Asia yearns for Gospel values, despite resistance: Plathottam

By Santosh Digal

Manila, April 3, 2019: Asian Christians are better informed about the Churches in Europe and America than those in neighboring countries, says Salesian Father George Plathottam, the new executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Social Communication (FABC-OSC).

The media practitioner, who has headed national media offices in India, took up his post in Manila, the Philippines, on March 22.

The FABC-OSC is responsible for the Radio Veritas Asia, the only continental Catholic Radio service broadcasting in 22 languages of Asia for the past 50 years.

The RVA golden jubilee celebrations are scheduled for April 11-12.

Prior to his recent appointment, Father Plathottam, a member of the Salesians’ Guwahati province, was rector and principal of Don Bosco Tura in Meghalaya and director of Don Bosco Academy Tura, a center for Civil Service preparatory training and career guidance.

The 62-year-old priest has three Masters Degrees in Theology, Sociology, and Journalism and Mass Communications and doctoral degree on Mass Communication from North Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India.

Earlier, he was the director of the Mass Media Department in St Anthony’s College, Shillong, and president of Indian Catholic Press Association and South Asian Catholic Press Association, and editor of South Asia Religious News.

Father Plathottam who has spent some four decades in northeastern India had served as the national secretary for communications at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India from 2008 to 2015 and director of national media training and research institute, NISCORT, from 2012 to 2015.

He is on several academic and consultative boards related to media. One of the founding members of 25 year old BOSCOM India (Don Bosco Communications) Father Plathottam is the founder of the Salesian news agency, Bosco Information Service.

In 1992, he won The North -South Friendship Prize from Union of Catholic International Press and the Government of Germany.

Santosh Digal spoke to Father Plathottam in Manila. Excerpts:

What are your feelings as you take up your post?

I consider it a great privilege and opportunity to serve the Church in Asia–the continent of numerous saints, martyrs and valiant missionaries. I feel that suddenly the borders of my mission territory have widened. It also means that I have to study and understand the rich and varied land and people, the diverse realities and challenges of the Churches in the Asian countries.

But I also see a lot of opportunity for networking and collaboration. Asia is the least Christian continent and hence we need to foster collaboration and dialogue. One of the biggest responsibilities of the FABC-OSC is to ensure that the Radio Veritas Asia (RVA) live up to its mandate as the ‘missionary of Asia.’

What has RVA contributed to Asia in the past 50 years?

RVA is the only continental radio ministry in the Church and it has been a great instrument of missionary work in Asia. I do not have accurate data on hand, but I know RVA has impacted many people across this vast continent over the past 50 years. It has reached people who could not be reached by missionaries due to political conditions. I hope some research students will study the impact of RVA on Asia. That would be a good contribution to the Church in Asia and for all those who are in the communication ministry.

What, according to you, is RVA’s relevance in Asia?

There is a great yearning for the values of the Gospel. There is also great resistance to the Christian message in some parts of Asia. I believe the founders of RVA were listening to the promptings of the Spirit more than 50 years ago. Today we must continue to listen to what the Spirit is telling us. RVA must continue to remain faithful to the mandate of Christ and announce the Good News. Times have changed, technology has changed dramatically but we must remain faithful to the mission of making Christ’s message known, loved and accepted. In today’s world of communication, we must be willing to change, to be challenged, to adapt and adopt new technology, to engage people in dialogue. But our intention and purpose remain unchanged.

We have just moved out from Short Wave to digital technology. This has been a major transition not only involving change of technology but training a whole group of people who are digital natives to implement the change. We have not completed the process and there are still teething problems we have to deal with. But over all this has been a happy move in terms of decentralization, cutting down of costs, and above all significantly widening the profile of our audience. Technology has enabled RVA to be global and today it reaches Asians living in every continent. Thanks to technological developments, we also have very accurate data on the audience, their choices and preferences. These help us to plan content more effectively.
What are the future plans of RVA?

