Setting Hearts on Fire: The Jesuit Communication Project story. Part One – In the Beginning

Setting Hearts on Fire:  The Jesuit Communication Project story. Part One – In the Beginning, “Go forth and set the world on fire.” St. Ignatius Loyola

 Introduction: A Project Born in 1984

 In 1949, George Orwell published a novel that made readers around the world very nervous. His bleak vision of the future, 1984, was of a totalitarian world where absolute political control and meek obedience were fuelled by an omnipresent state-run media. Long before the invention of those hard-to-detect security video cameras, Orwell’s “Big Brother” was watching. Everyone. Everywhere. And all the time.


1949 was also the year that engineers at RCA introduced a new technology: a stackable record player that could play multiple vinyl records at the new speed of 45 rpm, rather than the (then) industry standard of 78 rpm. Popular music was about to become an even more portable soundtrack to everyone’s life.

1949 was also the year that CBC broadcasting radio programming from coast to coast via its new Trans-Canada Network. CBC’s television network was still 3 years away. Meanwhile, in Brandon, Manitoba, John Pungente, the current director of the Toronto-based Jesuit Communication Project, was not yet a Jesuit and just 10-years old. Back then, his media exposure was limited to syndicated radio: The Jack Benny Show, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.

Plus many trips to the cinema. “For Saturday afternoon serials  – Flash Gordon and Hopalong Cassidy. My father managed a movie theatre so I saw more than I probably should have,” he admits coyly. “Canadian Television did not begin broadcasting till 1952 and my first experience of TV was on a family road trip to the States where I saw Howdy Doody and also the Republican National Convention with Dwight Eisenhower as the candidate.”

That televised president was soon joined by another surprising and iconic TV personality. Like many Catholics today, Pungente still remembers vividly the legendary Bishop Fulton Sheen. He was the charismatic New York cleric, who in those early days of television enthralled millions of loyal viewers with his weekly network program Life is Worth Living.

Pungente’s involvement with the Jesuit Communication Project goes back to 1984 – not Orwell’s novel, but the actual year, the time that the precursors of today’s Internet, Telidon in Canada and Arpanet in the U.S., were still in their digital infancies.


2014 was the Jesuit Communication Project’s 30th anniversary, and the year that Pope Francis had this to say about media education and media literacy in his address for World Communications Day:

The Church needs to be concerned for, and present in, the world of communication, in order to dialogue with people today and to help them encounter Christ. She needs to be a Church at the side of others, capable of accompanying everyone along the way. The revolution taking place in communications media and in information technologies represents a great and thrilling challenge; may we respond to that challenge with fresh energy and imagination as we seek to share with others the beauty of God.”

This is not the first statement from a Church leader to contain such a message. In fact, since 1939, the Church has called for attention to media education and to what today we would call media literacy. In his 2014 address, Pope Francis – speaking of media education – went on to say that we need ‘a careful and thorough formation in this area for priests, for religious men and women, for laity.’

The JCP has acknowledged another influential legacy, that of Catholic Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan. From 1946 to 1979, McLuhan taught at St. Michael’s College (known today as the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto).

McLuhan believed that the major causes of change in cultures and civilizations are not ideologies, wars or religions, but rather new communications technologies with the power to restructure societies.

When a new communications technology is created, society finds itself restructured by it. You don’t have to look far to see the way cell phones and tablets have changed the way people negotiate public space when they pass each other on the street, eyes and fingers focused on the screen, and not their surroundings.

New information technologies are responsible for drastically changing cultures and they affect every issue involving social values.

It was McLuhan who introduced the phrases “the global village” and “the medium is the message” to explain the singular power of broadcast media. And in 2014, it was Pungente and the JCP who received The 2014 McLuhan Institute Medium and Light Award for “significant contribution to religious communication.” This award also acknowledges the innovative work of the JCP since 1984.

What follows is a brief sketch of the JCP’s influential work in media education for media literacy during the past 30 years.

Helping people make sense of the media that surrounds them

First, you use television to explain television. Like Bishop Sheen and Marshall McLuhan before him, Pungente is comfortable in front of cameras, whether he’s being interviewed about the coverage of the 911 terrorist attack in Manhattan, explaining the importance of TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Joan of Arcadia” to the development of teenage growth and spirituality, or showing how many of today’s TV shows raise important issues of religion and spirituality in shows such as “True Detective”, “Resurrection” and “Supernatural.”

Pungente is one of the world’s foremost experts on how to educate people about the media for media literacy. A key role for him and the Jesuit Communication Project, which he directs, is to provide materials and guidance for teachers and students of media literacy around the world. Like Bishop Sheen and Marshall McLuhan, Father Pungente, an educator for many years, understands the potential of the media and its importance in education in general.


