I was fortunate to begin my professional career as a communicator by working for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria in Central Illinois. Bishop John J. Myers hired me, giving me the job title “Administrative Assistant to the Bishop for Communications.” He did so, he told me, because as a 22-year-old I was too young and inexperienced to carry the title “Director of Communications” for the diocese. And he was right.
I loved my time in the diocese. But I had a lot to learn about being a communicator with and for the Church. And – other than my day-to-day on-the-job training – my most impactful professional development came from an immersive, bootcamp experience that was conceived by an archbishop.
The Most Reverend Philip Hannan, then-Archbishop of New Orleans, had created the Institute for Religious Communication, or IRC, to help ensure that diocesan communicators were trained in all the skills necessary to engage in their daily work in a professional manner. Public speaking, media relations, writing, video and audio editing – all of these topics and more were part of the curriculum for a deliberately small group of “students” from Catholic dioceses around the country. The annual program – held at New Orleans’ Loyola University – was offered free-of-charge thanks to financial supported provided by a Catholic fraternal organization.
I loved everything about the program – from the curricula to the connections I made with Church colleagues that have lasted decades.
Thanks in part to the skills I learned at the IRC, Bishop Myers eventually changed my title to Director of Communications for the Diocese of Peoria. Years later, after I had concluded my diocesan service and worked for close to 20 years as a communicator in the fields of Catholic health care and Catholic education, I learned that the IRC had faded away around the turn of the millennium.
As a member of the KP Consulting team, I mentioned the IRC program to KPC’s Katie Pesha. I told her about the impact it had on me as a young communicator for the Church, and I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring something like that back for contemporary diocesan communicators serving the Church in today’s digital environment?”
I proposed: In an immersive, small-group way like the old IRC, we could talk about the uniqueness of the Catholic environment for communications professionals. We could discuss structures and support for diocesan communicators as well as external communications message development and communications planning. We can do media and interview training and dialogue about crisis communications. We can share best practices in internal communications and digital communications – including in organic and paid social media campaigns and diocesan and parish websites, as well as in using video to share the Good News. There would be so much to talk about!
To humbly quote Genesis: “And so it happened.”
KP Consulting prepared a proposal for something we ultimately decided to call a Diocesan Communicator Symposium; the Knights of Columbus read our proposal and generously agreed to fund the effort, making it free of charge to attendees; we scoured diocesan websites to collect email addresses for all of the diocesan communicators we could find – 278 of them, actually; and we extended invitations with the hope that at least six would apply to attend an event we’d planned for early-June. We needed six attendees to make the event work, but we wanted to cap our attendance at 10.
We wound up receiving applications from 13 diocesan communicators working in 11 dioceses in 10 different states. Blessed!
And now, as the Church prepares to celebrate the annual World Day of Communications, we are finalizing our plans to welcome 11 diocesan communicators from around the country to our inaugural Diocesan Communicator Symposium – to immerse at a St. Louis-area retreat center for four days in a series of continuing education and formation workshops that KP Consulting has put together for them.
Our keynote presenters include Dr. Jared Bryson, the president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, who will speak on “The Current Apostolic Age – Challenges and Opportunities” and David Spotanski, Chief Operating Officer of the Archdiocese of Washington, whose topic is “Staying Connected, Grounded and Faithful” as diocesan communicators. Molly Judd, Project Manager for the upcoming National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis, has agreed to lead Morning Prayer on one Symposium morning. And our attendees will be honored to attend a special dinner with St. Louis Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski on one evening.
As we come together, we would be well advised to reflect on Pope Francis’ message for this year’s World Communications Day. This year’s theme for the day is “Speaking with the heart – ‘The truth in love’ (Eph 4:15).” Near the end of the Holy Father’s message, he writes:
As Christians, we know that the destiny of peace is decided by conversion of hearts, since the virus of war comes from within the human heart. From the heart come the right words to dispel the shadows of a closed and divided world and to build a civilization which is better than the one we have received. Each of us is asked to engage in this effort, but it is one that especially appeals to the sense of responsibility of those working in the field of communications so that they may carry out their profession as a mission.
Here, I believe, Pope Francis highlights what makes serving as a professional communicator for the Church so different than working as a communicator in the secular world. The diocesan communicator’s mission – to bring Jesus Christ to a world that is increasingly ambivalent about things eternal; to help Christ convert hearts – is uniquely challenging and infinitely more important.
Please join the KP Consulting team in prayer, that our first-ever Diocesan Communicator Symposium – carrying on the legacy of the old Institute for Religious Communication – may be impactful for our 11 diocesan communicator participants.
Ultimately, may the information we share and the connections we help facilitate aid our attendees in carrying out their important work, as Pope Francis describes, “as a mission… to build a civilization which is better than the one we have received.”