Speaking to be understood and listening to understand.
That’s not only the essence of effective communication, it’s one of Helen Osman’s passions and lifelong callings.
“Catholic communication is about building communion, which is the core of the Church,” said Mrs. Osman, a Meta native, former diocesan communication director, and current communication consultant for the Jefferson City diocese.
Mrs. Osman recently accepted a five-year appointment from Pope Francis to be a consultant to the Church’s Dicastery for Communications (https://www.comunicazione.va/en.html).
The dicastery oversees all aspects of the communication efforts of the Vatican, including its radio, print, television and digital platforms, such as www.vatican.va and the Pope’s Twitter service, @pontifex.
Mrs. Osman, along with other consultants, will advise Church leaders on how to use modern communications to advance the mission of the Church.
That will occasionally require traveling to Vatican City from her home in Austin, Texas.
“It’s a humbling honor,” Mrs. Osman stated. “While the Church is often challenged in our efforts on the ‘Digital Continent,’ to quote Pope Benedict, I believe we are also in a time of grace, as we find creative ways to use digital means to build community and encourage freedom of expression and freedom of religion throughout the world.”
Communion is the deep and complete unity that Jesus asked the Father to grant His closest followers.
It begins with an openness to recognize God’s goodness and wisdom in other people.
Mrs. Osman noted that communion and encounter are recurring themes of Pope Francis’s pontificate.
“Our pope often speaks of encountering God in one another,” she noted. “And encounter can’t happen if you’re not listening.”
It’s an understanding she’s spent her entire adult life pursuing — as a Catholic newspaper reporter and editor, diocesan communication director, communication secretary for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and board member and president of SIGNIS, the only association of lay media professionals officially recognized by the Holy See.
Interacting and collaborating with people from numerous backgrounds has given her a glimpse of the countless ways people are living out Jesus’s command to “follow Me.”
“But how we live out the Creed and our calling is not a cookie-cutter experience, whether we live in Missouri or in Germany or Kenya or anywhere else,” she noted.
She has visited with people from places where the Church is fulfilling its mission, and locales where it seems to be faltering.
“What it keeps coming back to are the same themes — walking together, listening to each other, communion, participation and mission,” she said.
Those are the themes put forth by Pope Francis for the Church’s international Synod on Synodality, a two-year process of listening and discerning.
“The simplicity and universality of those synodal themes amaze me … I am inspired by the brilliance of the Holy Father — the brilliance of the Church,” Mrs. Osman stated.
“Laughing like Sarah”
Mrs. Osman grew up on a dairy farm near Meta, where she and her family were members of St. Cecilia Parish.
From her early childhood, her grandmother, Rose Luebbering, and aunt, Juliana Crane, fed her innate curiosity and fascination with the printed word.
“I loved to read, and my grandma would keep giving me Catholic literature!” she said.
Mrs. Osman attended Fatima High School and met her husband, John, on a Teens Encounter Christ weekend in Jefferson City.
She studied communication at Drury University in Springfield and worked an internship at The Catholic Missourian the summer before her senior year.
After graduating and getting married, she and her husband moved to Austin, Texas, where Mrs. Osman wound up serving as ad director, then reporter, then editor of The Catholic Spirit, award-winning newspaper of the Diocese of Austin.
She later became director of communications and director of safe environments for that diocese.
She was elected to several offices, including president, of what is now known as the Catholic Media Association.
That organization, which represents Catholic media outlets throughout North America, presented her in 2012 its highest honor, the St. Francis De Sales Award, for her outstanding contributions to Catholic journalism.
She remembers “laughing like Sarah in the Old Testament” when a friend encouraged her to become active in SIGNIS and run for its board of directors.
She was recently elected to her second term as president.
In 2007, she accepted an invitation to serve as director of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, D.C.
There, she coordinated international media coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 pastoral visit to the United States and Pope Francis’s 2015 pastoral visit.
Preparing for Pope Francis proved to be the most demanding task of her career.
Nonetheless, she would remind her coworkers in Washington that her upbringing on a dairy farm gave her an important perspective.
“When we were dealing with seemingly impossible situations or expectations, I would tell them, ‘I know what it’s like to be covered in you-know-what. This is nothing compared to that!’” she said.
