Last month marked 30 years since Dame Lyndsay Freer started working in media and communications for Auckland diocese.
For three decades she has been arguably the most visible and recognisable “face” of the Catholic Church in New Zealand.
Her work for the Church was recognised with her being made a papal dame in 1995.
Dame Lyndsay said her interest in Catholic communications could have well been started from an early age.
During her childhood, her family used to buy the Zealandia, and when she was aged about 12 she won first prize in a story competition in the newspaper.
Her prize was a biography of Pope Pius XII and she thinks the overall experience of the competition might have sparked her interest in matters Catholic.
She worked for Auckland diocese from 1985 to 1997 and was National Director of Catholic Communications for the New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Conference from 1998 to 2008.
From 2009 until the present, she has worked as media and communications spokesperson for Auckland diocese and as media consultant for the Marist Fathers (Society of Mary) — both part time roles.
Dame Lyndsay has also had a significant involvement with the Catholic press in a governance role. She chaired the board of Zealandia for several years and is today on the NZ Catholic board. NZ Catholic spoke with Dame Lyndsay about her career in Catholic communications.
NZC: How did you come to work for Auckland diocese in 1985 (and in what role)?
My parish priest, Msgr Phil Purcell, who was also the vicar general of the diocese, told me that Bishop Denis Browne was looking to appoint a communications director for the diocese. Our young son was still at primary school, so I applied for the position, but could only work during school hours — with school holidays off — although able to work from home as required. I expected not to be successful, but however got the job.
NZC: What were the big “issues” in terms of the public face of the Church
in 1985 in NZ? What are the big issues now?
At this time the first allegations of sexual abuse were surfacing, and this continued to be a major issue for us for the next 20 years or so. And of course during 1985 we were preparing for the visit the following year of Pope John Paul II, which was an exciting and very time-consuming exercise for over a year, and an occasion of great public interest.
I would say that the big issues today are firstly the impact of Pope Francis, not only on the Church, but also on the public at large, as he presents the message of the Gospel in an accessible and beautiful way.
But secondly, the increasing secularity of Western society means that faith is being perceived as largely irrelevant, so we face a huge challenge to touch hearts and minds, especially
of young people.
NZC: What have been the most memorable moments in your three decades of
communications work for the Church?
The most memorable have been largely to do with the papacy. First, preparing for John Paul’s visit in 1986 and managing the media for the time he was in Auckland. Then being in Rome, in St Peter’s Square, during the death of John Paul II and the subsequent conclave that elected
Pope Benedict and reporting back to the New Zealand media during this time. Then going to Rome to report back on the conclave that elected Pope Francis.
Those were truly historic moments and I was privileged to be there and being able to make a contribution to the media coverage of those events.
Another was being part of the decision by the bishops to establish a National Office for Professional Standards, which has played a major role in helping our dioceses and religious
orders establish protocols for dealing with the sexual abuse issues. Some other moments included the time I was on an international Catholic jury panel for the Golden Rose film
festival in Montreux, Switzerland.
There were also the communications courses I attended in Rome, by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and another run by the communications department of the Santa Croce University.
NZC: You have worked for the Church during the pontificates of three popes —
John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. What are your impressions of each man?
It’s said that comparisons are odious. They are all greatly gifted in very different ways, each one bringing new insights and strengths to the Church. Depending upon one’s own understanding of “Church”, people might have their favourites, yet for me, each man was/is Christlike. I was deeply saddened when JPII died, especially being in Rome and experiencing
the huge outpouring of love and grief at his death. I came to love and admire Pope Benedict, a great intellect, yet wise, humble and gentle.
As for Pope Francis, I thank God every day for him. He is just what we need in today’s world, as his popularity within and beyond the Church testifies.
Journalists and reporters often say to me that they are not Catholics or even people of faith, but they really like and respect Pope Francis.
NZC: As a whole, are the media better disposed to the Church now as against
1985? What are the reasons for this?
Prior to 1985, when the bishops’ conference established a national office called Catholic Communications, we gained a reputation for being professional and available in our communications. Fr James Lyons of Wellington, as national director, brought a new professionalism to Church communications, and when he retired from this role to take on parish pastoral activities, I was blessed to inherit this reputation. I believe that we continued to enjoy this respect from the media, being available to engage with them 24 hours a day. Because of our accessibility, the media usually came to us first for comment on every issue that
involved issues of faith or morality.
Today there is a different model of communications within the Church, and the development of social communications does make our message very accessible.
NZC: There have been huge changes in the communications landscape with the advent of the Internet and social media? Is the Church up with the play in these areas?
Largely we are, and we are constantly engaging and upskilling. In Auckland diocese where I work we are putting considerable resource into building a new website and social media presence, as are our national and diocesan agencies and schools.
Then there are online newsletters (such as the twice-weekly Cath-News from the Society of Mary) and websites for Catholic publications and enterprises both local and international.
The Church worldwide is online and we can even follow Pope Francis on Twitter!