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With calm determination

An interview with Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the U.S. bishops' conference

We meet Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the U.S. bishops' conference, on an historic afternoon in March. As we climb the Janiculum, destination the North American College, rain floods down on Rome and the Cardinals are closed in the Sistine Chapel to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. She is here, in apartment number 4, the Rome headquarters of this solid commander of the vessel, perfectly able both to sail the stormy sea and to enjoy the navigation on a beautiful sunny day. We wait a few minutes surrounded by computers, phones that keep ringing, fax machines and televisions turned on, Sister Mary Ann Walsh is with calm and steely determination clearing up a troublesome media encounter with the press of the West Coast. It is also thanks to her, moreover, that during the days of the sede vacante, the world has come to know another side of the American Church. That of a Church which is compact, smiling, welcoming and proud, ready to open up and enter into dialogue after the storm of the scandals.

Is it common for a woman to play an important and decisive role such as yours?

Well, it's a bit unusual, to tell the truth. When I approached the world of communication, there were not many of us, we sisters. I started working for the Catholic News Service in 1983. I also lived in Rome for three years at that time: it was wonderful! Then I was chosen as coordinator of media relations on the occasion of the World Youth Day, which was held in 1993 in Denver. When they took me on, they said, "You like the Pope, you like young people, you like the media, you are just perfect for this role." So I started to work with the U.S. bishops at the Media Relations Office. And there I stayed, later becoming its director. It's a fun job! I like to work with the media, I love the challenge of the encounter. I love the world of journalism, when it voices a serious search for the truth.

Do you have any role models?

I have loved journalism since my childhood: as a child, my heroine was Helen Thomas, a famous American reporter. I've always loved to write, and, as has happened to so many, I was very active in the school newspaper. Sister Mary Carmel Gaynor - who has taught many religious ended up working like me in this field - she constantly hammered on about two aspects: clarity and accuracy. This is an invaluable instruction, not only for those who move in the world of communication, but for life in general. When I entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Northeast Community (which deals with health, poverty and education), I thought that the journalistic period of my life was over. But ... After all - if you think about - even by working in the media and with the media one plays an educational apostolate!

The U.S. bishops' conference is very active on the web: twitter, facebook, blog. Something very interesting ...

And very new! It is a valuable way to get in touch with people. A few years ago, the U.S. bishops took on someone to work in and develop their social media. It is a top priority, and very successful. Here in Rome, for example, I write a lot on the blog: I myself am shocked at the number of people who follow me. It's definitely a great way to reach people, a completely new and different way of doing journalism. A direct and fast way, to which people respond. And how they respond!

The photo twittered by Cardinal Wuer was wonderful: the U.S. cardinals on the bus that was taking them to the work of the congregations.

In the United States there are about 78 million Catholics. To reach them, you have to do more than preach in church on Sunday. You have to use every tool possible. Moreover, for the U.S. bishops transparency is central: you cannot complain about the media, if you do not play your part in relating things. Having an open attitude towards them is the basis of everything. And believe me the new media make the challenge even more complex: we generally believe that compared to traditional channels, the social media are easier to manage. This is not true at all: it is a constant commitment, round the clock, seven days a week. And it is a way of communicating that is changing the Church. If it, for its part, is in fact more accustomed to making unilateral declarations, the new media are interactive. Say or write something, and people interrupt you, "What do you mean? '. It is a constantly dynamic relationship. We have to get used to it.

A precise navigation plan ...

The Church works hard to make its message really understood in the world today. Sometimes you need to make use of a different way of speaking. Many clergymen are academics, using formulas and ways of thinking of that world, they are used to arguing logically, to reconstructing all the steps of an argument before coming to a conclusion. But when communicating this does not work: we need to get straight to the point! And then repeat it, and repeat it again. It is a style of communication, a completely different technique, which really must be learned. The U.S. bishops know this. Last November, during their meeting in Baltimore (which took place from 12 to 15), there was a very important workshop dedicated precisely to the bishops’ use of the new information technologies. The central point that must be understood is that you must learn to get to the point quickly: you cannot afford the luxury of building up a line of reasoning. It is not a matter of having a total of 45 minutes available: here, if you have 45 seconds you count yourself lucky.

What is the attitude of the media in the United States towards the Catholic Church?

It depends on the circumstances. There are many Catholics who work in the U.S. media, journalists who care about the Church. Then of course, there are also many people who have a deeply hostile attitude. I am convinced, however, that those who criticize the Catholic Church do so because we are "big". They would never deride Muslims, probably not even Jews, but they can attack and ridicule Catholics. I think it's because we are strong enough to be able to put up with it. Then maybe people apologize, but unfortunately it remains the case that this is a widespread attitude.

Have things worsened in recent years? The scandals have certainly not helped ...

We have responded very well to everything that has happened with the sex scandals. But it remains the case that we are talking about a really horrible crime. And no one could ever and should ever tell us that we have handled a problem well that should never, ever have taken place. It's a heinous matter. The pain is still alive, terribly alive. In the hearts and souls of the victims, and in all of us. It is with us, and will remain with us for a long time. A drama we have to deal with, which we must constantly continue to deal with. The wound is open.

In the Universal Church, two-thirds of all religious are women. Yet their voice is little heard.

I think the fact that the voices of women are not heard as they should be is, rather, society’s problem. This is the heart of the matter. Let's look at the United States: leaving out the issue of the ordination, if we compare the positions that women have achieved in the Church and in society, definitely the Church wins. At the head of the Catholic Health Association - Catholic health care has a major role in our country - there is a woman, Sister Carol Keehan of the Daughters of Charity, president since 2005. And if Carolyn Woo directs the Catholic Relief Services, from July 2005 at the top of the National Catholic Educational Association, the organization that manages the entire national system of Catholic education, there is Karen Ristau. There are certainly women in high positions in the American Church. And let us never forget that they bring a different perspective. They enrich it.

How do you imagine the new Pope?

I would imagine a figure of our time: an accessible figure, able to reach people. After all let's not forget that the recent Popes have always had a great familiarity with the world of communication. Pius XI inaugurated Vatican Radio in 1931; on October 4, 1965 Pope Paul VI spoke to the UN, John Paul II loved the media: he understood its role and importance. Benedict XVI continued along this direction. So, I would like that this legacy was also taken up by the new successor of Peter.

Mary Ann Walsh, of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas (Northeast Community), is director of media relations of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of the United States. She worked at the newspaper of the Diocese of Albany and the Catholic News Service (as Rome correspondent and director of the media in Washington). The author of several books, she has received several journalism awards, writing (among others) for "Huffington Post", "Washington Post," "USA Today," "America magazine," "U.S. Catholic" and "Catholic Digest".

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