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Are we at ‘peak Pope’?

Maybe it’s not a crisis of continued supply -- just the opposite, in fact -- but the unregulated flow of Francis coverage in the mainstream media suggests some decline in production is inevitable. Doesn’t it?

Andrew Sullivan has been writing with the unrestrained giddiness he’s reserved mainly for Barack Obama -- and now there’s his inaugural “long-form” piece on the pontiff for the Deep Dish spin-off of his daily blog. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (“I am not a Catholic but there's something about this pope...”) is running a multi-part report with reader contributions. This is on top of reports about Francis celebrating his seventy-seventh birthday with four homeless people; the news about his stint as a bouncer at a Buenos Aeries nightclub; and of course his selection by Time as its person of the year, which really should have been the pinnacle but then here came The Advocate to second the honor. Which itself was followed this week by approving stories on changes to the influential Congregation for Bishops and mostly glowing coverage of the pope’s apparent comfort with public breastfeeding—a development meriting both an email blast from my parish priest and a dotCommonweal post from Mollie Wilson O’Reilly. (Then there are posts like the one you’re reading, which in covering the coverage add to the flow without necessarily getting any closer to its subject.)

James Carroll’s feature on Francis in the current New Yorker (its tagline “a radical pope’s first year” blurring the fact that it’s really only been about nine months) is both an example and a partial examination of the phenomenon. (It’s currently sitting atop the most popular list at the magazine’s website.)  Carroll covers some by-now familiar ground (the interviews and off-the-cuff remarks of last summer; Jorge Bergoglio’s actions during Argentina’s dirty war) and wanders down some thoroughly trod paths in an obligatory-feeling section on the sexual abuse scandal. But Carroll also gives proper due to the resonant field-hospital metaphor from the Spadaro interview, and he introduces a new (to me) detail from the Bergoglio biography about his “extraordinary” boss at a Buenos Aires laboratory, a “great woman” to whom Francis has said he owes “a huge amount” and who for helping victims of the junta was later dropped from a helicopter into the sea. “I loved her very much,” Francis is quoted as saying. And through an interview with former president of Ireland Mary McAleese—whom some have said Francis is considering for appointment to the College of Cardinals—Carroll gets, if briefly, into “the prospects for women under the new Pope” and curial reform.

If all of this makes the story seem a typically wide-ranging magazine feature intended for a general readership – well, it is. But then there’s the fact that it appears at all. Why, Carroll asks, has

the response to the Pope been so outsized? Catholic enthusiasm is understandable, but the globe’s? … The press is obsessed with him… . Francis is clearly a world figure, but a figure of what? Does Francis’s explicitly Christian message of a loving, merciful God survive, even in the secular age, as an inchoate symbol of the human being longing for transcendence?

The questions aren’t explicitly answered, of course, but a personal anecdote in the first part of Carroll’s long story, about a memorable audience with Pope John XXIII, is suggestive: “Lately,” Carroll writes, “the fact that I once sought transcendence in the presence of a Pope has stopped seeming naïve.”

You can read Carroll’s full article here; you can hear him talk about it on NPR’s Fresh Air here. And to bring this item full circle: Does the New Yorker cover depicting a (cartoon) Francis making a snow angel say anything more about the media response?  

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Lovely that  Pope Francis is receiving so much media coverage.  It will bring people to an understanding of issues they may not have been aware of before.  (E.g., the practice of dropping people into the ocean from helicopters.  North Americans who don't know about this -- who did it, who supported it, who gave absoultion to the perpetrators, etc., -- will now become better known.)

I don't think a "decline in production is inevitable."  Examining the New York Times archives shows the coverage of past popes was constant.  It's interesting, imho, to see how details of the lives, opinions, chest colds, relatives, etc., etc., of Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, etc. were covered.  Not only were there frequent articles, there were also many pictures -- two-page spreads at times.

The popes' views of various fads, like harem pants, got a lot of publicity.  Here's a link to NYT articles from 1911-1914 about Pius X's condemnation of the tango.

(Pope Francis loves the tango.)

A great roundup. I keep thinking the Pope media train will come into the station, but the ride continues. I have good intel that more Pope coverage to come in LA Times and on cable news talk shows over the weekend too.