Under Pungente’s guidance, the JCP’s work can be seen as an antidote to Orwell’s dark vision of that ominous year,1984, a time depicted in his dystopian and nightmarish novel when communications technology has become an instrument of control by Big Brother. The JCP set out to provide students and their teachers (and later an even broader audience) with the tools to help them make sense of their mass mediated environment. This is the central purpose of media education with its goal of developing media literacy.

As British media educator, David Buckingham wrote: “Media education does not aim to shield people from the influence of the media but to enable them to make informed decisions on their own part. Media education is not a form of protection, but a form of preparation.”

In the beginning – some 30 years ago

In the fall of 1984, David Eley SJ, received approval from the Jesuit Provincial, Bill Ryan SJ, to launch a Jesuit Communication Project “for the purpose of focusing on the relationship between the faith communities in Canada and the mass media and exploring the opportunities and challenges the media offers in a society where their influence over our lives and culture is so great.”

David Eley, SJ, John Pungente, SJ, Adrienne Pereira, Des McCalmont, Leo Serroul

The Project shared offices with The Lonergan Institute in downtown Toronto. Staff consisted of two Jesuits – David Eley, SJ (a professor of communications and former Chair of the Department at Ottawa University and who taught at Concordia University), and John Pungente, SJ, a film teacher and media education specialist.

Also on staff was United Church minister Des McCalmont, who had worked for some twenty five years in the media, and Leo Serroul, who had just completed his M. Div from Regis College and who had a background in art and aesthetics. They were soon joined by Adrienne Pereira as Executive Assistant and Treasurer.

“A universal service to humankind”

The documents of the 33rd and 34th General Congregations of the Society of Jesus urged the Society to promote the apostolate of social communications – the mass media – to create a shift in awareness, making Jesuits and the Church they serve realize that the new communications environment is a milieu which reaches and enriches large numbers of people and so permits a more universal service to humankind.

Just as the mass media reach large numbers of people, so too does the Jesuit Communication Project aim at reaching as many Canadians as possible, though not always directly. The JCP helps train teachers and other leaders in the community who, in turn, touch the minds and hearts of those with whom they work.


At the heart of Jesuit engagement in the communications world is the concept of  Jesuits and their lay collaborators as evangelizers who seek to spread the gospel in and through the culture of our time. In this way, the JCP is another example of that unbroken tradition of Jesuit evangelization through the effective reading the signs of the times.

Beyond 1984

Wherever Jesuits and their collaborators gather, three things invariably take place: research, direct engagement, and teaching. In research, the JCP has helped to develop a curriculum on Media Studies for the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto. The JCP has also worked with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and the Association of Roman Catholic Communicators in Canada (ARCCC) to develop a national plan for social communications in Canada.

Along the way, it also created a Media Relations File designed to link church people who are knowledgeable in certain fields with media professionals looking for “talking heads” for their various productions.

And there was, and continues to be, a lot of teaching. Courses in Media Studies were given to Jesuit Novices in Guelph, Ontario, and to students at the Toronto School of Theology at the University of Toronto, as well as to students of the Gregorian University in Rome. There were also summer courses for Canadian teachers, as well as workshops for teachers and parents in Canada, the U.S., Australia, England, Japan, and Europe.

Media education and the development of media literacy in Canada were a priority from the start, especially the development and implementation of media education in all primary and secondary school systems of Canada.

Media education became the main focus of the Jesuit Communication Project. To achieve this, the JCP partnered with the Ontario based Association for Media Literacy. Founded in 1978, the AML ( is the oldest media education organization in Canada.


With a common goal to ensure that media education would become a mandated part of the language arts curriculum in Ontario, in 1987 the two groups co-wrote the Media Literacy Resource Guide for Ontario’s provincial Department of Education. The Guide became a huge success and was translated into French, Italian, Spanish, and also Japanese.

Finding a mission with The Mission

In 1987, Warner Brothers films, released The Mission starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, a dramatic film based on turbulent events in the Jesuit missions in Latin America in the 17th century. The JCP worked with Warner Brothers Canada to promote the film and organized a series of benefit screenings across Canada in support of various national and international Jesuit initiatives.

Then, in July of 1989, David Eley was assigned to the Communications Department at Concordia University in Montreal, Des McCalmont was called back to his own church. Leo Serroul went on to other work. Funding from the Canadian Jesuits was reduced and the newly promoted Director, John Pungente, chose to concentrate on Media Education and Media Literacy.

The 1990s – Keeping the focus on Media Education and Media Literacy as new gadgets continue to arrive on the scene

In the 1990s, cassettes were still being played in portable devices even though CDs had quickly become the playback format of choice. And in more and more homes across Canada, memory-light Commodore and Atari computers were being replaced by more robust PC and Mac systems.

