Bishop Gerald Kicanas on effective communication

Bishop Kicanas

Below are the prepared remarks of Gerald Kicanas, bishop of Tucson, given at the 2009 annual meeting of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.


First, my thanks for what you in the Roundtable do to provide resources for the Church in the United States in matters financial, in human resources and administrative affairs. These are not the primary areas of study for bishops and priests, but we all have come to know how important they are for pastoring a parish or diocese effectively.

You want to help and have helped the Church in significant ways. Let the Church say, "Amen!"

As affirmed in the Code of Canon Law, the faithful besides showing obedience to the pastors of the Church, in keeping with their knowledge, competence, and position have "the right, indeed at times, the duty to express to the pastor their views on matters concerning the good of the Church." (Canon 212.3 p.34)

Recently, as part of an ecclesial conference for the Diocese of Rome on “Church Membership and Pastoral Co-Responsibility”, Pope Benedict XVI suggested that the Church-lay and clergy-needs a maturing of the way lay people are regarded. Lay people are not simply "collaborators of the clergy" but must be recognized and recognize themselves as "co-responsible" for the being and action of the Church. This is what you in the Roundtable strive to do.

The Church has benefited from your gifts and your counsel. Specifically in the Diocese of Tucson Mr. Michael Brough came in 2006 to speak to our newly constituted Boards of Directors that came into being with the incorporation of our parishes after our bankruptcy. His reflections and the Roundtable resources he introduced were most helpful and beneficial.

Our gathering this week focuses on communication, another area where the Roundtable can be a resource for the pastors of the Church.

Over the last number of years, the Church and the Holy Father have issued a number of significant statements on communication. At Vatican II, Inter Mirifica then Communio et Progressio (1971) followed by Aetatis Novae (February 22, 1992). Bishop Claudio Maria Celli, President of the Pontifical Council on Social Communication has indicated that another significant document is to be published soon. Likewise the Holy Father each year issues a statement on World Communication Day reflecting on the role of media.

Communio et Progressio tells us "Bishops, priests, religious, and laity...working with professional communicators (they) will be wise to go more deeply into the problem presented by communicating through the media and to exchange their experiences and ideas." (Communio et Progressio, N. 110) This is our agenda for these days.


I enjoy theatre. “The Church has always shown considerable interest in theatre which, in its origins, was closely connected with manifestations of religion.” (Communio et Progressio, N. 161) In the major seminary, I did some acting. I was given the opportunity to play some wonderful parts- Gideon, Luther, Everyman, the Artful Dodger. We never made Broadway or even off Broadway or even off off Broadway but we put our hearts and souls into the performances. I learned a lot about the art of communication.

Recently I saw the play, Billy Elliott in New York City. David Alvarez as Billy Elliott charmed the audience. One of three youngsters who won Tony awards, he convincingly delivers his character with style. You cannot help but follow his graceful dance movements and pay attention to his life story as it unfolds. He became Billy Elliott. He wins your heart.

Great actors and actresses communicate. They do not just read lines and go through the motions. They engage their audience. They draw attention, elicit feelings, provoke laughter and delight and even, at times, terrify. Theatre goers follow their words, watch their gestures, and observe their facial expressions. The audience gets involved, drawn in, becomes one with the story.

The Church has a powerful story to communicate; a life giving message to tell. The Church in every age continues the work begun on the Day of Pentecost when the Apostles, in the power of the Holy Spirit went forth into the streets of Jerusalem to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in many tongues." (Message of Pope John Paul II for the 36th World Communication Day, 2002) We continue that today. But regretful ly, at times, that story sometimes fails to engage, leaves the hearer untouched, unmoved, indifferent.

The Church, like theatre, communicates best and most effectively when five ingredients are present in the engagement. First, those telling the story must themselves be taken up by it. They must embody the story, live it. Second, the Church's message is best communicated succinctly with emotion and color, and in concrete language people understand and that engages them. Third, the Church, like theatre, faces competing messages. The Church has to light up its marquee, as it were, to entice people to come in to hear its story and be transformed by it. Technology can help deliver the Church’s message. Fourth, while modern techniques and technology must be incorporated, these important tools are not the message nor alone can they deliver that message effectively either on the stage or in the Church. They can only assist. Finally in dioceses and parishes it is important to create a “climate of candor”. Let me explain.


David Alvarez became Billy Elliott. In a similar way communication in the Church happens best when people see the message lived. Pope Paul VI said in Evangelii Nunciandi, “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” (41) The Church must become what it proclaims.

