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The Many Firsts of Pope Francis

Last night a CNN special on Pope Francis (Pope Francis, A Man of Many Firsts) aired in the US, in which I appeared as one of several commenters, including John Allen, Chris Belitto, and Cardinal McCarrick. As promised, I'm opening a thread to discuss the program.

First of all, let me say that I thought the program was well done. Although it did not shy away from controversy, it presented a positive view of what is already being talked about as an historic papacy. Some of the “firsts” named in the program were: first pope from Latin America, first pope who is a Jesuit, first pope to take the name Francis, first pope to use the term “gay.” Are there other “firsts”? Yes, of course. We could brainstorm a whole list of them. But the ones they chose to highlight were a fair summary.

I enjoyed the footage from World Youth Day. In particular, the aerial view of the 3.5 million people at the Mass on Copa Cabana beach was stunning. Speaking of views from a height, the panorama of St. Peter’s Square, seen from the vantage point of the new pope right after his election—the crowds, the lights, the hush that fell before he said “Good evening”—was also impressive. The close-up shots, at the Holy Thursday service at the prison, in the airplane on the return trip to Rome from Brazil, and of miscellaneous contact with individuals, were memorable too and fun to watch.

Of course, the story of a person—especially a person who has awakened admiration and interest in so many people—is easier to tell than so many other kinds of stories. We are hardwired to see events through stories about individuals.

Where I find myself thoughtful in retrospect is around this basic question: What is really happening in the pontificate of Pope Francis, and how do we talk about it? What do the pictures and the commentary really tell us?

In a way, the program was of two minds. One viewpoint was captured in Becky Anderson’s narrative, and it concerns the church “re-branding” itself. This was echoed in the assertion of Chris Belitto that no doctrines are going to change, they will just be presented differently; and in John Allen’s focus on how Francis is changing the “story line” of the Catholic Church, from "Church in crisis" to charismatic pontiff takes the world by storm. Not the substance or anything under the surface is changing, but the "show" is changing. This is similar to the view of Francis taken by Cardinal Dolan, and indeed is similar to what Dolan has tried to do for his own image since taking over the Archdiocese of New York (with considerably less success, one might add)--the same message, only packaged better.

The other viewpoint was voiced by me, and implied by the flow of the program overall: We are in for big changes—real changes, not just new public relations images—and this six-month period is already seeing the negotiation of those changes. They are not made by Pope Francis alone or directly, but by the complex interactions of innumerable people, over which he presides and with whom he wishes to have productive interactions. The subject of the program, ostensibly Pope Francis, is really ourselves as the Catholic Church. That Church is alive and changing in some impressive ways. The excitement that one feels at this point in history is from the intuition that the Pope is a leader who will manage these changes creatively rather than deny their existence or attempt to suppress them. 

Of course, maybe something entirely different is going on here. What do you think? Re-branding? Real change? Or something else?

About the Author

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press).



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I am very glad that you are of the perspective that it is not simply a rebranding that is happening. I tire of that. I look forward to reading your perspective and that of others who discern deeper realities in this pontificate. I think his missional emphasis, his Jesuit formation and his rootedness in Latin America point to major reworkings of theology and ecclessiology more deeply in line with the fullness of the Second Vatican Council and the Church of the Poor than any kind of "show is changing" analysis would indicate. Here is one of my early posts on Francis' missional orientation.

Thanks, Rita - how exciting.  Agree with you for a number of reasons:

- like any good Jesuit, Francis has laid the groundwork for serious *encounter* and *discussion* in the Jesuit understanding.  This means, eventually, encounter leads to action internally and externally.  At the same time, think he wants to invite folks to encounter and thus to build the church (it isn't just the pope, clerics, bishops and, IMO, this line about dogma not changing misses the point and is a knee jerk reaction out of fear)

- second, taking from Piero Marini's presentation at FDLC, Francis lives the reality that VII is not behind us; but in front of us - calling us to change, to go out to the world.

This emphasis and insight (as some say, he preaches like Jesus) is what sets him apart from Benedict and even JPII (who didn't always internalize, use, or even accept what the council fathers challenged us with).Benedict, too often, saw VII as a past historical event and he parsed things so much that he missed the revolutionary and reform calls of the council.

Excellent, Greg - get it.


Thanks, it sounds like a fascinating show.  This is somewhat tangential, but my dominant impression of Pope Francis is that this is a man who went home after the previous conclave---in which he was a (the closest?) runner-up to Benedict---and spent a lot of time thinking about what he would do if he were elected pope.  It will be interesting to see how his papacy unfolds...both for his own actions and for the responses by the rest of the Church.

Ya done good, kid!  I'm glad that you got equal time with the usually over-exposed John Allen.

Christopher Bellito has put out a few historical CDs for Now You Know Media and I have developed a liking for his perspective and style of teaching.

Re-branding? Real change? Or something else?

