Conference Report ARC 12th International Roundtable via Zoom
When the report about the ARC 11th International Roundtable was made in this journal (Vol. 18, no. 1), it was mentioned that the event, which took place in mid-March 2020 at St. Louis College, Bangkok, Thailand, went from an originally planned in-person event to a “hybrid” event (half in person and half online). This last-minute change in the format was a necessary response to the fast changing and quickly escalating situation of the COVID-19 pandemic taking place in Thailand and around the world. By late February and early March 2020, many of the participants scheduled to present their research at the Roundtable were no longer able to travel due to flights being cancelled, governing institutions not granting permission to travel, or fear of not being able to return once in Thailand. After consulting with the leaders at St. Louis College, ARC decided to carry out the program with a hybrid format instead of postponing the event to a later and undetermined time. As a result, those who were unable to travel were given the option to present their research and participate in the conference from the safety of their own residence. Others who were already in Thailand or were able to travel attended the RT in person as scheduled. Non-presenting participants who were already in Thailand could also attend the program in person. Despite the last-minute changes, the 11th International Roundtable turned out to be a successful one.
The 11th RT, however, proved to be a harbinger for what was about to be experienced by the entire world as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt virtually every aspect of human lives. For nearly two years, in-person gatherings became rare events organized only when there was a respite in the pandemic situation, and even then, these events had to be severely restricted in terms of attendance. What became the norm were online activities for such things as teaching and learning, meeting and conferencing, worshipping and socializing. And although the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in November 2021 was organized in person in Glasgow, and thousands of people attended this significant event on climate change, some prominent world leaders chose to participate online instead of making the trip. Similarly, in mid-November, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his counterpart US President Joe Biden also carried their three-and-a-half-hour summit meeting via the internet. At this point in time, one can say that online conferencing remains the preferred option for many institutions around the world.
In March 2021, when ARC laid out the plans for the 12th International Roundtable for 5-6 November 2021, we anticipated that even at this time, the pandemic would still remain a subject that continues to occupy large parts of ruminations, reflections and research across disciplines. However, we also did not want the conference to only focus on what had been happening throughout the pandemic, but also to look forward to the post-pandemic world. As heavily as the pandemic continues to weigh on our present lives, researchers and scholars have the responsibility to not only examine the past and present, but also to draw upon those experiences to make proposals for the future. It was with this intention and vision that the theme for the ARC 12th International Roundtable was determined: “Religious Communication During and Post Coronavirus Pandemic: Examining Present and Future Models and Strategies.”
We also decided to organize the conference entirely online (Zoom, YouTube and Facebook), and open it to anyone who would like to participate through one of these platforms. The primary platform where the scholars would be sharing their research and interacting with other participants, however, would be Zoom. The RT was divided into two sessions, each session being three hours long. A total of 12 scholars gave presentations around the theme of the RT, speaking from Asia, Europe, North America and South America. Non-presenting participants also hailed from a variety of time zones across the globe.
From this year’s International Roundtable, the following salient points could be made:
· Conscientious religious communication continues to be instrumental in addressing the issues related to the pandemic and its impact on people’s emotional and spiritual lives. Moreover, it holds tremendous implications for interreligious relationship as people of different religious traditions dialogue and cooperate with each other in order to journey through the challenges presented by the crisis. Indeed, pandemics are not new in the history of humanity and have been a part of many experiences of religious traditions. Imtiyaz Yusuf emphasizes that within the tradition of Islam, there are teachings that could be directly applied to crises similar to the current situation.
· Interculturality is presented as a model for the post-pandemic globalized world, in which there is “a sustained interaction of people raised in different cultural backgrounds that leads to mutually reciprocal relationships among and between cultures; people learn and grow together, mutually enrich one another by these learnings and integration and challenge one another on the cultural value differences and practices that gears towards mutual transformation” (Lazar T. Stanislaus, SVD). Interculturality takes seriously the positive elements from each culture in order to create a new culture that promotes authentic human flourishing.
· Religious communities must continue to navigate between the ideals and practices of their spiritual traditions while confronting the practical requirements for effective pandemic control. In this regard, religious leaders play an especially crucial role in motivating and mobilizing their religious adherents to take certain actions that contribute to resolving the crisis. This is especially important when oftentimes there is a lack of trust by certain groups towards civic leaders. As Yoel Cohen demonstrated in his studies, Haredi Jews (ultra-orthodox) “were critical of the flow of information, that the information had limited credibility, and that they had greater confidence in information provided by rabbis than the health authorities.”
