Palakeel, Joseph, “Communication Theology in Priestly Formation”, in J. Srampicakal, Mazza and Baugh (eds), Cross Connections, Gregorian University, rome, 2006, pp. 171-184.

Joseph Palakeel

Joseph Palakeel is Professor of Fundamental Theology and Communication at Ruhalaya Theological College, Ujjain, India. He is author of The Use of Analogy in Theological Discourse (Gregorian University Press, Rome, 1995) and editor of Towards a Communication Theology (ATC, Bangalore, 2003). He is a specialist in theology and communication and conducts conferences, workshops and training in communication theology.

Communication Theology in Priestly Formation.

Communication is a constituent dimension of Christian theology, proclamation and praxis. Hence any major change in communication media and culture demands a rethinking of theology and pastoral praxis. Today the digital technology has made possible the integration of the previous forms/media of communication through the multi-media and multi-sensorial (audio-visual-textual) communication. The shepherds for the digital age should be well informed and formed to be critical consumers of the media, creative users of the traditional and post-modern tools and techniques of communication, effective evangelizers of the cultures and competent communicators of faith in the digital culture. For that, seminary should become a school of communication.

Communication Theology in Priestly Formation

Joseph Palakeel

The establishment of ecclesiastical seminaries could be considered as the most significant reform of the Council of Trent (on 15 July, 1546). Ever since it has remained the primary form of clerical training in the Catholic Church. The Council Fathers are said to have congratulated each other on that day, saying that this one decision was worth all their labor in the council.[1] What started off as a discussion on the necessity of teaching grammar and Holy Scripture to the Catholic clerics ended up declaring that the clerics are to be given a liberal education, alongside the ‘professional’ knowledge and skills, because such was the need of well-trained clergy after the Reformation. However, a closer look reveals that, along with the fear of Reformation and the requirements of counter reformation, it was a clever strategy to adapt the priestly formation to the emerging print media and the consequent cultural situation. Previous major reforms in clerical training, viz., the Cathedral schools of Augustine and the medieval universities of the twelfth century, too happened at identical epochs of colossal cultural change[2].

Today we are faced with a similar challenge. The “developments in the technology of communicating” has inaugurated a new era in human history, by “a fundamental reshaping of the elements by which people comprehend the world about them, verify and express what they comprehend”. The communication revolution has profound consequences for persons, societies and humanity as a whole and affects the “perception and transmission of values, world views, ideologies, and religious beliefs” (Aetatis Nova=AN 1-4). The new media has “new languages” and “new techniques” which have “given birth to new possibilities for the mission of the Church as well as to new pastoral problems” (Redemptoris Missio = RM 37, AN 2).

Naturally the Catholic Church should face the challenge and think of new models of priestly formation in order to form shepherds for the digital age. Most seminaries in the world have introduced a few communication courses in their curriculum. That is not a sufficient response, compared to the immensity and impact of the communication revolution. The failure and the inability to incorporate communications into different pastoral ministries of the Church can be directly linked to the absence of it in priestly formation. This article is an attempt to outline a theoretical framework for making communications a constitutive dimension of seminary formation[3].

1. Church and Communication Formation

Several Church documents have underlined the importance of communication in the life and activity of the Church and the formation of the pastoral personnel[4]. The Vatican II document Inter Mirifica (1965) states emphatically that “Priests, religious and laity should be trained at once” for the critical use of media (Inter Mirifica=IM 15, 16). The Pastoral Instruction Communio et Progressio (1971) further clarifies that communication education “should be an integral part of the ordinary priestly training”; “without this knowledge an effective apostolate is impossible in a society which is increasingly conditioned by the media”; “If students for priesthood and religious in training are to be part of modern life and also to be effective at all in their apostolate, they should know how the media work upon the fabric of the society and the technique of their use.” (Communio et Progressio =CP, 107, 111).