Meanwhile, the shift from terrestrial broadcasting to cable delivery of television offered consumers even more programming options.

Amid this growing availability of media content, media education’s role remained clear: how to help students develop media literacy through an informed and critical understanding of how the media work, how the media produce meaning, and how they construct reality. The JCP had an additional goal: to help people to watch carefully and to think critically about what they were seeing on the various screens they were watching.

The new literacy


“None of you could possibly be as excited as I am.” Rick Shepherd, who chaired this conference, opened The New Literacy, the first North American Conference on Media Education at the University of Guelph, in May 1990, with these words. Gathering 420 participants (from 8 Canadian provinces, 9 American states and 3 other countries) took two years of hard work and careful preparation by the Association for Media Literacy (AML) and the JCP. Keynote speakers and workshop presenters arrived from around the world.

This conference was especially beneficial to English teachers in Ontario. They had just learned they were required to teach media literacy as part of the curriculum. And they still are today.

Making media: A Heart to Understand

To commemorate the 450th Anniversary of the founding of the Society of Jesus (1540) and the 500th Anniversary of the birth of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491), the Jesuits in English Canada commissioned the JCP to produce a video focusing on John English, SJ, and his distinctive approach to working on discernment issues in everyday life. John Pungente, SJ, served as the Executive Producer with Paul Sullivan, then a CBC television producer who directed and Kevin Burns, who wrote the script that was narrated by Man Alive’s Roy Bonisteel.

A-Heart-To-Understand-Guelph-June-1990-John-English-SJ-Retreat-Director-Paul-Sullivan-Producer Director

This half-hour video followed two people as they journeyed through a real discernment process while on a retreat at Ignatius College in Guelph. Released in October, 1990, “A Heart to Understand” was widely distributed, shown on VISION TV, and also went on to win a number of award and much critical praise.

Back to Guelph to construct culture

A second North American Conference on Media Literacy was held at the University of Guelph in 1992. John Pungente chaired the Constructing Culture conference that brought together 473 people from 8 Canadian provinces, 18 American states, and 16 overseas countries, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bermuda, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Pakistan, The Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.


This was the largest ever gathering of media educators in Canada.

A real CAMEO – but not a cameo role

Barry Duncan, AML President, ends the conference with his traditional loon call.

The day after the second Guelph Conference wrapped-up, a number of concerned media educators from across Canada met at the JCP office in Toronto with the goal of establishing a national association of Canadian media educators, to be known as: the Canadian Association of Media Education Organizations, or CAMEO. It brought together CAME (BC), AAMA (Alberta), MLS (Saskatchewan), MAML (Manitoba), AML (Ontario), AMEQ (Quebec), MLNS (Nova Scotia), and the JCP. Other groups eventually joined CAMEO: the nationally focused Media Awareness Network, MLNB (New Brunswick 2001), MLNL (Newfoundland and Labrador), CREM (Quebec) and Concerned Children’s Advertisers (2003).

Since that initial meeting, CAMEO has involved itself in questions of copyright, in working with the CRTC and other organizations around the issues of violence in the media, and organizing a country-wide protest which led to the eventual collapse of the proposed Youth News Network which would have brought commercials into Canadian classroom in return for free AV equipment.

CAMEO’s major accomplishment, attained in 2002, was to reach the goal of making the development of media literacy through media education a mandatory part of the Language Arts curriculum at all grade levels across Canada.

In 2003, John Pungente represented CAMEO on the advisory committee chaired by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation in conjunction with Erin Research to design and conduct what was to become a landmark national survey on Canadian children and the media. Some 6,000 children between the ages of 8 to 15 and from every Canadian province took part. A major finding of the survey was that as children grew older, they increasingly saw the value of studying media in school.

Although media education was – and continues to be – mandated in all provinces and territories, there was – and continues to be – few professional development opportunities for teachers or resources available to them. John Pungente served as president of CAMEO.

Forum for Citizens’ Television and Media

In 1992, the Ontario Media Literacy Resource Guide was translated into Japanese through the work of Japan’s Forum for Citizens’ Television and Media (FCT) founded in 1977. John Pungente was invited to the FCT’s 15th anniversary conference which was also the launch of the Japanese guide.

Later, in 2002, he returned to give the keynote address at the FCT’s 25th Anniversary celebration and conference.

Media: a place where acronyms abound

In November 1993, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) under the direction of Keith Spicer, hosted a working session on television violence for parents organizations as well as educators and broadcasting organizations. Various children’s advocacy and media education groups were also invited to attend. John Pungente represented three interests: CAMEO, the JCP, and the Association for Media Literacy.

Towards the end of the meeting, (the late) Laurier LaPierre, as chair, spoke of the need for practical results from such a meeting. John Pungente proposed a clearinghouse of information and suggested that Canada’s renowned National Film Board might take on this task.

