At first glance, the Old Testament reading from Second Kings seems to be one of those readings from the sequence of the weekday lectionary that really doesn’t offer us much food for thought as we gather for this Opening Mass for the Catholic Media Conference. The reading appears to simply offer the fantastic story of the ascension of the prophet Elijah on a fiery chariot leaving Elisha his successor and his companions to carry on. So, at first glance, there really doesn’t appear to be much to say other than to let the story speak for itself and to move onto the Gospel. But being the clever homilist that I am, I am quite happy to report that a deeper second effort at the text does allow us to glean some wisdom and direction from this story and apply it to our work as men and women committed to the spreading of the “good news” through the various avenues of communication.
We are told at the very beginning what is about to happen: the Lord is going to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah has already tapped Elisha as his successor. He has already allotted to Elisha a full portion as his heir. Now the time has come to make that succession real and complete. Along with Elijah and Elisha come fifty guild prophets, Elijah’s ‘entourage’ so to speak. They are to be witnesses to the succession. At the Jordan River, Elijah and Elisha miraculously crossover and there Elijah offers Elisha one last request, “ask of me what you will.” Elisha asks for a “double portion of your spirit.” Elisha does not simply want to be Elijah’s successor in name. He wishes to be his successor in the power of the spirit. Elijah grants his request and is then caught up in the whirlwind of the flaming chariot and horses. Elisha, now the full prophet of the Israelites, crosses back over the river and takes his place among the guild prophets, who in a verse we have not heard, acclaim him saying, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”
What we see in this reading is an Old Testament account of prophetic succession: the naming of a successor by a prophet, the handing on of the prophetic power, and the acclamation by witnesses. The newly named prophet is appointed so as to continue the mission of witness and leadership within the community. Recall if you will what that prophetic role was within ancient Israel: the prophet was the one who spoke to the truth of things. Whether it was to the king – as the prophet Nathan did to David or as Elijah himself did to Ahab – or to the people of Israel as a community, it was the prophet who testified to what was really going on and what was expected as to the covenant between God and man. The prophet told the story as he saw – as it was – “just the facts, M’am” and in telling the facts allowed those involved to come to judgments onto themselves.
From all this I would ask us to consider our roles as communicators imbued with the Catholic faith as one that is prophetic in the ancient sense of the word. We have all been, in fact, called by name, from within the community, and imbued with the Spirit to speak to the Truth of the Jesus Christ. In the rite of infant baptism as the child is anointed with Chrism, in itself an act with deep prophetic meaning, we hear, “As Christ was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you
live always as a member of his body sharing everlasting life.” Following this, there is a wonderful little rite called the “Ephphatha” when the priest or deacon touches the child’s mouth and ears saying, “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to hear his words and your mouth to proclaim his glory.” The call to be heralds and prophets of the kingdom of God is one that is shared by virtue of our common baptism. While this varies according as to degree and office, as laity and ordained, each of us is still missioned to a prophetic role to speak the Truth of the Catholic Church.
Today, as in the past, our community needs to hear that message of truth loud and clear. That is the work that you all do so well. Through the various means of communications, we join in the prophetic act of speaking to the Truth of Christ’s salvific mission to all men and women. We have received the two-fold inheritance that was sought by Elisha from Elijah – we have been named by the community and empowered by the Spirit.
As one who is missioned with you, I would like to offer a four simple points of advice that arise from my time as spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston and my present role as a bishop that I have found helpful in directing the way in which I use public communications. These are not exhaustive or hard or fast rules. They are more musing than anything else. But I find them helpful in fulfilling the prophetic role of being a good Catholic communicator.
First, always take the high road. By this I mean, always be polite, never respond in kind, do not making anymore enemies than one already has in these matters, and most importantly don’t send an angry email written completely in capital letters until you’ve slept on it overnight. Always taking the high road places us in a higher place. I really think this is the way of Christ. I’m reminded of yesterday’s gospel in which Jesus said, “when someone strikes you, give them your other cheek.” There is already too much invective and anger out there. Let’s not add to it. In addition, by taking the high road one avoids allowing those opposed to one’s position from going on the “ad hominum.” For example, when an American bishop responded with a somewhat sarcastic column of his own to an editorial in America magazine that criticized the USCCB for its position on the HHS mandate, the response was immediate but not in the way he hoped. Instead of responding to the very valid points he raised, critics almost unanimously chastised him for the tone of his response with comments like, “Isn’t it terrible that a bishop would respond with sarcasm.”
Second point: Stay on topic. Stay on topic. Stay on topic. This absolutely applies to answering media questions but it also applies in the greater scheme of life. And what might that topic be for us applied to our lives? “That God the Father so loved the world that he gave us his only begotten Son that whoever should believe in Him might have eternal life.” Now I know that in the particular sense concerning much of what we do the specific topic varies from one story or moment to the next. But in the grand scheme of things as Catholic communicators isn’t the overall topic the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that means for the world? Staying on this topic really does allow us to keep our actions and words directed towards Him.
Point three, and this probably goes with “take the high road” but I think it is enough of a variation to say it. When you are in the midst of any task, ask yourself, “Is what I am doing building up or tearing down?” In asking this question I think of St. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians to “say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them.” Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t speak the truth to evil or sin. Jesus himself was quite outspoken in his attacks on hypocrisy and sin. In that sense we are building up by tearing down, when we tear down evil and replace it with the good. But my admonition is more to avoid at all times the “attack ad” mentality that sadly permeates much of our public discourse today. One way in which this plays out positively is trying to communicate as much as we can what it is we are “for” rather than what we are “against.”
Finally, my last point: I offer a special saint in the teachings and person of one of the great doctors of the Church, St. Terese of Liseaux and her “little way” for us communicators who serve the prophetic mission of the Church. I would like to see her become the patron saint of the new social communications because she offers in her “little way” a way for us to keep our work in focus. In her “Little Way”she tells us to first live out our days with confidence in God’s love and to recognize that each day is a gift in which one’s life can make a difference by the way you choose to live it. Out of this comes the admonition to see every little task or moment in life as an opportunity to make concrete the love of God. Think about that in terms of what we do. Every news story, every video, every blog post, every tweet or email or response to comment boxes can become an opportunity to manifest God’ love if we commit ourselves to loving. I will love God and others in the little moments of my work. I will spread the good news through one kind act, one loving response, one at a time, in the name of Christ. I choose to communicate that love right now in this moment and in the concrete and isn’t that truly speaking the truth of God’s love as prophets named by God, missioned to the kingdom, and empowered by the Spirit of love.