Two major documents of the Congregation for Catholic Education are of crucial importance in this regard. The Ratio Fundamentalis (1970) observes that the various forms of social communication have created a totally new condition of living (Ratio Fundamentalis =RF 4) and propounds that the candidates for priesthood must be trained to “use the media prudently and with reason, to discipline themselves, to educate the faithful and to make effective use of the media in their apostolate” (RF 68) and learn ways of expressing himself which is adapted to the men of today (67). Taking into consideration the importance of communication studies in pastoral formation, the same Congregation has devoted an entire document to it: Guide to the Training of Future Priests Concerning the Instruments of Social Communication(1986). The Guide has laid down common principles and guidelines (Guide=G 9-13) and has proposed a communication education plan in three levels, viz., a basic level of training receivers (G 14-19), second level of pastoral training in philosophy and theology (G 20-26) and a specialized level for selected candidates (G 27-28).

The Encyclical Redemptoris Missio and the Pastoral Instruction Aetatis Novae present a new vision of the means of social communication and emphasizes the importance of a pastoral plan for social communication in every activity of the Church. While Redemptoris Missio defines the impact of communication revolution on the apostolate, (RM 37c) Aetatis Novae states unambiguously that “Education and training in communications should be an integral part of the formation of pastoral workers and priests”(AN 18).

These and other Church documents reveal an intense awareness of the importance of the integration of communications in the pastoral ministry as well as priestly formation: “The priests today must not only receive solid and complete formation in the sacred sciences; They must know how to communicate Christian faith in ‘effective and convincing ways’ making use of all possibilities offered by modern means of Social Communication.”[5]

2. Goals and Levels of Communication Formation

The Guide, the document dedicated to the integration of communication in priestly formation, speaks of integral training in communication, including (1) theoretical knowledge of the cultural, political and religious function and moral trends of media and (2) practical formation in using the tools of social communication. The goals of such a communication formation are to educate the future priests to (1) “impose self-discipline”, (2) “train the faithful to exercise discipline”, and (3) “use the media in their apostolate”. For this three levels of training are recommended: (1) Moral (receiver), (2) instrumental (user) and (3) specialist (producer). However, the third level of producer is intended primarily for those who will be engaging fully in communication ministry (G 9). Redemptoris, Missio and Aetatis Novae has recommended a wider and deeper concern of “evangelization of cultures” to these levels and goals.

Church’s basic attitudes and approaches to communication could be summarized as moralist (critical receivers), instrumental (skilled users) and inculturationist (efficient evangelizers). This, however, is not the best response to the communication revolution and the resultant cultural change. To make communications “an integral part of their ordinary education” we need to add a fourth approach which could be characterized as a constitutive approach, which transcends the moralist, instrumentalist and the inculturationist perspectives.

2.1. Receivers: moral approach

Church wants to train the future priests “in the correct use of these instruments”, “for the protection and benefit” of faithful and pastors against the evil effects of the media. We can call it a moralist approach based on the strong conviction that Church is the guardian of faith and morals. This is a legitimate concern even today considering “the cultural and moral ambivalence” and “the moral and pastoral problems” created by the mass media. Priests, seminarians and faithful need to receive training to become critical and creative receivers of the media. For that matter, Media literacy and media education need to be made part of the priestly and pastoral formation. However, such a negative and cautious approach can degenerate into a predominantly defensive attitude, which seeks to isolate the faithful from the influence of the mediated communication. Church’s interest in inculcating communication formation should go beyond insulation to critical appreciation based on a positive valuation of the media.

2.2. Users: Instrumental approach

Inter Mirifica declared Church’s birthright to own and use the communications media for the proclamation of the Gospel; And Evangelii Nuntiandi added that we “would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means.” (EN 45). The Guide also states that Church sees “the instruments of social communication as providential means for the accomplishment of its mission to “preach from the housetops” (Lk 12, 3), “to all nations” (Mk 16, 15), “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1, 8) (G 1-8). Pope John Paul II advocates that “it is inopportune to leave their use completely up to the initiatives of individuals or small groups”, instead the entire Church Community” need to begin to appreciate the media and make sure that these new ways of communicating are “decisively inserted into pastoral programs” (RM 37; Rapid Development=RD 8).

