The Personal Pope: Francis After Two Years

COMMENTARY

Pope Francis meets with families during a papal audience in February
Pope Francis meets with families during a papal audience in February (photo: CNA/Bohumil Petrik)

It has been two years now since the damp and drizzly evening in March 2013 when, from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis introduced himself to the piazza and the world with two words, Buona sera — “Good evening.”

The mounting anticipation in the square had been so charged and intense that I feared that such a simple greeting might come across as anti-climactic, even banal, but it soon became clear that my fears were misplaced. On the way home that evening, I asked my Roman cabbie if he’d seen the “Habemus papam” moment. He said that he hadn’t but that he was on the phone at the time with his wife, who was watching the scene on television. She had burst into tears.

Even before the new pope’s name was known, the ecstatic crowd in the piazza seemed eager to love whomever appeared on the balcony, and the immediate worldwide embrace of Pope Francis, about whom so little was known, seems to suggest that the world was, in fact, waiting for a father figure of a particular sort: a “dad” who is approachable, who will love you even when you screw up.

John Paul II, while fatherly, had also been a larger-than-life figure on the world stage, and his long illness had removed him from close contact with the people. Benedict XVI’s scholarly reserve and natural shyness made him more of a wise teacher than a paterfamilias (head of the family). But Pope Francis’ unpretentious manner made him a perfect focus for the world’s hunger for someone who could truly be “papa” in the colloquial sense — a true dad.

While there has been a notable change in the papacy’s tone under Francis, these two years have also revealed strong continuities with his predecessors. The attention that he attracts is an outgrowth of the popular fascination with the papacy that began with John Paul and continued under Benedict.

We tend to forget it, but the 18th century ended with the pope dying as a prisoner in France, after being kidnapped by Napoleon, and the 19th century ended with the pope having lost the papal states, living as a “prisoner of the Vatican.”

By the end of the 20th century, however, John Paul II was the first citizen of the world, probably the single most photographed and filmed person in human history. And now, at a time when most newspapers are tightening their belts, secular newspapers like The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal have, under Pope Francis, decided to establish, for the first time ever, Vatican correspondents.

In short, the ever-increasing centrality of the papacy is a global phenomenon that began in 1978, with the first Polish pope, and is still going strong with the first Latin-American pope.

This is also true within the Church. Despite Pope Francis’ efforts to promote the episcopal collegiality advocated by the Second Vatican Council by presenting himself as the “Bishop of Rome,” it is safe to say that most Catholics, especially the vast majority who get their news from secular media, know much more about the Pope in Rome than they do about their own bishops.

Modern communications technology, which has made both the local diocese and the Vatican only a click away, has only facilitated and intensified this papal focus within the Church.

And yet, while the papacy seems to loom larger than ever, its message is not necessarily clearer or more incisive. There was a time when statements from a pope’s lips were received as quasi-sacred, oracular pronouncements. Their very infrequency gave them great weight. This is no longer the case. The immense volume and unofficial character of papal utterances has contributed to a “democratization” of papal communication. Again, this is not a brand-new phenomenon.

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in addition to doing interviews with reporters on planes, published book-length interviews and books of personal spiritual reflection that were not intended as papal magisterium. It was Benedict who started a papal Twitter account.

And now, with Pope Francis, we also have daily homilies, private phone calls and emails. Given the increasing frequency with which popes now speak their minds in a wide variety of contexts, it has become ever-more necessary to make distinctions between “papal” statements on the basis of their importance and relative authority.

With so many words coming out of Rome, Roma locuta est (“The pope said so”) no longer seems to be the end of the discussion. More often than not, it is the beginning.

The public persona of Pope Francis that has emerged in these two years is quite different from that of either of his predecessors. John Paul II, a trained actor, seemed comfortable speaking to multitudes, as if the world’s stage were his natural element. Benedict, so masterful in academic settings and smaller intellectual discussions, often seemed ill at ease speaking to vast crowds, as if he suffered from stage fright.

But Francis seems to be unaware that he is on a stage at all or that he is talking to millions of people. One astute observer has noted that, in photos, Francis is never looking at “everybody”; he’s always making eye contact with a particular person.

One could say that Benedict and Francis manifest two different ways of living humility. In Benedict, we saw a conscious effort to withdraw, so that attention was focused not on the pope, but on his message, the truth of Christ.

Francis seems to forget that he is the pope and speaks with a spontaneity that conveys his personal conviction and desire to communicate the truth. His emotions are openly and unselfconsciously on display. By his words and actions, he is telling people, “Your faith matters to me.”

It is simply impossible to imagine Benedict demanding, as Francis has done, that crowds chant, “God, the living one, is merciful!” over and over in St. Peter’s Square, as if he were leading a Pentecostal revival meeting.

This intense personal engagement is also reflected in two of the words that have already become a kind of leitmotif in his papacy: “mercy” and “peripheries.”

Pope Francis, with his example, has changed the way the Church speaks, teaching us to express ourselves in words that reflect a forgetfulness of self and a focus on the needs and sufferings of others. These are words that also reflect an outward-looking, missionary, apostolic view of the Church.

Earlier this month, in an interview with a magazine in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, the Pope, after speaking about the dangers of drugs and the need for stable families, added that, for the poor children there, “the most important thing is the faith.”

For the moment, a great deal of the Holy Father’s energies are focused on internal Church affairs (the synod on the family and the reform of the Roman Curia). But, two years into his papacy, we have only just begun to see the consequences of Pope Francis’ desire for engagement with the world.

Opus Dei Father John Wauck writes from Rome.

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