal McLuhan, Barbara Ward, Jean Vanier, Henry Ford II and Malcolm Muggeridge, among many others.

In the “it’s a small world” department, I also learned that over the years the medal was designed and executed by a series of five artists, including, in the 1940s, Carlos Cotton, who lived a stone’s throw from my wife’s childhood home in Collegeville, Minnesota.

The medal depicts a hand and a mustard plant, symbolizing human cooperation expected by God for the coming of the Kingdom. (The parable of the mustard seed from the Gospel of Matthew: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”)

The event in Windsor drew a huge crowd, perhaps reflecting the widespread interest in all things Vatican with the election of the new pope. In my talk, I outlined why I think the Vatican is at a communications crossroads today, and why I see hopeful signs that the pontificate of Pope Francis could nudge it toward greater transparency and effectiveness.

In my book, “The Vatican Diaries,” I delve into the backstage story behind several of the Vatican’s communications miscues and missteps in recent years. One of the underlying causes has been the Vatican’s proprietary approach to information – it still believes, for example, that low-level officials of the Secretariat of State can take off-the-cuff comments by a pope and “tweak” (i.e., rewrite) them for the official record.

As a Vatican official once told me: “There is no ‘official’ text until it appears in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.” That’s the Vatican’s version of the Congressional Record, and it often comes out months or even years after the fact – so much for news cycles.

With Pope Francis at the helm, I see a new attitude from the top – communication that is simpler, more direct and less officious – and I’m hopeful it will carry over into all the Roman Curia offices.

For years, Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, has been fighting for more transparency in communications, winning some battles and losing others. During the recent papal resignation and conclave, he asked Father Rosica to join him in Rome to help deal with the 5,000 journalists who descended on the Vatican. They made an impressive team.

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