It is beyond doubt that the potent means of communication are “a precious aid for spreading the Gospel” “and to expand the boundaries of evangelization” (RD 7), amplifying and multiplying the voices and reaching them far and wide. The success of the Church in each epoch depended primarily on the appropriation and use of the predominant media of communication. The Gospel was initially transmitted orally and later put into writing by the early Christian thinkers; Church was the custodian of writing and manuscripts in the middle ages; Church used the full potential of printing and radio for evangelization and faith formation. Catholics and Protestants have invested significant amount of money and resources in order to tap the potential of the means of communication for religious information, for evangelization and catechesis, for the formation of pastoral workers. The immense influence and vast reach of the communications media makes it necessary to train all pastoral personnel in the use of all modern means of communication. This however, should go beyond the acquisition and utilization of the ‘instruments’ (means) for efficient ‘transportation’ of messages to effective communication through creative use of the media and constructive dialogue with the media culture.

2.3. Evangelizers: Inculturation approach

In the recent years we find a growing awareness that while “the use of the techniques and the technologies of contemporary communications is an integral part of its mission in the third millennium”, it is not enough to use media simply to spread the Christian message and the Church’s authentic teaching. It is also necessary to integrate that message into the new culture created by modern communications” (RM 37c; RD 2). Speaking in the context of evangelization, Pope wants to say that the Gospel should shed light on the dark areas of media culture to purify them, because “the means of communication have become so important as to be for many the chief means of information and education, of guidance and inspiration in their behavior as individuals, families and within society at large.” (RM 37). Here the evangelization of cultures is intended as making the Gospel the ‘salt and leaven’ of the new culture, permeating it with Christian values.

Calling media as the “Areopagus” (Athens) and the “Forum” (Rome) of the modern world is definitely a step forward from the instrumental approach, because media is considered as the “market place” or the public sphere where politics and business were transacted, where religious social duties were fulfilled, and where the best and the worst of human nature was on display. (World Communication Day Message 2002, 2). St. Paul was not merely “using” public forum (Acts 17), but making a clever move to shift Christian discourse from simple narratives of an agrarian-pastoral culture of the synagogues, homes and villages into the critical, rational and analytic urban culture. This is often interpreted as a new rhetoric or a new way of presenting Christianity, in other words, as inculturation. But it could be interpreted better as a change into another medium (transmediation) of communication, rather than an innovation in the strategy. Today communication studies have made us more aware of the cultural and semantic implications of a shift in the medium. Hence the emerging digital communication marks a new culture, something beyond even a change in medium, hence, necessitates a more integral and constitutive approach.

2.4. Communicators: Constitutive Approach

Recent communication researches point beyond the sender-message-impact (transportation) model of communication, partly because of the new interactive tools and technology and largely because of the cultural studies approach which places communication media at the core of the cultural process of the construction of meanings through ongoing negotiation or interaction among the Sender, Message, Medium and Receiver on the turf (context) of the receiver. This has a lot of implications not only for the understanding of the media and process of communication but also for all the cultural institutions like religion, politics and social life. Communications media are not mere tools for packaging and transporting ideas, concepts or meaning, but a constitutive dimension of being human. The statements of McLuhan that “Media: the extensions of man” and “medium is the message” has indicated this direction.

In this context we can say that Redemptoris Missio makes the best assessment of the communication revolution by speaking of a “new culture which “originates not just from whatever content is eventually expressed”, but “from the very existence of new ways to communicate with hitherto unknown techniques, and vocabulary” (RM 37c). Considering communication as the constituent dimension of culture and life serves as the best paradigm for integration of communications in priestly formation because only such a constitutive approach would be capable of seeing communication as an inherent and important dimension of the theological-pastoral process. The three approaches we have listed and analyzed earlier consider communication as a tool or technique of transferring ideas, information or meaning from an expert sender to a quasi-ignorant receiver and, hence, can be reduced to the instrumental-moralistic approach. This recurs as the most fitting model of communication in the Church because it rightly fulfills the role of the Church as the authentic and authoritative teacher of truth and the official herald of the Gospel and serves the hierarchical and institutional structure. (Horsfield, 2004: 24).

The current phenomenon of communications impels the Church towards a sort of pastoral and cultural revision. We are faced with three fundamental options: formation, participation and dialogue (RD 11). It is in this wider cultural context that we have to start thinking of integrating communication formation in seminaries.

