Vatican tries to speak so others listen

November 22, 2010
Prelates listen to speeches during the recent Synod of Bishops for the Middle East at the Vatican Oct. 11.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Prelates listen to speeches during the recent Synod of Bishops for the Middle East at the Vatican Oct. 11.

JOHN THAVIS
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

VATICAN CITY — By Vatican standards, it’s a small revolution: A pontifical council is holding a major assembly without prepared speeches.

Participants in the Pontifical Council for Culture’s mid-November plenary meeting have been told to prepare for free discussion instead.

The main theme of the encounter is communication, and someone decided that the old model — hours of reading prepared texts — just wasn’t working anymore.

Those who have sat through Vatican meetings will appreciate what a radical innovation this is. Reading speeches has been the main activity at Roman Curia assemblies for as long as anyone can remember.

There is no prize for brevity, either. Being long-winded is a point of pride at these encounters: The feeling among speakers is that if you don’t go overtime, you shouldn’t really be on the rostrum.

For years, outside participants have quietly complained that such overly structured snoozefests left little or no time for real discussion. Their protests are now being taken seriously, aided in part by the digital media explosion.

Perhaps someone simply took a look around the room: At one recent Vatican meeting, as officials read their speeches, many in the audience were texting or working on their mini-laptops.

At the Pontifical Council for Culture meeting, not only will written texts be absent, but its meeting is being moved out of the Vatican and into the public square — to Rome’s city hall, where guests from other walks of life have been invited.

Richard Rouse, a culture council official, outlined the characteristics of what he called the “grammar of our culture.”

In today’s society, there are problems with the “informative monologue” model that often characterizes the Church’s approach, Rouse said.