This is the message given at ordination when the ordinand is presented with the Book of the Gospel and challenged by the bishop with the words, “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

Throughout the history of the Church, beginning with the chosen twelve, leaders have fallen short, failed to grasp and live the message; yet that history has also seen a communion of saints, former sinners, whose exemplary, heroic living of the Gospel has led others to embrace The greatest blow to the integrity of the Church’s message and its effectiveness occurs when those who deliver that message are simply play acting.

The recent sexual abuse crisis, one of the saddest chapters in the Church’s history, harmed far too many but also damaged the Church’s ability to communicate. Some judged the Church as hypocritical as more concerned about its reputation than about children who were harmed. Some stopped listening.

Trust was broken and trust can only be restored by consistency over time. I learned that in the Diocese of Tucson. Victims were reassured only when over time they felt their pain had been understood, their anger acknowledged. They needed to know and be convinced that the Church had put in place measures to make sure that no child would be hurt again. That message needed to be made over and over until it was experienced as genuine and trustworthy.

Restoring trust was my primary goal as bishop as it has been for so many bishops in their dioceses. I felt deeply moved as we emerged from Chapter 11 to hear victims say to the media that they had been treated fairly and respectfully. They believed that the Church was sincere in its desire to heal. They felt justice had been served. The Church lived up to her word. The Church embodied her message. They sensed the Church cared.

The year of St. Paul the Apostle, announced by Pope Benedict XVI, concludes next week. After Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (by the way there was no horse as is often depicted in pictures of Paul’s conversion, it simply says in the Scripture that he was knocked to the ground) went to Jerusalem to speak with Peter. He spent two weeks most likely learning from St. Peter about Christ whom Paul had not met before his conversion. He had not followed Christ, seen his miracles, or heard his words. Yet now he wanted more than anything to know Christ, what he said a nd what he did.

Paul took on the heart of Christ, sought to imitate Christ, to embody Christ, to image Christ so Paul could say in time that it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me.

Having taken on Christ Paul went throughout the Areopagus preaching Christ, teaching Christ, witnessing to Christ. The power of his preaching came from his identification with Christ.

The Church will enhance the power of its communication of the Good News only to the extent that the Church takes on the person of Christ. Conversion underlies communication of the word and makes that communication convincing.

Effective communication within the Church is not merely learning communication skills or strategies as important as those are. It is not a technique or performance but communication that influences, convinces, changes lives begins by taking on the person of Christ.

In Communio et Progressio published in 1971 at the Fifth World Communication Day it is said, “Christ revealed Himself as the Perfect Communicator through His incarnation. He utterly identified Himself with those who were to receive His communication and He gave His message not only in words but in the whole manner of His life…Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level it is the giving of self in love.” (Communio et Progressio, N. 11)

Great actors or actresses become the characters they portray and their performance is convincing not because they know the lines of the play or where t o move or how to project but because of that identity that they have achieved.

Peter Guber in an article titled, "The Four Truths of the Story Teller" published in Harvard Business Review debunks the myth that the great storyteller is a spinner of yarns "that amuse without being rooted in truth." Rather he says, "Great storytelling is always built on the integrity of the story and its teller." (Harvard Business Review, December, 2007, p.55)


A play makes its impact by the power of the words and actions communicated by the actors. The language of theatre needs to be crisp, punctuated with images, and that resonates with feeling. Abstract, theoretical, disembodied language has little place on the stage or for that matter from the pulpit or in most communication by the Church.

Some times I sense that in our efforts as Church to be clear, to articulate the truth we fail to use language in our communication that engages. People get lost in verbiage and concepts that leave them cold and unaffected.

At the recent Synod in Rome on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, one bishop talked about a priest in his diocese who was expounding on the gospel in his homily. He was going on and on when he noticed that a woman in the congregation began to cry. He thought to himself that he must have really touched her heart. He felt that he had reached her deeply. After Mass he was greeting the people as they were leaving Church. When the woman who had been crying came by he said to her, CI was so touched when I saw you crying in my homily. I must have touched your heart deeply.” “No,” she said, “I am not sure, Father, what you were talking about. I lost you entirely in your words but as you were speaking all I could think about was my dead goat who died last week. When I looked up and saw your goatee all I could think about was my dead goat.”

He was devastated.

People live and move in a concrete world in which they hope to find some deeper meaning. The Church holds that meaning but it must be communicated. The Church publishes many documents, issues many statements, gives many talks. Few are memorable just as few plays become classics.

