A year ago, based on my first impressions of Cardinal Bergoglio, I had predicted that the new Pontiff would be a Pope for the social networks. Twelve months later, my predictions have not only been confirmed, but radically exceeded, since not only has Pope Francis proved to be a shrewd and charming communicator, but the media and the public at large are completely mesmerized by him to the extent of making him their darling. This has generated such disbelief (“how can the leader of an archaic religious institution be cool or sound progressive?”) and uncharacteristic optimism that one would be justified in believing that this papacy marks the beginning of ecclesial reform, a new age for the public perception of the Catholic Church etc. etc.
Perhaps… but I’m not persuaded yet.
Not that I don’t believe that the Catholic Church is going through a reform. In fact, ecclesial reform started more than fifty years ago with that equally charming and prophetic Pope John XXIII. But I am decidedly a skeptic when it comes to all things “public” or “opinionated”. In fact, I tend to believe that the “Pope Francis Media Phenomenon” is the perfect illustration of how we—the “public” at large (and therefore, Catholics or not) are fickle. How in an age of mediated immediacy, constructed perceptions are more important than substance to determine our judgments… or more to the point, our “Likes”.
Pope Francis is an admirable man. He is direct, transparent and comes across as tolerating no nonsense. For all of that and more, I am proud that he is my Pontiff, I admire him deeply as Shepherd of the Church, and even if I were not a Catholic, he would deserve my deepest respect as a truly inspiring human being. Few of us today—Catholics or not—have the courage to be direct, transparent and to not play the “how-am-I-coming-across” game. On the contrary, most of us, whether online or offline, merely project constructed masks or enhanced images of ourselves, to the extent that we have come to expect “fakeness” in everything (or everyone) around us. In this ocean of mirages, Pope Francis stands out because he is plain honest. He is a breath of fresh air in the staleness of our tired rhetoric. He is strong because he reveals his vulnerability (“who am I to judge?”). He is personable because he actually cares—in particular for those no one bothers to care about (“on the margins”). No wonder—as he has made clear in the latest World Communications Day Message—that the parable of the Good Samaritan speaks to him so powerfully. No wonder that, like the Good Samaritan, he is calling the world to promote “neighbourliness” in order to become a true neighbourhood. No wonder that he is as critical of ecclesiastical legalism as he is of the world “indifferent” to suffering. Put simply, he is the whole package of what a decent, thoughtful, friendly human being should be.
And yet, lest we admire the man, but persist in buying into all he stands against, let’s not forget that the “Pope Francis” we often encounter through the media is being fed to us through constructed magic. Let’s not forget that what Pope Francis is expressing is neither novel nor radical to anyone who has bothered to ponder the Gospels or to skim through Christian literature spanning two thousand years.
Yes, Pope Francis might come across as less stiff than that gentle academic, Pope Benedict XVI; even less intimidating than that Blessed John Paul II. And yet in the history of the church there has always been room for all sorts of characters: pleasant and obnoxious, kind and arrogant, charming and—to be charitable—those who are more of an “acquired taste”. In other words, the “Good News” that Pope Francis so transparently witnesses speaks to a multitude of men and women through a vast spectrum of human personalities… not just the “nice ones”, or the “media darling” ones, but also the less popular ones.
Never (just) judge a book by its cover, or a person (just) by his or her demeanor. What really counts is not the charm of the Pontiff or how well “liked” he is by a fickle public opinion, but the truth that he speaks through words and actions.
That yes, Catholic or not, we are desensitized to the suffering of the poor.
That yes, Catholic or not, we ought to rediscover what it means to be a neighbor, to go the extra mile, to be there for the other—whether friend or stranger.
And yes, that Catholic or not, this Good News of an ethic of reciprocity and responsibility, the willingness to self-sacrifice for the other, is hardly an “ideal”, or a “religion”, or a “philosophy”, but the only recipe for living a decent, human life together on a fragile planet.
Pope Francis might just be reminding us—through the magic of media frenzy, no less—that we hunger for such basic human decency, because the sad reality is that it is so rare.
So yes, it is good to be hopeful about human nature; to believe that Pope Francis might be the beginning of a newness we desire both inside and outside the Catholic Church.
But let’s not hold or breath, or expect too much.
For the Gospel has been preached for two thousand years and it has indeed transformed the world, but only through the courage, labour and vision of a handful who have rose to its excellence. The rest of us were, are and shall always remain stuck in our mediocrity, even while benefitting from the extraordinary humanity of the few—the same few that, as history tragically teaches us, tend to go on to be silenced or otherwise eliminated by us, lesser mortals than them.
My hope is that Pope Francis continues to be a media darling, not because popularity is decidedly in, but simply so the world continues to have an extraordinary opportunity to taste an authentically “human” presence breaking through our screens. As the global news agencies and social media loudly proclaim, heaven knows we need such inspiration in less than inspiring times.