POPE FRANCIS IS A COMPLEX PERSON
WHO PRESENTS MANY CHALLENGES
I once handled public relations for an organization with plans for a major property development, involving us in delicate negotiations with the local township. A high degree of confidentiality and finesse was required so that sticky points could be dealt with at appropriate times and potential controversy minimized.
Our chairman was a true entrepreneurial visionary, a man of unbounded energy and enthusiasm, which was a tremendous asset in inspiring people to help him achieve his goals. It also made him a popular speaker before professional and community groups. I accompanied him to a talk on a nearby college campus where a crew from the local public-access cable TV channel was on hand to cover his address.
His topic was totally unrelated to our real estate proposal, but the project was clearly on his mind. And at one point, fired with eagerness for the upcoming presentation of our development scheme to the planning commission, my boss departed from his prepared script, glanced at me, tried to suppress a boyish grin, and announced to the audience…
“My PR people probably don’t want me to say this, but…”
And he launched into a description of the details we had been keeping under wraps — all of it duly recorded by the TV crew.
Pope Francis is a man who appears to be bursting with energy and enthusiasm. And much like my old boss, he evinces an ongoing need to share it. Francis loves Christ and the Church. His conviction that Christianity offers the surest means of personal fulfillment and eternal happiness is evident in a 1,000-watt smile that lights his face with joy and a certain puckishness (he reminds me of the late comic actor, Ed Wynn).
Since assuming the Chair of St. Peter in March, Francis has offered a series of comments — some formal, some off-the-cuff — that have sparked a frenzy among the secular media. His stated reluctance to criticize homosexuals and his conjecture about atheists finding a place in heaven as long as their lives reflect the striving of a good conscience have set off wave after wave of speculation about imminent changes in Church doctrine.
Startled by Francis’ shoot-from-the-hip manner and all the fevered reportage it has spawned, even people inside the Church — those of a more conservative stripe, mainly — are seriously rethinking the old quip: Is the Pope Catholic? In fact, some are taking a fresh look at the dissident Society of St. Pius X and other anti-modern schismatic groups.
I’m glad I’m not the one fielding calls from the world press. Can you imagine trying to manage the spin on everything that comes from this new Pope? We ain’t talkin’ real estate and construction here. This is people’s immortal souls at stake.
In actuality, nothing Pope Francis has said differs from what the Church has always taught. But the joyfulness and spontaneity with which he says it make it seem new.
What a blessing that is. If some people find Francis’ casual style and accepting tone unnerving, others are surprised to find themselves looking at Catholicism through new eyes, wondering if, after all, the Church really maybe just possibly isn’t that stodgy old bunch of kill-joys they always heard it was.
So what’s not to like?
Well…from a PR point of view, life in the Church of Francis has become rather knotty.
The media may have gushed all over his apparent charitable attitude toward gays and his admonition that Catholics shouldn’t get so focused on moral controversies that they become blind to Christ’s love. But there was a good deal less enthusiasm for his follow-up affirmations of traditional moral norms — including a vigorous condemnation of abortion — as well as his excommunication of an Australian priest for advocating ordination of women and approval of homosexuality.
What are we to make of all this?
Well, I think Francis is a complex guy.
In the recent interview published in the U.S. by the Jesuit magazine, America, Francis describes himself first as “a sinner” whom the Lord has called, someone who is both astute and naive. He then confesses to being “a really, really undisciplined person” who needs interaction with other people…
“I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”
Which was why he joined the Jesuits, famous for intellectual rigor and strict self-regulation (if not always doctrinal consistency)…
“I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own.”
However, there are limits to how many people he can deal with all at once…
“I can look at individual persons, one at a time, to come into contact in a personal way with the person I have before me. I am not used to the masses.”
What I recognize in Francis is essentially an introvert — and a messy one at that — someone who needs other people to help him focus, but who has an approach-avoidance relationship with those around him. I appreciate that kind of shyness. I’m a lot like that myself.