· Participating in online religious rituals was normative for people of religion around the world. Chandrabhanu Pattanayak observed, “The speed at which a distinction was marked between the offline and the online modes of some of the rituals and ceremonies bears testimony to the continuing value of religion and the tenacity of believers to adapt the rigid, formulaic and ritually binding performances of normal times to the fast-changing reality of the pandemic-infected world.” The multiple discussions related to online religious rituals, especially Catholic liturgies throughout the pandemic, indicate that digitally mediated worship was not only a necessary experience created by the pandemic, but may continue to be prevalent in the post-pandemic world. In the Catholic Church, the value and authenticity of online liturgies have been interpreted differently by individuals and segments of the Church. The study of online worship in the Philippines by Benjamina Paula Gonzalez-Flor and Joshua Michael G. Jonas asserts, “The relational prayer theory posits that prayer inputs such as religious relationships and media sources processed through public or private processes result in prayer outcomes beneficial to the physical, psychological, and spiritual being of the person. It can be surmised then that flipping church services from physical to online became a regular Sunday ritual which implies that spirituality indeed can happen anytime, anywhere with or without a pandemic.” Leo-Martin Angelo Ruiz Ocampo, in his presentation, called for closer examination of the negative and positive aspects of liturgical teleparticipation in view of the new normal in order to articulate more accurately the nature of this activity. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome proposed the lens of mystagogy as a way to invite reflection on the experience of online worship. Zsupan-Jerome believes that the concept of mystagogy as a catechetical or broader formational framework can help Christians make sense of their digitally mediated worship experiences during the pandemic. According to Zsupan-Jerome, “Engaging in mystagogy of one’s experience of digitally mediated worship is spiritually formative, and allows one to recognize the mystery of God present in an otherwise unusual and challenging dynamic.”
· The human suffering created by the pandemic is an opportune time for theological reflections. In his presentation, Norman Melchor R. Pena Jr., SSP explored the correlative resonance between the seven last words of Christ on the Cross and the experience of the New Normal communication forced by the Covid-19 pandemic. By correlating the words of Christ during the last moments of his life on earth to the real experiences of suffering during the pandemic, Pena attempted to demonstrate “how religious communication can be done in the new normal that leads to hope in God and entrustment to Him who is ultimately the Alpha and the Omega – the first and the last Word of creation.” In a similar spirit, Frederick Prevosa warned of the temptation of mystifying and spiritualizing the pandemic “can lead to defeatism and the belief that this suffering is divinely ordained.” Rather the current situation needs to be reflected upon in ways that can communicate hope and salvation amid death and suffering.
· Suffering by people are not only addressed by theological and spiritual affirmations but also by practical words and deeds aimed at alleviating suffering. Vince Henry M. Salles’ study of Camillian Hospital chaplains in the Philippines demonstrated that despite the multiple limitations presented by the pandemic, hospital chaplains continued to use creativity and courage in order to minister to Covid-19 patients, their families and healthcare workers. The study not only highlights the continued essential role of hospital chaplains during the pandemic, but also suggests a need for explorations of new ways to carry out this ministry in the post-pandemic context. Albertina Navas called for empathy in communication during and post-pandemic, especially in the online platforms, in order to combat infodemic, hypersensitivity and disinformation, which are especially prevalent in digital spaces. Whether online or offline, Navas insisted that “empathic communication is more than speaking kind words of encouragement, sympathy and consolation. It requires concrete actions as evidence of solidarity, trust and support.”
· Finally, there needs to be some paradigm shifts in the post-pandemic world. Christina Kheng identified multiple shifts needed in the Catholic Church’s approach to missionary communication. According to Kheng, “The search for meaning and values prompted by the pandemic and other crises calls for missionary communication to move from preaching to promoting a journey of enquiring together, from maintenance to missionary outreach, from exclusive to universal languages for divine truths, from theoretical discourse to contemplation, and from unilateral action to pro-active collaboration.”
Based on the experience of ARC’s 11th and 12th International Roundtables (hybrid in 2020, and fully online in 2021), it seems quite certain that we may never go back to the entirely in-person format implemented by the first 10 Roundtables. During the last two years, we have become acquainted and comfortable with accommodating some or all of the participants online. Although we can go through long lists of positives and negatives for each of the formats – all in person, all online, hybrid – the reality of the present context seemingly affirms that one has little choice but to incorporate both the digital and the analog in future “gatherings”.
Participants in 12th International Roundtable
* Yoel Cohen is professor at the School of Communication, Ariel University, Israel. His books include God, Jews & the Media: Religion and Israel’s Media, and Israel’s Media and Spiritual News: Reporting Religion Around the World. His research interests include religion news, religion and media in Judaism and nuclear policy and media. He is convenor of the Religion & Communication working group of the International Association of Media & Communication Research.
Paper Title: Rabbis versus Israeli doctors in the COVID-19 crisis
* Benjamina Paula Gonzalez-Flor is Professor and Scientist from the College of Development Communication and the Director of the Learning Resource Center of the University of the Philippines Los Banos. She is also an affiliate professor and chair of the Master of Development Communication program of the UP Open University.
Paper Title: Simbahay from physical to virtual: Flipping church services in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic uncertainty and implications to spirituality
* Christina Kheng is a lay person from Singapore who teaches and consults for the East Asian Pastoral Institute and Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific. She has a PhD in Religion and Theology from the Australian Catholic University. Her research focuses on theological methods for Church-society dialogue.