Yet, at times, the Church has been a masterful communicator speaking powerfully to a particular moment in history. At those times the Church spoke directly to the needs of the time and in a manner that grasped the moment. Remember Paul VI before the United Nations, “No more war. War never again!” Truth became embodied in words and gestures that moved hearts.

What makes the Church’ s message impactful is when like good theatre the message is communicated crisply, succinctly, colorfully, and punctuated with images. It is communication that speaks to peoples’ lives and experiences. We may not like the sound bite world in which we find ourselves but it is our modern, technological world and if we are going to engage the world we need to speak with powerful images and metaphors that capture people’s imaginations and that take advantage of the reality of the short attention span.

“A communication must state the truth. It must accurately reflect the situation with all its implications. The moral worth and validity of any communication does not lie solely in its theme or intellectual content. The way in which it is presented, the way in which it is spoken and treated and even the audience for which it is designed - all these factors must be taken into account.” (C et P, N. 17)

As the “Perfect Communicator” Jesus Christ spoke “from within, that is to say, from out of the press of His people. He preached the Divine message without fear or compromise. He adjusted to His people’s way of talking and to their patterns of thought. And He spoke out of the predicament of their time.” (C et P, N. 11)

President Barack Obama communicates well. He uses stories, speaks to individual’s struggles and hopes and communicates feelings. He gets you to listen even if you might not agree with what he is saying. He confronts issues directly. He moves into conflict rather than avoid it. He lifts up the positive with a message of hope that inspires.

We need to grow more comfortable and skilled in the Church to communicate our message for a world that has little patience for the abstract theoretical language which we are accustomed to speak. We can use the help of the Roundtable in this.

“People today have grown so used to the entertaining style and skillful presentation of communications by the media that they are intolerant of what is obviously inferior in any public presentation. It makes no difference if this be a religious occasion, such as, for example a liturgical ceremony, a sermon or religious instruction.” (C et P, N. 130)

Archbishop Timothy Dolan took New York by storm because he smiled, spoke in the language of the common person, and related complex issues in understandable pictures and images. He was one with them. He spoke of eating from every corner food cart in Manhattan. He articulated Church teaching not in theoretical language but through images and stories.

Peter Guber suggests that the storyteller/communicator “must enter the hearts of his listeners where their emotions live, even as the information he seeks to convey rents space in their brains. Our minds are relatively open but we guard our hearts with zeal, knowing their power to move us. So although the mind may be part of your target, the heart is the bull’s eye. To reach it…the storyteller/communicator must first display his open heart. (Harvard Business Review, December, 2007, p. 56)


If you walk the lighted way of Broadway or drift off Broadway, the theatergoer confronts a vast array of options, plays to choose from. People standing in Hot Tics lines view neon signs listing many choices for their night entertainment all at half price. Where should they go?

People today pick and choose what they watch or listen to. They can pass you by without even a notice. If you run a full page ad or even better get a good review for your play they may buy a ticket but most important is word of mouth. People go to see what others have enjoyed seeing, have found worthwhile.

In every effort to communicate the Church’s message, there will be competing messages that seek to drown out the Church’s voice.

The Church strives to communicate the Good News - a prophetic, liberating word that upholds the value and dignity of human life. But in the modern Areopagus that forms public opinion it is not the only voice. At times, our voice seems more like a tiny whispering sound barely audible amid the noise, clamor, and din of the times. “The power of the media extends to defining not only what people will think but even what they will think about. Reality for many is what the media recognize as real. What media do not acknowledge seems of little importance…Even the voice of the Gospel can be muted though not entirely stilled.” (Aetatis Novae , N. 4)

Recently I visited Lloyds of London in England. You enter a modern structure built inside out. Elevators, piping, conduits are on the exterior of the building, modern art, they say. Inside is a vast open space, a marketplace of underwriter agencies each with their sign locating the spot where they do business. You stand mesmerized by the sheer quantity of options facing you, beckoning you, each company seeks your attention, awaits your business. Where to turn? Where to do business?

It struck me that this is the great challenge for the Church today. How to capture the attention; keep the interest of people who have so many places to turn? “The vast and ever growing variety of voices makes it more and more difficult (for the Church) to attract people’s attention” says Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., director of the Vatican Press Office in “Blessed be the Net?: A Roman Perspective on the Problem of New Communications.”

