The origin and development of print media in India is closely associated with the arrival of the early foreign missionaries. Besides, their contributions in art, architecture, literature and languages, the foreign missionaries were keen on establishing printing presses in different parts of India; printing the Bible as well as other literature, after translating them into Indian languages. This article is mainly focused on to Catholic publications and does not deal with Catholic printing presses.
Let me begin analyzing the term “Catholic Press” itself. What exactly do we mean when we use this term? Can we really baptize the media and divide it in terms of faith/religion? Bishop Jose Porunnedom of Mananthavady diocese has something interesting to say in this regard. “I don’t think that there is something as Catholic media, because media is neutral. What makes media Catholic is the presence of the Catholic values in that media”, says the Bishop. In other words, can a newspaper, a journal or a weekly run by a Catholic who has no faith and is not practicing be called the Catholic Press? According to Bp. Porunnedom, “even the so called secular media can be catholic as long as they disseminate the universal principles and human values, which are also Christian”. So, it is evident that what makes the media Christian/Catholic is not necessarily its affinity with faith or the Church, but the Christian values it disseminates.
The challenges, opportunities and relevance of the Catholic press in India, in a nutshell, can be discussed in three broad areas—of imparting religious instructions, development of languages and literature and transformation of the Society.
Firstly, print publications in India, began as a medium for imparting religious instructions to Christians and was well recognized and used as an instrument for promoting religious values. It is a practice today among the dioceses as well as religious Orders/Congregations to publish their own bulletins or magazines for faith formation, education and information. However, as the number of publications increases today, one could genuinely doubt whether they are drifting from their original goal. At least in some of these publications, Christ seems to be ‘out-of-the-way’ or is seldom projected. A good number of faithful are of the opinion that Catholic publications should be based on the ‘Word of God’ and must promote spiritual values that are pertinent to people’s everyday life. Even while appreciating the contribution of Catholic publications in inculcating faith and values, there is a general opinion among the laity that a good majority of the publications are incomprehensible to ordinary people due to the high literature.
Archbishop Anil J.T.Couto of Delhi Archdiocese is of the opinion that, “it is a fact that as far as our involvement in the print is concerned, we remain basically in the spiritual sphere of printing bibles and other spiritual literature which is very beneficial to faith formation of our people. However, the church has not clearly ventured and even in some instances where the Church took initiatives, it has not really succeeded due to the lack of financial support”.
Bp. Porunnedom looks at the issue differently as he says, “many a times, we lack a clear vision and mission regarding a newspaper, magazine, journal, or a weekly. Why are we running it? Moreover, it also depends on the person who heads the organization. Normally a priest will be appointed and after five years he will be transferred and a new one comes. And what happens? May be the new person will have a totally different idea so the whole vision changes. No…this cannot be accepted”. It is also worth mentioning about the way people receive these publications. Knowingly or unknowingly, most of the Catholic publications today are labelled and received according to the Rites, and the circulations are confined mostly within the Rites, with limited exceptions.
Secondly, one can never ignore the contributions the print media played for the development of languages and literature. This is very evident in North East, Kerala and parts of Central and Western India. It is worth mentioning that the Salesians launched their first publication in India with the Khasi monthly Ka Iing Khristan (The Christian Family) in May, 1923. It was followed by many other publications and by 1930s there existed a series of publications in Khasi, Garo, Mikir, Hindi, Lotha, Angami, Manipuri, Lalung, etc. On the other hand, Eminent priests like Herman Gundert and John Ernestus Hanxleden, popularly known as ‘Arnos Padiri’, were the pioneers in Kerala who popularized Sanskrit and Malayalam grammar and poetry, and also compiled a dictionary. The printing and publishing became popular in central and western parts of the country mainly with the establishment of St. Paul Publications at Allahabad in the early 1950s. The handing over of the Examiner Press Bookshop from the archdiocese of Bombay to the Society of St Paul on July 15, 1951 was another milestone in the growth of Catholic Press in India.
It is true that Christian missionaries in general contributed much to the growth and spread of language and literature in India in the initial stages. But as time passed on, it seems that there are only a few Catholics who have contributed greatly to literature and writing. Two things have influenced this situation. Firstly, the Catholics had a different vision of life and philosophy. They were often interested in earning a livelihood and so engaged more in agriculture, industry, banking and education. Secondly, literary geniuses were not well accepted, or they were considered low in status compared to other fields. Nevertheless, all those who have come up and established themselves in literature overcame their own limitations, and achieved heights because of their dedication and hard work. So, it is important that the Catholic Church feels duty bound to support and encourage priests, religious and laity in professional writing and this should become the integral part of the priestly/religious formation as well as the pastoral plan in every diocese.
Thirdly, the total output of media in any given area is judged by the contribution it makes to the common good. The print media had also been the primary weapon in spreading the ideas of humanism as a basis for social change in the society. As educators, it was one of the primary tasks of the missionaries, throughout India, to create awareness for social reforms through education, especially among the rural masses. The first attempts to publish newspapers and news weeklies were part of this strategy. It is in this regard that we need to appreciate the contributions of Deepika newspaper, Examiner, Indian Currents, Inspirational Quotes, New Leader, Petrus, Teenager etc. However, many of such initiatives could not survive for various reasons.
Professionalism in Catholic Publications is to be discussed from this perspective. It is observed that, there is no focus on the subject matter or the target audience in most of the publications. Everybody is trying their best to communicate. So, there is a clear indication that most of these publications lack research and professionalism. Often, the institutional Church is projected, and some fill in their pages with big photos of bishops, priests and those in the hierarchy, or with the problems of the institutional Church which do not affect in any way the concerns and needs of ordinary people. As a result these publications often become a means for self-glorification or a platform to present the problems of the institutional Church.
As Bp. Porunnedom points out, “when priests or religious are appointed as persons in charge of media, I don’t think they can be fully professional as they have other commitments as priests and religious. On the other hand, if you appoint a professional lay person, you need to pay a decent salary which most of our media institutions cannot afford”. So, maintaining a professional quality with a sustainable quantity is a big challenge for the Catholic press. However, we need to address this issue and t his situation needs to be changed. The Catholic press needs to reaffirm their commitment to faith formation and values, ensure its contribution to the society, and maintain professionalism, if it has to be the salt of the earth and light to the world.
With the advancement in technology, the electronic, online and the social media, many people today opine that the print media has lost its relevance. Youth and children today prefer to google and get information than depending on print media. Common people tend to believe what is circulated on social media as authentic. It is true that reading habits among the youth and children are decreasing, but we cannot say that the print has lost its relevance. The only difference is that the format of dissemination of news and views has changed, but print will remain. According to Bishop Porunnedam, “the print media has to stay as there is always an element of control or supervision, which is often lacking in the electronic media especially the online newspapers and the social media. So there is a danger in terms of fairness and authenticity”.
While addressing the 33 rd general body meeting of the CBCI, His Eminence Oswald Cardinal Gracias invited the Catholic Church in India for an “Effatha”—a new opening where church is able to contribute to the society in terms of gospel values. “Media provides us the best opportunity to be a new way of being the Church by going beyond all barriers that divide the society. Encourage more and more Catholic laity to take up media profession so that their deliberations and lives communicate truth, fairness, authenticity, justice, peace and brotherhood in India”, reminded the Cardinal. It is in this context that I see the relevance of Catholic press.
(Published on 19th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 08)