Paper Title: The search for meaning and values in the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond: Paradigm shifts in communicating the joy of the Gospel
* Albertina Navas holds a PhD in communication, MBA, and is a journalist. She has over 20 years of experience serving over 50 clients in the public, private, and academic sectors, in 18 countries. She represents Latin America at SIGNIS Global Digital Desk and acted as facilitator at the Faith Communication in the Digital World led by the Vatican Dicastery of Communications. Currently, she serves as Director of Strategic Communication at the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador. She is the author of the book Desempeño vs. impacto: un modelo comunicacional aplicado a la política digital (Social Media, Citizenship and Politics).
Paper Title: Empathy: The key to handle digital communications post-pandemic
* Leo-Martin Angelo Ruiz Ocampo is faculty member of the Institute of Religion, executive assistant of the Vice Rector for Academic Affairs, and research associate at the Center for Theology, Religious Studies and Ethics at the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomás where he is finishing his doctoral studies in Theology. Aside from academic articles in local and international journals, he has published more than ten titles, including three books and translations of important Church documents, among them the Filipino edition of Laudato Si’, the first translation of a papal encyclical in the Philippines printed with permission from the Vatican Press.
Paper Title: Catholic Liturgical Teleparticipation Before and During the Pandemic, and Questions for the New Normal
* Chandrabhanu Pattanayak is the director of the Institute of Knowledge Societies. The Institute of Knowledge Societies (IKS) holds the exploration of the interface between modern technologies and traditional knowledge systems at its core. He is also a producer /director at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, and has made several video and audio programs which have been telecast and broadcast on national and international channels on numerous occasions and have been used as classroom teaching aids in several universities and institutions throughout the world. He has produced and directed about 40 videos and about 50 radio documentaries. He has attended and presented scholarly papers in more than 150 national and international conferences and has published in several international journals and books.
Paper Title: Homogenization of religious practices during Covid times: A new digital caste system
* Norman Melchor R. Pena Jr., SSP is a Catholic priest of the Society of St Paul. He is Dean of Studies of Saint Paul Seminary Foundation and lectures on Intercultural Communication, Mission, New Evangelization and Communication Planning and Management, and Social Media Studies at the Divine Word Institute of Mission Studies, Maryhill School of Theology and St Paul University Manila (SPUM). He holds a doctorate in Communication (Universita’ Pontificia Salesiana - Italy) and a PhD in Education (SPUM).
Paper Title: Christ, Cross and Covid-19: Words that never die in the new normal religious communication
* Frederick Prevosa is a member of the faculty at the University of Santo Tomas-Senior High School (UST-SHS) in Manila, Philippines. Aside from teaching, he assists in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines – Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities (CBCP-BEC) in coordinating the programs of the various small communities/Basic Ecclesial Communities of the different parishes and dioceses all over the country. His research interests include contextual theology, liberation theology, Christology, soteriology, popular religiosity, feminism, and liberation-postcolonialism.
Paper Title: Communicating salvation in the time of a pandemic: Life and death, suffering and salvation during the coronavirus crisis
* Lazar T. Stanislaus, SVD completed his doctorate in Missiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. He was the Director of Ishvani Kendra―Institute of Missiology and Communications, Pune, India. He served one term as the President of the International Association of Catholic Missiologists (IACM). He was the Provincial Superior of India Mumbai province. In addition to contributing many articles to different journals and editing books, he offers, in theological institutes, courses and seminars in Missiology, Interculturality and related subjects. At present, he is the Generalate Mission Secretary of the Society of the Divine Word, Rome.
Paper Title: Living interculturality in the post-pandemic world
* Vince Henry M. Salles teaches religion at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines, where he is also currently taking up doctoral studies in Theology.
Paper Title: The Communicative role of Camillian chaplains in their pastoral ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic
* Imtiyaz Yusuf is Associate Professor and Deputy Dean for Students Development and Community Engagement and also Coordinator, Islam and Buddhism Programme at The International Institute of Islamic Civilisation and Malay World (ISTAC-IIUM), Malaysia. Dr. Yusuf is also a Senior Fellow at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, (ACMCU) Georgetown University, Washington D.C., USA. Formerly, he was the Director of the Center for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding in the College of Religious Studies at Mahidol University in Thailand. He specializes in Religion with a focus on Islam in Thailand and Southeast Asia and Muslim-Buddhist dialogue.
Paper Title: Religious communication during and post coronavirus pandemic eras: A Muslim perspective
* Daniella Zsupan-Jerome is Director of Ministerial Formation at Saint John’s University School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota, USA. Her research explores the intersection of social communication, digital culture, and pastoral theology. She has served as a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Communications, as an educational consultant to the Catholic Press Association, and is an organizer for THEOCOM, an annual conference on theology and communications held at Santa Clara University. Major publications include: Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age (Liturgical Press, 2014); Evangelization and Catechesis: Echoing the Good News through the Documents of the Church (Twenty-Third Publications, 2017); Authority and Leadership: Values, Religion, Media (co-editor, Blanquerna, 2017). She has also published articles in Worship, Religious Education, New Theology Review, and has contributed chapters to a number of edited volumes.
Paper Title: Entering the mystery: Formative strategies for making meaning out of digitally mediated worship during COVID-19