But this is the Pope. His words and actions ripple around the world. And like the famous image of a flapping butterfly’s wing, you can never know the effects which might be felt miles or years hence.
What are we to make of his washing the feet of women and Muslims on Holy Thursday? Was that a cause for excitement at a new inclusiveness, or a sign of disregard for liturgical authenticity?
How about his great concern for the poor? Are we witnessing a renaissance in Christian love or the undead rising of Liberation Theology — the neo-socialist grassroots movement that swept the Southern Hemisphere until John Paul II drove a stake through its heart?
What of Francis’ outreach to nonbelievers? Is it a welcoming gesture, an open door through which the unchurched are invited to peer at the heavenly banquet? Or does it diminish the salvific role of commitment to faith (specifically the Catholic Faith)?
And then there is the harsh talk about globalization and the dominance of an international “cult of money.” Other popes have offered similar critiques of exploitation and avarice, but there’s something different about hearing such words spoken in the accent of this pontiff — the accent of Argentina.
I think the homeland of Jorge Mario Bergoglio is significant. Argentina is a big country with great natural wealth. It embraces large regions of mountains, plains, and climatic variety, is blessed with ample arable lands and abundant mineral resources, has a long, navigable coastline. It boasts a cosmopolitan culture, reflecting waves of immigration from all of Europe plus many other parts of the world. It is highly industrialized and technologically sophisticated, and has held its national destiny in its own hands since declaring independence from Spain in 1816.
It should be the United States of South America. But it’s not. Argentina has a long history of coups, civil wars, and dictatorships. Manipulation of the poor urban masses and the rural peasantry is endemic — raised to the level of an art form especially by Juan Peron and his two ambitious wives. Economic chaos and wild inflation (as much as 900 percent) are legendary, as are wide disparities in wealth.
A military junta ruled the country through most of the 1980s, complete with assassinations, torture, and countless “disappearances.” This was a formative period for the future Pope, and I think it accounts for much of the manner, outlook and priorities we are coming to know in this man from Buenos Aires.
Francis’ priestly life has featured personal simplicity, interfaith dialogue, and a heart for the poor. During his time as Jesuit provincial superior in Argentina, it also involved a high degree of collaboration with his brothers in the order (which he admits he often found difficult).
All of this has given him a keen awareness of community — of the people of God. As he explains in the interview published by America…
“There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual…”
It also reflects the demands of finding pragmatic ways of negotiating the harsh, even cruel, day-to-day realities of an economically stressed, politically charged atmosphere while meeting the practical and spiritual needs of people and protecting the great institutions of the Church. The Pope speaks to this pragmatism, relating it to the gift of discernment gained from Jesuit Ignatian spirituality, and citing a papal predecessor as his exemplar…
“In his own way, John XXIII adopted this attitude with regard to the government of the church, when he repeated the motto, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’ John XXIII saw all things, the maximum dimension, but he chose to correct a few, the minimum dimension.”
Will this selective, restrained, tolerant approach be the hallmark of Francis’ papacy? The reference to John XXIII, instigator of the Second Vatican Council, is suggestive.
Francis’ Jesuit perspective and Argentine preparation will now be tested on a global scale. Whether he leads the Church through a period of growth and glory or down into a pit of disillusionment and decline remains to be seen. But Francis is an interesting fellow.
Should this good-hearted, messy introvert — this sinner both astute and naive — get to feeling overwhelmed by the formidable task before him, he can reflect on Jesus’ promise to the Church: that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. At least not in the long run.
Short-term, I think we can expect a lot more public relations challenges.
Take time to read the whole interview in America. It covers a lot of ground and offers a taste of the Pope’s thinking on a wide range of subjects. It also provides some context for his thoughts, helping to clarify the more sensational tidbits which have been extracted and flashed around the world…
Catholic blogger JoAnna Wahlund provides a bit of soothing perspective on the current media frenzy over Francis’ statements, recalling several instances of misrepresentation or out-of-context quoting endured by past popes…