The NFB’s (then) CEO, Joan Pennefather, agreed. The outcome was the creation of a national information clearinghouse on media violence, through the National Film Board of Canada in addition to related initiatives by participating organizations.

This energy and interest evolved into the very successful (and award winning) Media Awareness Network (MNET), now known as Media Smarts ( and today a world leader in providing an online environment and resources to help educators, parents, and students in all areas of media education and media literacy. John Pungente served on MNET’s founding board of directors.

Then the money runs out

In 1996, The Canadian Jesuits were forced to withdraw financial support from many of its initiatives, including its JCP. Then the Ontario government’s cuts to education put a virtual end to the JCP’s work with teachers, and school boards across Ontario. The JCP downsized itself resulting in John Pungente becoming its sole employee.

Adrienne Pereira, who had been with the JCP since 1985, accepted a new position as Executive Assistant to the President of Regis College, but continued to act as the Jesuit Communication Project’s volunteer treasurer. Pungente aligned the JCP with key players and organizations in the world of media and education, to survive this crisis and extend its scope

The Alliance for Children and Television (ACT) offered office space. A consortium of groups – CHUM Television, then the parent company for Citytv, MuchMusic, Bravo! Space, Star!, CLT among other cable and digital stations, The Alliance for Children and Television, Warner Brothers Canada, and Cable in the Classroom – agreed to help fund JCP through consultancy work, grants, and special projects.

When Moses met a Jesuit

Scanning the Movies began broadcasting across Canada on the TV station Bravo! In September 1997 and the program ran until 2008. Hosted by John Pungente, this was a TV show for anyone interested in the movies. It was of special interest to movie buffs as well as those who teach or study the movies.


It was countercultural programming with a Catholic priest hosting a program about movies on a mainstream national television network reaching out to a multicultural and non-denominational audience.

Movies are a powerful marriage of image and sound, an exciting yet complex means of affecting how we think and feel. Pungente saw this kind of show as a way to “read” movies, to discover how they work, and how they communicate through the magic of story-telling on the big screen.

His goal was – using a media literacy point of view – to give audiences new ways of looking at, discovering, appreciating, and critically understanding the movies they could see at their local Cineplex. Incidentally, the Cineplex is a Canadian invention. The first example appeared in Toronto in 1979.

Media educator Neil Anderson wrote a study guide for each movie featured in Scanning the Movies. In the ten years of its on-air life, the program produced 80 half-hour prime time television shows, a production that the Globe and Mail reported that “Pungente’s deconstruction of popular movies makes for enlightening and compelling viewing.”

The Toronto Star called the show “TV’s best-kept secret.” Like previous JCP production, this show also received many international awards.

Kitting up for scanning that television

Produced by John J. Pungente, SJ and Gary Marcuse, of Face to Face Media ( in Vancouver, Scanning Television was released in 1997. Containing forty short video excerpts selected from Citytv’s program Media Television, Warner Brothers, The National Film Board, the Ontario Ministry of Health, TVOntario, and YTV, the package is designed to help teachers of media literacy by providing them with material for classroom use.

An accompanying guide, written by Neil Andersen, includes lesson plans for each excerpt. Scanning Television proved an immediate success with teachers. The kit received a Gold Medal at the prestigious New York Festivals and a Bronze Plaque at the Columbus International Film and Television Festival.

Ads are as important as the content they interrupt

Founded in 1990, Concerned Childrens’ Advertisers (CCA, but now known as CCK: Companies Committed to Kids LINK: – is an organization that brings together companies and broadcasters who market to children to create initiatives to educate child viewers and their families. CCA has developed  some 35 child-focused television commercials on topics including substance abuse prevention, active living, bullying, and self-esteem.

In 1997, the JCP worked with the CCA on its first media literacy public service announcements: Smart As You. And, in the first year of the new millennium, the JCP also helped with the development of the second media literacy advertisement – the 2001 project The House Hippo.

As they keep saying in those TV commercials: “But wait. There’s more!” And there certainly is. Tomorrow, in Setting Hearts on Fire: Part Two, you can follow the Jesuit Communication Project as it enters a new millennium, aided by Bart Simpson, by climbing a Summit, by dropping a Clipboard, by entering Plato’s Cave, by peeking Beyond the Screen, before – finally – finding God in the Dark.


Source for all photos  – unless otherwise indicated – is the JCP


(3,775 words)

Ottawa-based author and editor, Kevin Burns is a frequent contributor to igNation. His latest book, Impressively Free – Henri Nouwen as a Model for a Reformed Priesthood and co-authored with Michael W. Higgins, has just been released by Paulist Press in the United States and by Novalis in Canada.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 01:16h, 28 June Reply

    Thank you Kevin!

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