3. Communication in Theology and Seminary Formation

McLuhan, Walter Ong and other communication scholars have established that culture is shaped by the dominant structure of communication (media) and all other systems adapt to it. From myths and stories of ancient times to the highly rational and abstract thinking of modernity, we find a connection between the available medium of communication (oral-written-print) and the predominant pattern of thinking and living (mythical and cosmo-centric to rational and anthropocentric). We find the height of rational conceptual thinking together with the printing technology and culture, which is also the most abstract form of human communication. If we take the fundamental correlatives of human thinking and expression like head-heart, reason-emotion, conscious-unconscious, object-subject, text-context, sender-receiver, form-ground, abstract-concrete, we find that the print culture and the corresponding philosophy, progressively, favoured the former set of correlatives, whereas the oral cultures were more allied to the latter.

Digital communication has opened a new chapter in human thinking where the storage and retrieval of information and creation and expression of meaning are very different from the linear, conceptual and rational methods of print era. It is an integration of all previous media and cultures, making “orality, literacy and electricity meet” (Boomershine, 1991). Literacy today is not just the ability to read and write texts or pure impassioned and critical reasoning, but the capacity to make sense of the multi-media and multi-sensorial communication of audio-visual-textual stimuli, with multi-layered meaning. Written and printed texts and their interpretation were predominantly mono-semic, because the sender produced the meaning and transported it to the receiver through static text and faithful textual interpretation (hermeneutic). Whereas in the digital media of sights, sounds and hypertexts, the producer (sender) has very little control over the (multimedia) text, because the images, sounds and texts are received and interpreted within the context and world view of the receiver, without the barrier of time and space. The simultaneity and interactivity of the digital communication makes possible a participatory construction of meanings through negotiation. This has enormous consequence for the faith formation through religious education, teaching and preaching.

3.1. Theologizing in the Digital Culture

Church adapted well to the manuscript and the print (literate) culture, by translating the oral-tribal Bible into the written (and urban) communication and later to print and rational culture by mastering the dominant medium of each time. Today’s Church and theology still follow print media and culture and remains rational and conceptual and far removed from the common language of the people: “it has become a logo-centric science. The preferred, if not chosen, medium is verbal expression. The tools are concepts. The focus is on truth. The handmaid is philosophy.” “revelation is seen as a creed, then response to it as assent” (Amaladoss: 63). Can Church and theology of another media culture effectively communicate without the dominant medium of communication of the present?

Communication theologians argue that communications is a constitutive, and not just functional, factor in theologizing. “Theologizing is a continuous and renewed process of interpretation, systematic reflection, articulation and praxis after encountering a God who communicates himself with humans and their world” (Parappally: 73). In this sense, theologizing can be considered as a communication process or a meaning-making exercise. In fact both theology and pastoral ministry are intrinsically about communication: Even the question of what media to use are primarily theological than technical decisions because it reflects the model of the Church. Communication theology, thus, does not mean a theology of communication or how theology can be communicated, rather it is like doing a “theology of theology” (Parappally: 73). Communication theology is theologizing in the emerging digital language and literacy.

Seeing theology as a meaning making process, we need to ask certain questions to theology: Is the present theology (and ministry) “sensitive to the questions and searches of the people? Do priests talk about God in a language people can understand?” Does it reflect local religious symbols and expressions, and speak in the “local religious language which expresses the religious sentiments of the people?” Does it give pastoral persons the capacity “to see, with the Christian community, what God is calling the community to do in a given context”, to “see the action of God in a context” and “to listen to and discern what God is saying in the hearts of all…”. (White, 2003: 26-27).

Digital culture is a better medium to communicate God’s interventions in life through actions in history, which are “experienced and celebrated in a multitude of media” like narrative, images, symbols. This adds a plural, global and contextual (experiential) dimension to theology. But digital culture necessitates an emphasis on the theological method together with the content, a shift from being a body of knowledge – formulas and dogma – to stories and symbols and celebrations, from knowledge of the Scriptures and tradition to discerning the action of the spirit in life. This creates a better way to see the totality of Christian life with sacraments, rituals, music and drama, largely integrated into on theological system.