Pope John Paul II in his message for the XXXV World Communications Day in reflecting upon the scriptural passage, “What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops.” (Mt. 10:27) tells us, “Today’s modern housetops are almost always marked by a forest of transmitters and antennae sending and receiving messages of every kind to and from the four corners of the earth. It is vitally important to ensure that among these many messages the Word of God is heard.” (WCD May 27, 2001, N.1)

At last October’s Synod, the Holy Father was encouraged by a young woman from Hong Kong to start a blog in order to get the Church’s voice more audible. A blog, she thought, could disseminate more broadly the Pope’s keen insights and messages. In fact, the Pope now has a place on YouTube. The Church must not be hesitant or reticent to engage the modern digital technologies. They can be vehicles for communicating.

“The new digital technologies are indeed bringing about fundamental shifts in patterns of communication and human relationships. These technologies are truly a gift to humanity.” (WCD, Pope Benedict XVI, May 24, 2009, N. 1)

One of the most popular and well received initiatives I have begun in the Diocese of Tucson is our weekly Monday Memo, presented as a kind of blog on our Website and sent out to an email readership that numbers in the hundreds. The memo helps me teach, inform, and bring people’s attention to the good things happening in the Diocese.

It amazes me to see how broadly this is read and how many people respond.

I have received very positive feedback when I have written a daily blog for trips that I have taken for the Conference of Bishops, for example, to the Synod, to the Holy Land, to Nepal and India to understand the plight of refugees and the occurrence of human trafficking in the area.

People today want to be in the know. We live in an information society, a mass media culture. This is a media generation. The Church recognizes and affirms, “the marvels of technology which God has destined human genius to discover.” (Inter Mirifica, N. 1) the Church must be engaged, “in the modern marketplace where thoughts are given public utterance, where ideas are exchanged, news is passed around, and information of all kinds is transmitted and received.” (Redemptoris Missio, N. 37)

In communicating its message, the Church has to learn not only how to give the message effectively, but also how to "take" the negative feedback that at times, follows upon Church communication. We all know about the negative feedback the Holy Father received after his talk at Regensberg, after his lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Williamson, and after his statement about condoms and the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa.

Father Lombardi, director of the Vatican Press Office, asks, “Is there any great institution or personality that, finding itself constantly in the limelight, is not the object of frequent criticism? We have dozens of ready examples in Presidents and Prime Ministers. Why ought we to think that the Pope or the Church in a secular world such as ours ought to be an exception? (Lombardi, p.3)

Such moments of challenge, though, are opportunities for the Church to engage its members and others, even dissenting voices in dialogue to articulate what the Church teaches and why she teaches what she does. These are listening and teaching moments from which we ought not to back down.

Likewise those proclaiming the Church’s message cannot water down that message or try to make it palatable at the expense of the truth entrusted to the Church and to which She has a responsibility to be faithful.

“It is important to realize that many of the things the Church says- and that we should say if we would be faithful to Her- go against the grain…the Gospel of Christ is against the grain.” (Lombardi, p. 7)

To promote better communication of its message, Fr. Lombardi has raised the challenge for the Church at every level to find interactive ways to engage our people and respond to their concerns. “The impressive development of social networks, of content and information, exchange of the desire to comment on and intervene in every discussion of every topic tells us that the internet has given rise to an omni directional flow of transversal and personal communications. (Lombardi, p.5)

The structure of social network communication, in which relationships are more horizontal and overlapping, presents a challenge to our Church whose communication structure is built on a hierarchical model.

This is an area where the Roundtable could help in lending your expertise to assist parishes, dioceses even the Bishops’ Conference with technical expertise and resources to create programs that could realize this goal. Most every diocese has a web site and more bishops and Catholics are blogging yet involvement in interactive networks is still limited.


Since the times of the Greek tragedies, theater has developed immensely. Set designs, lighting, special effects, sound enhancement, creative stage direction have all been taken to a new level.

Sound boards have hundreds of switches that control the actor’s voices and tones. Revolving sets automatically change scenes instantaneously. In the new production of West Side Story the members of the audience are taken from their seat to a location under a bridge to an area defaced by graffiti and surrounded by a chain linked fence where the rumble between the Sharks and the Jets will take place. The set draws huge applause because it is so striking.

In a similar way we have seen that communication technology has advanced exponentially. We can twitter. We blog. We email. We use Skype. We choose Facebook partners, instant messaging friends. Blackberries and iphones are in constant use, fingers frantically typing in messages.

Yet, while technology has changed the horizon in which we live, technology cannot create good theater or make up for faulty content.

Theater depends primarily on the quality of the written play and the skill of the actors. Likewise communication, while enhanced by technology, rests on the power of the message and the authenticity of the communicator.

