An Interview with Michael Benigno

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D


Dr. Knight: Where did you grow up and what was your favorite childhood memory that adds to your understanding of Church?


Mr. Benigno: I grew up right here in New York City, specifically in Rockaway Beach, Queens. I was raised Catholic, but attended two excellent public schools before graduating from Manhattan’s Xavier High School and Saint Joseph’s University, where I met the Jesuits and really came to understand how dynamic, inspiring and even surprising the Church can be. A Jesuit I got to know during my first days at Xavier, Fr. John Garvey, SJ, remained a close friend until his passing. His friendship, generosity of spirit and faith in young people was actually shocking. He embodied the selflessness and freedom I admire most in religious people.


Dr. Knight: What is your favorite book and movie why? If you saw the Quiet Place, were you not overwhelmed by the position of ‘Silence’ as an important variable?


Mr. Benigno: I haven’t seen Quiet Place, but am aware of the film. I would agree that silence can play such an important part in helping us listen to others, understand our own thoughts and feelings and discern our way through important decisions in life. Silence is countercultural these days, but if incorporated into daily life and even one’s work life, it can help foster a comfortable, positive space that is beneficial in so many ways.


Dr. Knight: What particular saint are you devoted to? Do you think there will be different kinds of saints in the future?

Mr. Benigno: The saint that interests me most is St. Francis of Assisi. While you won’t find me preaching to the birds, I’m a big nature lover and rely on being outdoors with or without others to find peace and tranquility to help navigate my busy life. While running or biking, it is fairly routine for me to resolve problems and to find deeper understanding about the professional and personal situations I’m focusing on.


Dr. Knight: Have you directed any pilgrimages? Does this have to do with the influence of the media?, why now?

Mr. Benigno: I haven’t directed any pilgrimages, but I’ve been a facilitator on numerous retreat programs over the course of the last 15 years, from college groups when I was a student, to high school Kairos retreats while an adult staff member at Xavier. I think retreats – and pilgrimages, for that matter – are becoming even more appealing than ever because people are finally realizing just how powerful experiences are, in terms of engagement. People would rather spend their time and money on something that could change them, than on material items that they’ll need to eventually replace or repair. I stand in favor of any experience that will help someone find deeper truths in their life and bring them closer to God and their loved ones.


Dr. Knight: What drew you to the communications program of the Jesuits?


Mr. Benigno: This fall will mark 22 years since I’ve been part of the Jesuit community in one form or another, as a high school or college student, or as a communications professional. I had very good mentors in the Jesuit world, who have helped me see the “bigger picture” of our Ignatian ministries, and who fostered a deeply rooted sense of intellectual curiosity that I hope stays with me all my life. I’ve learned to ask deeper questions and to discern the way Jesuits do, and actually spend a considerable amount of time explaining their work to people in many circles, which constantly challenges me and teaches me new things about the common perceptions about the Jesuits and their ministries.


Dr. Knight: Why did you chose to work with/for the Jesuits? This post in the past was held by Jesuit priests, is the change significant?


Mr. Benigno: Incidentally, the last Jesuit to hold my position was Fr. John Garvey, SJ, the Jesuit I referenced earlier in my interview. He took this job after many years teaching at Xavier though didn’t live long enough to see me in this role. I think the Jesuits’ concern for those on the margins is most in need today, and ours are exciting and progressive ministries that consistently seem to be a step ahead of the curve, in terms of transforming the lives of others and responding to the new and changing needs of our world.


I’m among many lay colleagues who have leadership positions in the Jesuits, and I think fostering our growth and entrusting us with such a meaningful legacy and mission – despite transitions, challenges and the declining number of ordained religious people – is something that the Jesuits and their supporters should be proud of.


Dr. Knight: Your ministry in the area of communications is a complex one. What do you think about fake news? Why is that such a problem in our present society?


Mr. Benigno: I was a reporter after college and I left that industry with a keen awareness of just how easy it is for false information to quickly make its way to wide audiences. At the end of the day, I believe the vast majority of news people go into that profession to change and improve our world. But increased competition and a news cycle that doesn’t even offer time to ask important questions before publishing can leave journalists vulnerable to propagating fake news inadvertently, or, worse, deliberately just as “click bait,” for a quick paycheck. Fake news is a problem because it preys on our thirst for knowledge, and our drive to know something others don’t. Our communications circles are growing smaller and smaller, despite so many options and opportunities, so the problem of there being two or more versions of “news” will continue for a long time.

Dr. Knight: Your work in the past has also been outstanding including all the awards that you have won. How will this help the Jesuit publications?


Mr. Benigno: In my time with the Jesuits, I’ve worked on a team that’s transformed our regional communications pieces, including our website, our magazine, our social media presence and, more recently, our external newsletter. I’m a firm believer that people want more personalized communications from the organizations they support – news that is relevant and resonant to them. “Content is king,” is no longer the golden rule of communications. It’s matching the right message to the right person at the right time. I hope to continue to incorporate more relevant and resonant messaging at the Jesuits to appeal to mixture of our traditional supporters and people new to the fold, like new college graduates and young adults.


Dr. Knight: What other ministries have you directed or worked on?


Mr. Benigno: I am an advisory board member and volunteer with Thrive for Life Prison Project. I’m part of a group of men and women that host retreats, meditation sessions and facilitate group discussions in jails throughout New York City and the State. We spend time helping prisoners experience the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola and, ultimately, remember that, despite the environment they are in and the circumstances that brought them there, God loves them. We also are developing an extensive re-entry program for those just released from prison sentences, offering housing and college scholarships, thanks to generous benefactors and higher education collaborators. At the same time, it’s been the most heart-wrenching and the most meaningful service work I’ve ever done.


Dr. Knight: How will you use social ministry in your work as communications director?


Mr. Benigno: My service work informs so much of my understanding of the Jesuits’ deep concern for those in our world with great needs, and it’s given me a first-hand glimpse into the impact of our work – an opportunity that is actually very rare. Taking part in service work will help anyone remain authentic and compassionate in a world that doesn’t always steward those traits. Taking part in service throughout my life has showed me that the more I learn about the world, the less I feel I truly know about it. We need to be lifelong learners.


Dr. Knight: Based on your past experience why do you think so many people are leaving the Church?


Mr. Benigno: Good question. A big part of why people are leaving the Church is because they perceive it is not for them. Doesn’t this sound like a business or an advertising question? I think that strategic leaders, including communications staff who can unite modern marketing trends with the hearts and desires of the Church need to be supported and retained, in a competitive field. The right, welcoming message, followed up by substantive and meaningful engagement opportunities could help reverse this trend and make Catholicism something people wear as a badge of honor, not something they sometimes find themselves having to defend.


Dr. Knight: Thank you very much for this interview for Profiles in Catholicism. It is important for people to know the breadth and depth of our work as we strive to help all to develop a relationship with Christ and His Church and get to know other followers. The book reviews by Jesuit priests are available in the book section.

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