3.2. Seminary as a School of Communication

Like theology itself, the present seminary system is also a child of the print media and culture. In order to form pastors for ministry in the digital culture, seminaries should transform, because the candidates for priesthood are from the digital culture and the people for whom they are going to minister are living in the new culture. Hence a constitutive communication theology calls for a revision/renewal of the entire programme of seminary formation including the structures, curriculum, pedagogy and life. The human, intellectual and spiritual formation, as well as philosophical-theological presuppositions, need to be reexamined. There should be a plan for each seminary and for each stage of formation, with fitting content, style and method of integration.

To give an integral formation in communication, theoretical knowledge and practical skills of communication should be imparted. This could –and should– be done without adding many new courses into an already heavy curriculum. The study of the communication theory could be integrated into the existing courses in philosophy, sociology and theology. For example, communication theology could be integrated into introduction to theology; moral aspects could be made part of the moral theology; other deeper theological issues related to communication could form part of the courses on Revelation, Trinity, Christology, Anthropology and Ecclesiology. Biblical story telling and performance criticism of the Bible could be used with other criticisms to recover the original meaning and context of the Biblical narratives and as a better way to communicate faith in the era of digital literacy which is a new form of orality.

Communication is about connections and networking. The theological formation today is too fragmented in the name of specialization and often fails to give a comprehensive vision of faith, theology and life. The hypertext style of the digital culture challenges us to make a comprehensive vision of God, man and world in the life situation or context of the modern man through the study of Bible and theology. The World Wide Web and the communication networks even challenge to link all seminaries in a region or country. Learning and teaching theology can be seen as establishing connections, between God and man, faith and life, text and context, sender and receiver – sort of theological hyperlinks.

The post-literate man is soaked in the universe of sights, sounds and hypertexts, and his consciousness is constituted by the mediated sounds and images of reality. Theological formation should address this phenomenon and make theological formation a multimedia and multisensorial experience. The electronic and digital images on the TV, computer and projection screens could serve as the modern day icons and sacred images. Together with images, sound bytes of all frequencies reign the atmosphere in the form of broadcasting and podcasting, audio books and music albums. To this is added the hypertext which is an ingenious new way to read and write. Unfortunately all these areas are dominated by the secular media which fills the field of communication with worldly images, sounds and texts.

Most youth who enter the seminary today are exposed to the modern technology of communication. If the seminaries can make communication facilities available and provide guidance for effective and mature use of them, students will master the skills by themselves. If the teaching methods could be changed from lecturing and note-taking to more interactive learning using participatory teaching methods and audio-visual presentations, these skills will be automatically picked up by the students. (In fact students may be able to help the professors to transfer the lecture notes into power-point presentations!). It is important that all seminaries have the necessary infra-structure for it. Today a library of books is mandatory for all seminaries; likewise, multimedia resources and access to internet could be made a prerequisite for all theological faculties.

Integration means a balanced use of all communication skills and styles, according to the demands of the ministry in a particular place, time and culture. It is important to keep an equilibrium between the technological and the ‘traditional’ communication. Group and personal media are still very relevant to pastoral ministry. Together with the introduction of the modern tools and techniques of communication, the existing and forgotten skills of Church communication like story telling and parables, music and images, art and architecture, rituals and sacraments, liturgy and popular pieties should be encouraged and promoted. Above all, to respond to God and to his people, the pastors need competence in intrapersonal, interpersonal, group and communitarian communication. While silence, meditation and love for nature could be promoted as countercultural values, training in ‘people skills’, like counseling, conflict resolution, negotiation, personnel and resource management, pubic relation could be very valuable skills in ministry.

In short, seminaries should innovate to become schools of communication, training shepherds for the digital age.

3.3. Shepherds for a Digital Age

The shepherds of the digital age should be master communicators with expertise in all forms of communication. The future ministers should be well informed and formed to be critical consumers, creative users, effective evangelizers and competent communicators. Media literacy and media education would enable them to safeguard themselves against the evils of the media and to train the faithful to be critical and discerning receivers. Exposure and expertise in the media tools and techniques will empower them to utilize the immense potential of the media for spreading the Gospel values. The original missionary mandate in Luke, to “go and proclaim the Gospel to all “ethne”, – nations, peoples or cultures– could be interpreted as an invitation to permeate the digital culture with the transforming power of the Gospel. For this the pastors should be skilled in understanding the cultural implications of the media, and be able to talk in its own terms.