Mrs. Osman worked at the USCCB with then-Father Shawn W. McKnight, who was executive director of the Office for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
Several years later, after Bishop McKnight was appointed to lead the Jefferson City diocese, he asked Mrs. Osman to undertake a comprehensive audit of the diocese’s communication efforts.
She later agreed to serve as diocesan communications director, traveling to Jefferson City several times per year while continuing her international communication work.
She set about updating and streamlining how the bishop and the people who work with him communicate with parishes and the larger community, and how parishes organize information and share the Gospel locally.
She helped the diocese navigate media relations throughout the pandemic and the ongoing pastoral planning process, and coordinated the diocesan listening phase for the Synod of Bishops.
She stepped aside as communications director last month but continues to advise Bishop McKnight on special projects.
On Sept. 30, Jacob Luecke, her successor as diocesan communications director, released Bishop McKnight’s statement on the news of her papal appointment.
“I am delighted that Helen’s commitment to the Church is being utilized by the Dicastery for Communication, with her professional expertise and wide range of experience in Church communications,” the bishop stated.
“Helen is both a leader in our chancery as well as an internationally-recognized advisor on Catholic communications,” he said. “I trust her insights will help expand the voice of our Church, strengthen our global communion and lead to a growing faith in God.”
“Listening and dialogue”
“My Grandma Luebbering is smiling down on me today,” Mrs. Osman said in reaction to the announcement.
She pointed to all the people in her family who had made sacrifices while encouraging her and paving the way for her success.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” she said, “and we’re all connected.”
She called to mind the rural environment she was raised in, in which each member of the family had an important role in getting the work done on the farm.
“I believe it’s the best way to grow up as a kid and the most difficult way to earn a living as an adult,” she stated.
She said it instilled in her a sense of responsibility and knowledge that everyone, regardless of age, needs to pitch in and help do what needs to be done.
“It’s a discipline you acquire, and through that, you learn the value of the common good,” she said. “We are all dependent on one another, and ‘it’s not about me.’”
Those insights apply to all things, including parish life.
“In this diocese, we call that co-responsibility,” she said. “It means more than just being affiliated. It means being involved and knowing that it can cause real problems if you don’t do your part.”
That’s where peace and reconciliation come in, which are core elements of SIGNIS’s mission to promote the Gospel around the world.
“And peace is not the absence of conflict,” Mrs. Osman pointed out. “Peace is WORK! It is going into all of that messiness, and focusing not so much on what divides us, but understanding what unites us.
“That to me is the core of being in communion,” she said. “It’s about listening to each other and figuring out what’s best for the common good.”
She believes the Church can be an effective antidote to the growing polarization and isolation around the world, often rooted in fear of change and fear of “the other.”
“Pope Francis is telling us, ‘Let’s go to the periphery, let’s encounter each other, let’s see where the Holy Spirit takes us,” she stated. “That message is really encouraging to Catholic communicators around the world.”
Some of them live and work in places where Christians are the miniscule minority, some live in places being overtaken by rising oceans and violent storms.
In some dioceses, bishops are under house arrest by local governments and can’t speak out against injustices.
“These people aren’t looking for nice phrases, they’re looking for honest hope,” she said. “And they believe listening and dialogue and encounter are ways to bring true Christian hope.”
For the common good
Mrs. Osman asks for prayers to be able to continue appreciating God’s humor and the joy that comes with it.
“Because whenever you take yourself too seriously, you’re in big trouble!” she said.
This summer, she attended SIGNIS’s international congress in South Korea.
Usually held every four years, it had to be delayed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There were so many rich presentations,” she said. “And of course, we had people from 80 different countries attend.”
She visited a shrine built in memory of Korea’s 19th century martyrs, most of whom were laypeople.
“They stood their ground because they believed in a God Who says everyone has dignity,” she noted. “And they wanted that not just for themselves but for the good of the whole community and all the people who would come after them.”
That brought to mind her own forebears in faith.
“I don’t know how to trace a direct line, but I do know that there are people who loved me, very simply,” she said. “And in some ways, what I’m now doing is a response to that love.”