Bishop John Wester, Chair CommunicationsCommittee
Address Given at the USCCB General Assembly Meeting, June 2012

The past twenty years have been a dizzying series of breakthroughs and game-changing advances in communications. Our modern world is simply not the same.

Twenty years ago, there were fewer than one thousand Internet sites.

Today there are perhaps 650 million of them.

The truth of our faith has not changed. Our Tradition—capital "T"—has not changed.

But the people of our dioceses are living in a new world.

The communications future that we were promised long ago is here right now.

We've heard the statistics of how many people own smartphones and iPads and use social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

But do we realize how profoundly these new devices are changing HOW we communicate?

For instance, many more people now check the news multiple times a day, instead of waiting for the evening broadcasts.

Americans are using the Internet not just for e-mail and searching for information. They use it to pay bills and make contributions, to find out what their relatives across the country and across town are doing, to make dinner reservations, to review movies and books, to buy almost anything, and to catch up with the grandchildren.

But often they can't make donations to their parishes – or to our national collections.

It's difficult to find a social network online to share their faith.

And many of the church documents, or such resource materials as the Catholic Encyclopedia, are difficult to find online.

For the USCCB's Communications Committee, we are wrestling with these questions and others:

  • What does the New Evangelization look like in this world of communications?
  • How can we help build stronger relationships with our millions of parishioners?
  • How can we increase the effectiveness of our work in sanctifying, teaching, and governing by using the tools of 21st-century communications?

We are taking three paths to answering these critical questions.

  1. We are identifying and sharing the overall best communications practices.
  2. We are developing digital content that meets the needs of different audiences.
  3. We are striving to build a culture of innovation with digital communications.

1 - Let's start with best practices

We all acknowledge that communication in the digital world goes both ways. News articles or reflections or catechetical resources that are online are expected to have a place where people—potentially anyone—can offer their thoughts in a digital reply.

It's instantaneous, it's public, and it's personal.

The idea of "best practices" also includes business models. As we have learned in the past few years, the world of newspapers has been turned upside down. A business model based on print circulation and advertising revenue, which worked for decades, is now barely relevant.

So we are developing a new business model for our communications work based on current and future realities, not outdated models.

Please allow me to emphasize here that the USCCB continues to produce print products that are well received, and many of our diocesan communication efforts have the diocesan print publication as their most important means to reach the faithful.

The challenge, as most of us know, is that it is a struggle to keep circulations high and to get print materials in the hands of Catholics who don't come to Mass every weekend.

The one-way communication model of "mass communication" or "broadcast communication" is fading away. The very notions of authority and control are slipping away in this age of transparency. It is not easy for those of us trained in old methodologies.

We used to ask ourselves, "What do we need to tell people?"

Now we also have to ask ourselves, "What do people want to hear from us?"

They no longer wait for the town crier, or the evening newscast, or the morning paper, or even the Sunday homily, to come to them.

When our parishioners need information, they seek it and find it.

When they need guidance, they look for it.

When they need community, they connect to it.

They are living in the Digital Continent, as Pope Benedict XVI calls it.

2 - So we are focusing our digital content

We are doing this by identifying four content areas that answer different audience needs.

First, we are creating news and analysis through our own Catholic News Service. This includes multimedia news production from Rome and Washington, D.C. in print and video. We are creating a new editorial advisory board for Catholic News Service to help us navigate the waters of being a 21st-century news organization in the Catholic Church in the United States. This new board will help CNS in its factual reporting on the activities of the Church, the views of church leaders, and the broad issues in which we have a critical stake.

Second, we are sharpening our media relations efforts since that role as intermediary between ourselves and the major national media cannot be overstated. Since we are in a 24/7 nonstop news cycle, we cannot afford to allow critically precious hours or days to slip by without speaking out. This also requires us to increase our efforts in social media, as increasingly people no longer look to the information gatekeepers as they did in the past.

Third, we are maintaining our focus on creating pastoral leadership resources, working collaboratively with every other USCCB committee. These resources include printed materials, e-books, videos, and web pages. Pastoral leadership resources are one of our core competencies, and we are planning to make them even stronger with the addition of a closed social network for bishops, a new video partnership with Vatican television, and a new subscription service for dioceses and parishes that will include a wide range of new member benefits.

Last week each of us received an email inviting us to join a "closed social network" for bishops only, a Bishops' Network. This will allow us to share information among ourselves, one of the recommendations of the task force on communications. If you would like a tutorial or overview of the new Bishops' Network today, please visit the Lenox Room – two levels below where we are now – before 5 p.m. today, or contact Helen Osman.

Fourth, we are taking up the call of the New Evangelization with a renewed focus on resources that offer advice and encouragement for Catholics living their vocations in secular environments. This broad audience may not be well catechized, so we anticipate a strong emphasis on enculturation, including everyday language and practical applications of our teachings.

3 - Innovation with digital communications

We cannot meet these challenges—and the ones around the corner—without embracing a culture of innovation and experimentation in communications. This can not be overemphasized. The new platforms of communications are continually shifting. Who knew, just two years ago, that "iPad" would become such a common household term?

Historically, the church has patiently waited for new technologies to settle in to people's normal rhythms. We do not have that luxury today.

Our staff at the USCCB are aware of this pressing need. They have experienced some successes. Others could be called "learning opportunities," since even a failure can lead to a future success.


  • As Bishop Ricken noted yesterday, we have just launched a new browser-friendly e-publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This will be just the first resource publication of what we hope will be many available in this format, an online library of foundational titles that will be dynamic, searchable and easily accessible.
  • The USCCB website now has more than 2 million visitors per month, with two trillion bytes of data delivered to them. Our primary "storefront" to the world, it allows visitors to share what they find with their own social networks, get an RSS feed of the daily readings and our media releases, and it highlights the daily work of the Conference.
  • We have a Facebook page with almost 40,000 fans and a potential reach of hundreds of thousands. It is a platform for catechesis, building community, and encouraging Catholic identity.
  • We have a Twitter feed with ongoing information.
  • We are creating videos every day, including news from Rome, reflections on the Daily Readings, video statements on aspects of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, and committee chairmen's greetings on the USCCB website.
  • We are converting dozens of major print books to e-books for distribution through Amazon and iTunes.
  • We are building a new video studio with capacity to receive satellite feeds from the Vatican.


There is more to do, however. The USCCB staff, bishops and consultants to the Communications Committee and to the Task Force on Communications know that we have to increase content available to the faithful who use Spanish as their primary language. We need to learn to speak in a style that is accessible to a generation accustomed to 15 second commercials and 140 character texts, who prefer content that allows them to respond and comment.

The challenges of this moment in communications technology are a boundless opportunity for evangelization, if we are willing to speak… and listen.

The back-and-forth digital communication that is spreading like wildfire across our dioceses is our chance to bring the Gospel to millions of Catholics.

We have to be in the digital conversations. And we have to listen, too.

As our Holy Father said on the World Day of Communication this past January,

Word and silence: learning to communicate is learning to listen and contemplate as well as speak. This is especially important for those engaged in the task of evangelization: both silence and word are essential elements, integral to the Church's work of communication for the sake of a renewed proclamation of Christ in today's world.

We are in a paradigm shift, as profound as when the printing press made literacy a necessity or when television made the planet feel smaller. Paradigm shifts, like all major changes, are unsettling and uncomfortable.

But, just as the Church learned how to use the book and film to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth, so today we must teach ourselves to learn these new tools to help people find the faith in their ordinary days and in their times of need.

Thank you for listening today, and for your willingness to be missionaries on the Digital Continent.