Video in the ministry

Westminster Record 1991 (?)

from a talk by John Wijngaards to the clergy of Westminster Archdiocese in 1991.

In 1989 experts at an international meeting in Rio de Janeiro described it as `a wildfire, expanding uncontrollably in all directions, defying economic assumptions and crossing all cultural barriers.’ They were not discussing AIDS, terrorism, unemployment or some other global menace. They were trying to understand video.

Reporting on the video revolution all over the world, Time Magazine stated in September 1989: “From the highest peaks to the deepest jungles, the eyes of the world are glued to the wondrous and irrepressible offerings of the VCR.”

There is hardly a place on earth where video is not making inroads. In some countries, video is people’s answer to heavily censured state television. In other countries, video can bring programmes to areas not covered by TV networks. Often video becomes the poor man’s cinema, presented in video parlours that spread to slums and villages.

Video is also conquering the West. To mention just one fact: ten years ago the first video cassettes were offered for sale in London; now three out of every five British homes possesses a video recorder.

We might be forgiven for thinking that the use of video in the pastoral ministry is no more than a gimmick, or a giving in to the latest fad. I submit to you, however, that there are three reasons for taking video seriously:

  1. Video is, in fact, an entirely new medium ideally suited to support pastoral programmes.
  2. Video helps us communicate more effectively in an audio-visual culture.
  3. Video can do what we cannot do ourselves.
  4. Video is a new medium

Many of us may still think video is no more than an extension of TV. Sometimes it is. When we use video for time-shifting: for recording a programme we want to watch at a more convenient time. But video proper, as a catalytic tool, is entirely different from TV or radio.

A mass medium, such as radio or television,

  • addresses individuals in a crowd;
  • is beyond the control of the individual;
  • generally does not elicit or encourage feedback;
  • often results in a process of one-way, top-to-bottom entertainment-oriented manipulation.

Some analysts maintain that the greatest danger of TV lies in its destroying real human communication by preventing reciprocity, feedback, argument, altercation and critical response. Harvey Cox says as Christians we should expose the fraudulence of such anti- communication. We should alert the victims of this non-dialogical propaganda and sponsor media that foster dialogue, response and commitment.

Enter the group media.

A group medium, such as video, functions as an input, a catalyst, within a group process. By group I mean a somewhat homogeneous, relatively small number of people who can actively engage in an exchange of insights and feelings.

Video, as a group medium, presents life experiences with the sole purpose of making people enter into the issue emotionally and thus initiating reflection and discussion. The self activity of the viewers after the viewing is more important than the viewing itself.

Video, as a group medium, mobilises men and women, single or in groups, for change:

  • for accepting new insights;
  • for adopting new attitudes;
  • for risking conversion and renewal.

Video, therefore, if well employed, is ideally suited to help the process of adult catechesis, of youth formation and of parish renewal, all of which are best achieved within groups.

It is in such groups at times, much more than in large assemblies, that people find they belong. Here they more naturally receive support from others as from a real ecclesia, a community of believers.

Avery Dulles, the well-known ecclesiologist states: “People find the meaning of their lives not in terms of institutions, however sacred and awesome, but in terms of the informal, the personal, the communal. They long for a community which in the midst of all the conflicts of modern society, can open up loving person-to-person communication.”

Whereas TV silences and dominates, and can destroy real communication, video is a tool that stimulates and builds up. It is entirely at the service of the community. These are qualities we should make to work for our ministry.

  1. Video helps us share faith more effectively in an audio-visual culture.

I do not think anyone can doubt that we live – to use a hackneyed phrase – in an audio-visual culture. If we have ten times more video rental shops than bookshops in London, if people spend an average of four to five hours a day watching TV, something is happening to the way people think.

It has long been known that the strongest and most erosive power of television does not lie in its occasional flirt with physical violence and sex, but in its all-pervasive presentation of mediocre values.

As Gregor Goethals has shown in her study, TV Ritual (Boston 1981), create the new symbols which, in turn, mould us. Human beings need symbols that convey and fix a network of social and personal meanings. The images of television provide the makings of an alternative liturgy that offers its believers a worship of humanist ideals. Our audio-visual culture deeply affects the way people think.

Our past literary tradition focused on clarity of concepts and definitions. It was characterised by a preoccupation with ideologies, with written texts, with literary style. As pastors and theologians we believed the Good News was primarily proclaimed through clear notions and precise words.

Visual thinking on the other hand

  • is more centred on people, on their life experiences;
  • has a more comprehensive way of approaching realities;
  • is more open to emotion, to surprise, to wonder;
  • works with images and metaphors.

As Catholics we should welcome this return to image and metaphor. We know that regarding God and things of God, we can speak no other language than the language of analogy and parable.

God expressed himself most fully to us in the pictures of nature, the images of Sacred Scripture and, last but not least, in Jesus Christ, who is the incarnate image of God. “Who sees me sees the Father” (John 14,9).

God relates to us in sacramental signs; in a liturgy that speaks to eye and ear as well as to the mind; in a whole network of sacred symbols.

As a Church we have always been theatrical. We have expressed faith through mystery plays. We have described the history of salvation on our stained glass windows. We love beautiful liturgies. In all this we have always known that images are not just tools, `visual aids’, gimmicks. We have known in our bones that through sacraments, signs and icons we were somehow touching God and the divine.

As the pundits put it, through the audio-visual exposure viewers enter into the life experience of faith with all their emotions and the associations of past memories. That is why, in our age, the presentation of faith in stories that can be seen on the screen agrees with our long-standing `Catholic’ tradition. A good Christian video becomes a parable and the more it is seen in successive sessions, the more it assumes the function of a parable.

Like any true metaphor, the audio-visual experience cannot be substituted for by notional assertions. Rather, meeting life in images naturally leads to a sharing of one’s own deep feelings and convictions. This in turn calls for a critical examination of one’s own attitudes and thus opens the door for change.

It surprises me that many of the clergy and religious who enjoy watching a good movie, or who are devoted addicts to certain TV programmes, have never seriously faced the challenge of harnessing the power of these new images to their task of forming adult Christians.

As in every age we have to address today’s man and woman in the language he or she understands. It is a job of dynamic and imaginative translation.

  1. Video is practical and does things we cannot do by ourselves.

Group media have been with us for some time in the form of displays, photographs, slides, and so on, but these were limited and, at times, awkward in use. Video is very easy to handle. We have everything on one cassette.

Video recorders are found almost everywhere. In the UK, market penetration of homes lies well over sixty per cent. In many countries there are communal VCRs. Then again, if they are not present, they are easy to take along and set up for a presentation.

Video gives an input we could never match even with the most consummate eloquence. To make it yield its full potential, however, we must allow it to speak.

We must follow the nature of the video. Good video has been designed to be used for more than one full discussion session (let us say, a full viewing in session one, viewing of each relevant part in subsequent sessions). Using a video just once, in a one-time viewing, should be avoided for these reasons:

  • Since the video was made to initiate discussion, the text and images are too concentrated for absorption at once.
  • The discussion afterwards, that is: the process of change, is more important than the viewing.
  • The parable function increases with increased viewing and reflection.

If we use video for what it is good at: involving people emotionally, making faith issues concrete, presenting a living challenge, expressing the inexpressible in images and leading people to change, we will have found a powerful ally.

It is interesting to note not only that Jesus taught in parables but that “he never spoke to the crowds without parables” (Matthew 13,34). Amazing! He never spoke without parables.

How can we, teachers, shepherds, spiritual guides and lay leaders follow his example in our day and age?