Technology facilitates the fundamental desire of people to communicate and to engage one another. “The desire for connectedness and the instinct for communication that are so obvious in contemporary culture are best understood as modern manifestations of the basic and enduring propensity of humans to reach beyond themselves and to seek communion with the other. We cannot lose sight of the quality of the content that is put into circulation using these means.” (WCD May 24, 2009, N. 4)

From time immemorial communication happens most powerfully in personal, face to face interaction that virtual communication can never fully replicate.

So in countless World Communication Day statements, the Holy Father has praised technology but cautioned us as well, reminding us that we cannot rely on technology alone to preach the Gospel.


In a recent article in Harvard Business Review (“What’s Needed Next: A Culture of Candor” June, 2009) James O’Toole and Warren Bennis describe what is involved in building a culture of candor in which members of an organization communicate honestly with one another for the well being of the institution. Surely in the Body of Christ, that powerful Pauline metaphor for Church, such open, honest, and direct communication should be the norm.

O’Toole and Bennis identify eight characteristics where a culture of candor exists: Tell the Truth. Encourage people to speak truth to power. Reward contrarians. Practice having unpleasant conversations. Diversify your sources of information. Admit your mistakes. Build organizational support for transparency. Set information free.


During our Chapter 11, I struggled mightily whether to put out information that was embarrassing, disturbing, and potentially harmful for the Church. What would people think? Yet openness and transparency were critical. There are no secrets in our cell phone, internet world of today. Clearly it was best and right to get out the story as it was. That alone could heal. Tell the truth.


The abuse crisis reflected again the fact that it is difficult for people “to speak the truth to power.” The story is told that when one is ordained a bishop, he will never hear the truth again. It amazes me how reticent people are, priests and bishops included, to say what is on their minds, what they feel or believe. Yet, unless one hears others’ perspectives, a bishop can be blind sighted; the Church misled.

Likewise the old proverb says, “If you want to know what someone is really like, put him in authority.” It is true sometimes that people in authority can be more self-centered and less interested in what people think or say or what they need. In the Church, this can be disastrous.


When I was rector of our high school seminary, Quigley Seminary South, in Chicago, Sr. Helen Marshall, our Dean of Studies, often seemed to have an opinion contrary to mine. She respectfully but firmly made her point known. She challenged my assumptions, raised questions. She kept me from some devastating mistakes. She knew how to say tough things in acceptable, palatable ways, a rare but important gift.


There are some priests in our diocese and elsewhere who got it alone. They ask no one’s advice, seek no one’s counsel. Their finance and pastoral councils are moribund. Cut off they go their merry way leaving people two options, comply or go away. Neither choice benefits the Church.


The humblest moments I have experienced as a bishop have been those occasions when I have met abuse victims and apologized for the harm done to them. The Church was wrong and that admission was healing.

Pope John Paul II throughout the Jubilee year acknowledged the Church’s mistakes and apologized. That was not weakness but, on the contrary, the Church at its best, repentant and seeking forgiveness.


As we consider ways to strengthen communication within the Church I want to leave you with several suggestions of what we can do as we look ahead.

Be transformed by God’s word, live it, become the word preached. Everything else is of secondary importance.
Help communicators in the Church to speak and write more effectively.
Help the Church at every level to acquire and become proficient in communications and information technology.
Don’t back off from proclaiming a message that may go against the grain. Speak the truth in love even when challenged or critiqued.
Find ways to highlight and hold up the Church’s message. Make it heard amid all the competing voices.
Help the Church develop interactive forms of communication that engage others especially the young.
Survey bishops and diocesan communication directors to determine what they most need to better communication in the Church. From the results of that survey help develop affordable resources.
Identify best practice s and provide models for effective communication strategies
Provide workshops for bishops and communication directors to enhance their knowledge and skills of techniques by which to communicate more effectively.
Create a climate of candor throughout the Church




Annual Meetings
National Symposium on Hispanic Leadership and Philanthropy for a 21st Century Church
The Standard for Excellence: Best Practices for a Mission Driven Church
Lowney A Call to Communion: Co-Responsibility for the Good of the Church


Managing for Mission: Building Strategic Collaborations to Strengthen the Church
From Aspirations to Action: Solutions for America's Catholic Schools
John Allen A Blueprint for Responsibility:
Responding to Crises with Collaborative Solutions
Clarity, Candor and Conviction: Effective Communications for a Global Church
Managerial Excellence: Engaging the Faith Community in Leadership in the Church Today
Give Us Your Best: A Look at Church Service for a New Generation
Bringing Our Gifts to the Table: Creating Conditions for Financial Health in the Church
A Call to Excellence in the Church
Challenges and Opportunities in Governance and Accountability for Institutions in Transition