Re-branding is offensive and real change is impossible, so I’ll go with something else.  Something good, though I fear many who currently have unreasonable expectations of Pope Francis will be disappointed and, for them,  it may be the straw  that breaks the camel’s back.

On a happier note, the camera likes you, Rita.

Thanks, Rita.  Well done :-)  

Who at CNN put the show together?  CNN has always been the place to find up-to-the-minute news, but I find that it's  starting to go beyond just reporting -- into causes and possible consequences, with visual essays (like last night's program), competent op-ed pieces, and discussions by knowledgeable people.  Would that Fox would follow suit.  It dosn't even distinguish reporting and editorializing.  

Thanks, everybody!

Ann, in answer to your question, the producer was Edvige Jean-Francois, whom I never met but with whom I communicated a number of times by email, and for whom I developed a sincere liking and respect. She is with CNN International, which is different from CNN in the US, but of course they are all related. She does not make programming decisions, however, so I was glad to see that the show finally aired in the US. It appeared in the Asia-Pacific region in September (the announcement on line gave times in Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi), and I feared it might not be shown here after all. I still don't see any link for the program on line, and am not sure if there will be one. My friends in Europe are clamoring for this info, hoping to be able to stream the video if it isn't shown on their television networks.

Hey, great that it was shown in a Muslim country and in a Far Eastern one.  They need all he information they an get about the Church.

Is there any chance of this appearing on YouTube?

It's telling that Pope Francis has chosen as his most important papal biographer not a Vatican scribe, but Eugenio Scalfari. Francis allows Scalfari to paraphrase his words, yet posts them verbatim  on his official Vatican website and affirms their authenticity. Yet they are, in the end, Scalfari's words and not strictly the Pope's. But they ARE the Pope's thoughts! This allows the Pope to escape from what would be the confines of his office and gives  him greater opportunity to bring about real change in the Church than he could ever do by altering the catechism at the edges.  The Pope told Scalfari that the next interview would concern the role of women, in the world and Church. I doubt that it will be left where it was by Pope John Paul II.

What is the Church? Is it the catechismal collection of "disjointed doctrines?"(Pope's words). Is it the Magisterium? Is it all which is so rigidly formal?  Or is it the truly catholic (small c) community of believers? What Francis has great power to change is not the catechism, but the ways in which Catholics themselves view the Church and contribute and relate to the Church. It's OK to stay clear of the culture wars, in favor of dedicating one's life to soup kitchen Catholicism, which has much broader appeal (and, in the opinion of the Pope, greater importance) in today's world.

Personal morality, as opposed to public moralizing, combined with good works as public witness.

I am coming to think of the latter as "the Francis Doctrine." Do others see it the same way?

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

Here in my part of India there is almost universal acclaim for Pope Francis. He keeps getting repeatedly mentioned in homilies during Mass and in other talks which hardly was the case with the earlier Popes. He really has struck a chord in the minds of both the lay people and the hierarchy here. I should mention that on the whole the Church here is conservative doctrinally but liberal in attitude, and that is why I think Pope Francis is such a hit.


Great job, Rita. Very engaging! Of course the program seemed too short, and left the audience around here wishing for more. How about a series, following Francis and the impact he is having on the church and the world? As to whether there is going to be real change, well, I think it is already happening. people are paying attention and waking up to the possibilities posed by Vatican II and put on hold for so long. We have a real person, unpredictable and alive as Pope. The opposition of the traditionalists is a compliment to his good heart, good sense, and nerve. Thank heaven for him. ( Of course it may take him a while to realize that all women are not like his grandma, but he seems to be a quick learner.)

I wish I'd known about and seen the program. Perhaps it will be rebroadcast or show up on Youtube. And I'm delighted CNN had the wit to choose you as a panel member.


I missed the segment as well. I found this online -- but I think it is only a snippet (2 minutes and 22 seconds), not the whole segment.

Am I right the piece was longer than this?



Jack Marth,

Yes, the program is half an hour long. The 2 minute trailer is just a teaser to get you to see the program. I am sorry that so far at least they have not posted a link so that people can see the program on line at their leisure. If they do post a link, I'll give a "heads up" on the blog.

They sent me a copy of the DVD, which I have shared with my parish, much to their delight. They showed it at the Altar Rosary Society's Communion breakfast, and now the Seniors' Club is planning a viewing. I'm finding all this quite heart-warming. It's "our church" you see.  

Thank you for inviting comment.  I watched the program and it seemed the editor(s) emphasized commentary about so-called rebranding of the Roman Catholic tradition.  I am glad that it aired, though, because Francis is indeed setting the world on fire with agape love.  New York Times editorial writers pen their opinions on the Church at least weekly.  They are usually egoistic rants wishing for the "church" they want, but their attention to Francis demonstrates how he is leading--by making himself little while pointing the whole world to God.  Blessings and peace.

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