One important thing to do still is to help develop good content to meet the growing challenges and the changed technology. It used to be said that the content is king, and it is still so. With lots of fake news around we have much to do to ensure that the voices of the Asian churches are adequately heard by all. There are so many great stories of faith and courage which remain untold, unknown. There are countries where to preach or practice the faith is still a great challenge. But we have so many heroic examples of people who witness to their faith in the face of persecutions.

We need to train people, particularly the youth, to articulate content that can help tell the gospel stories of Asia. In RVA we have trained more than 80 youth for the various languages in the area of technology to adapt to the new changes. We now need to provide them with skills needed to develop and present appropriate and meaningful content. Training in both these areas is a continuous process.

What are your plans for FABC Office of Social Communications?

FABC-OSC, like other offices, is primarily at the service of the bishops of Asia. More than just doing things, we have to help think, plan, and evolve strategies. We have to help the bishops to bring to their ministry the fruits of social communication. The FABC-OSC has perhaps the greatest number of publications on communications. It organizes regular annual meetings of the bishops of the member conferences. We hope to offer training for the bishops, especially the newer ones, in social communications, public relations and crisis management, formation of seminarians and clergy and religions in social communications, more effective pastoral plan for social communication, better planning and effective utilization of resources for more effective pastoral ministry, and promote research. We have plans to start a new training institute for communication, which we hope will serve the whole of FABC as well as meet the needs of RVA.

We also need to help FABC member countries to make pastoral plans in social communication. Already in 2015, I was involved in helping the FABC-OSC to develop pastoral plan for social communications in respective episcopal conferences. We need to take this forward and help each bishops’ conference to have appropriate pastoral plans so that we do not act in an ad hoc, arbitrary and disconnected way. We have to have clear roadmaps and set goals. These require a lot of collaboration and networking. We do not have a fixed formula, but each country must be helped to evolve its own pastoral plan keeping in mind its specific needs and challenges.

As I am at the beginning of my work, my first task would be to see, listen, dialogue, network, and study the needs and priorities.

What plans for RVA golden jubilee celebrations?

Besides the central celebrations in Manila on April 10 and 11, each language service will hold celebrations in respective areas with the audience and the local churches. This is also aimed at giving greater visibility to RVA.

What is the audience reach of RVA as of today?

The data is available from RVA office but I do not have it handy now.

How do you assess the impact of church media on Asia? Do the Church media count in the region?

Social communication has important implications for the Church in Asia. The FABC has with prophetic vision adopted the triple dialogue: dialogue with cultures, religions and poor. These dimensions express the reality of Asia–the continent with some 60 percent of the world’s population, majority of them youth.

It is so diverse in cultures and religions; it is the cradle of the world’s leading religions; it is also the continent that is least evangelized. Poverty is a grim reality that the church has to deal. The Gospel has something unique to offer to Asia in terms of addressing global concerns like poverty, inequality, migration. Though diverse, Asia has some common threads that connect it: the quest for God and spirituality, for peace, respect for life, a great sense of family and community values and sharing – to mention just a few.

What is the role of news organizations in the Asian Church?

News organizations are very important in the Church. The events of the Churches and the struggles of the faithful are also the gospels today. We do not know much about the other countries of Asia and the Church situations there. We are better informed about Europe and America than countries next door. We need to improve the quality and extend of news coverage and methods to share them. The news agencies are vital in doing these. We also need to ensure that there are some benchmarks for coverage of Church news. In this age of instant communication truth and accuracy are often casualties.

Church communication must be a model of accuracy and truth. It is unfortunate that often media get bogged down with sleazy scandal stories. Sometimes even the Church media is tempted to go for what is sensational. We need not run down our own house by highlighting sleazy stories and ignore so many other inspiring events. This is happening in the West too where the pre-occupation is with child abuse, and financial irregularities are the dominant news. I am not saying that they should be swept under the carpet.

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