The best way to counter the negative influence of media is to highlight the positive elements and helpful values, because it is impossible to insulate any one from the reach and power of media nor to dictate the meanings and interpretation. The process of cultural negotiation could be used to construct noble and worthy meanings out of the media events. For this the future pastoral personnel should also master the technical and cultural skills of digital communication, in addition to the theological pastoral knowledge. They should be able to discern the presence and action of God in history and culture and to articulate the faith experiences of the people. Faithful to the essential Biblical and ecclesial expressions of Christian living, they have to become artisans rather than guardians of faith, awakeners of the spirit rather than educators of doctrines, seers who animate people than overseers who rule them and prophets of God to fight against all idolatry (Palakeel, 2003a, 53-55).


Trent introduced the seminary to form clergy for the changed medium (printed text) and its cultural (philosophical and theological) impact. It served a well defined purpose of training the Catholic clergy for the then-new culture. The digital communication, which marks a much more complex change in media and culture, demands a similar visionary and prophetic renewal of the theological-pastoral formation to make the Church faithful and fitting witness of the Gospel in the twenty-first century. Face to face with the communication phenomenon, Church’s reaction should shift from just asking “how to make use of the media of communications to spread the Good News” to “how to make theology and formation most fitting to the digital culture”. For this we need to chalk out new pastoral priorities responding to the needs and context of each Christian community and renew the theological presuppositions, processes as well as formation accordingly. The essentially moralist instrumentalist and even the inculturationist understanding of communication media has its origin in a theology of communication which sees theology from the point of view of the intrinsic communicability of theological content. The need of the time is a communication theology which sees communication as a theological category and theology as a communication process. Seminary has to be envisaged as a school of communication.

Today many speak of the antagonistic, isolationist and instrumentalist attitude of the Church to the media; but a glimpse through the history of theology and Church shows that Christianity has always tried to be closely associated with the predominant communication media of each time. It was most successful in the early years of Christianity and during the reformation, but trailing behind in the blooming digital culture. Church has to take courage and consider communication as an integral dimension of Christian theology, proclamation and praxis. The first step towards this is to integrate communications in the formation of the pastoral persons, because an erudite and enlightened clergy will be able to reform and renew the Church.


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[1] See “Ecclesiastical Seminary” in

[2] In the early centuries of Christianity individuals were chosen and trained in famous Christian schools of theology. St. Augustine established a monasterium clericorum near the cathedral, (in domo ecclesiœ), in which his clergy lived together. The second Council of Toledo (531) exhorted parish priests to have young clerics, in their house, and to instruct them with fatherly zeal so as to prepare worthy successors. Gradually, the cathedral and monastic schools declined and some of these Episcopal schools grew into medieval universities. A large proportion of the students in the universities were ecclesiastics or members of religious orders; Still, the vast majority received little or no clerical training. Only about one per cent of the clergy were properly educated.

[3] Interestingly, the Guide observes in 1986 that the recommendations of Ratio given in 1970 were not executed: “definitive and organic programmes were still almost totally lacking”, “either because the “specific object and scope of any programme was poorly understood”, or because “there had been a failure to distinguish between the aims and levels which had been visualized” (Guide 5). This situation continues even today.

[4] A complete chronological listing of “TRAINING OF THE CLERGY FOR THE MASS MEDIA IN OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS OF THE CHURCH” is given in the Appendix 1 of Guide to the Training of Future Priests Concerning the Instruments of Social Communication, issued by the Congregation for the Catholic Education in 1986.

[5] Message of the Holy Father through Cardinal Sodano to BISCOM 3, May 7-12, 2001 on the theme Social Communication formation in priestly Ministry and Mission see Eilers, Franz Josef, Social Communication Formation in Priestly Ministry, Logos, Manila, 2002, 7.