Ooh, I'd like to answer that last one. I rarely admire Barry Blitt's work in the New Yorker, but I love this "Snow Angel" cover -- I think it strikes precisely the right note, or rather chord, especially for a Christmas issue. And I think it does capture how Pope Francis has been received. Think about how different it would be if the cover showed Pope Benedict in the same pose -- it'd be satirical, highlighting what a stiff he was (or maybe how foolish the papacy in general is) by showing him doing something improbably lighthearted. He'd certainly have his mitre on, too -- as he does here. The joke being, "Imagine, the pope in a bathing suit! Imagine, the pope in a hammock! It is to laugh!"

But the most improbable thing about the current cover image is the snow -- they don't often get that much in Vatican City. Otherwise the image seems to express Francis's personality quite well, and there's no attempt (in my opinion) to make him a target -- it has the feeling of a happy embrace. I think what's been so startling and compelling about Francis to the media, and to ordinary Catholics and non-Catholics, is that we'd all come to think of the pope as this alien creature who knows not the ways of mortals. And here comes Francis, who seems like an ordinary human being, someone who could actually be familiar with this silly earth custom of "snow angels." And he seems like a man who enjoys himself and doesn't shy away from the spontaneous. I don't think the Onion could republish this story about Francis, and nine months ago I'd have said it was a perennial.

Maybe the journalists, who are professional critics if not cynics, are just delighted to find that saints are possible after all.

Ann, I think you nailed it.

James Carroll says, "Francis is clearly a world figure, but a figure of what?"

This is an excellent question to ask.

I suspect that many people are going to continue watching Francis to see what answer(s) to this question might emerge.

I don't think media coverage of him has peaked.

I tell ya, I don’t care that Andrew Sullivan, The New Yorker and Time think highly of the guy—I still like him, dammit!

The media keeps writing about him, because the rest of us keep wanting to hear about him. I find myself googling most days to see if there is news about Francis no matter how minor  (and unnewsworthy).  I never did that about any other churchmen, Popes included.


Good to see the favorable attention given Francis in The New Yorker, since their distaste for Benedict was palpable both on the cover and inside the magazine.

Of course, after all these years one knows the slant that Carroll will bring: the re-cycling of the teenage meeting with John XXIII, the animus against the "reactionary" nature of subsequent papacies, the constant presence of the Major General Father, the inchoate longing for some undefined "transcendence."

Two items caught my attention in the article. First, Carroll's quote from Father Lombardi who, alluding to the dark days pre-Francis, reportedly said: "We experienced for years ... that the Church said, 'No! This is not the right way." Whereas now: "I am at the service of a message ... of love and mercy."

Apparently, Father Lombardi took an espresso-break when Pope Benedict was preaching his homilies. Or somehow  missed his encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi. One also wonders with what care Francis' Evangelii Gaudium has been read? It seems replete with "This is not the right way!" observations (with which I for one am in basic accord.)

A second item caught my attention. Carroll remarks upon Bergoglio's being named a bishop and says how this is "unusual for a Jesuit" since the Society "discourages its members from holding ecclesiastical office." He then goes on to mention Bergoglio's being named a Cardinal in 2001, dwelling on the "simplcitiy of style" that "set him apart from other prelates."

No mention, however, concerning the identity of the Pope who named the little known Jesuit both a bishop and a Cardinal, since it would not quite fit the Carolingian narrative.

The New Yorker also informs that Carroll will have a book coming out next year: Christ Actually: The Son of God for a Secular Age. But no need to wait; the slant is already clear.

Father Imbelli- Even if he's biased, do you think he's wrong? Don't you think  there truly was a very different tone during the last  papacy? Am I mistaken in thinking there was encouragement in Rome for Church leaders to liberally censure and condemn Catholics, including clergy and religious, whose thoughts and actions  were perceived as off the mark? It seemed like there was an awful lot of that going on here in the US for some years; maybe it had nothing to do with the Pope, but  I feel like its relaxed some with our new one.



Loved the article.  Love James Carroll.  

My favorite part was this:

A member of the press corps in Rome told me that during the Benedict years Father Lombardi, when addressing reporters, was bothered by a persistent nervous cough. The cough is no longer in evidence.


I was born in the 1950s, into a world where people called each other "Mr. Smith" and "Miss Jones", sometimes even people they saw every day at work. In the 80's, I had a job with one of the world's largest computer companies, and when the CEO visited our lab he shook my lowly hand and said, "call me John." (Nowdays, the only people I call "Mr." and "Miss." are by kid's elementary school teachers, and it feels like I'm being ironic even then.) We're profoundly uncomfortable with hierarchy and with just about any of the distance and formality of hierarchy. Wait'll you see the New Yorker cover if the next pope goes back, even a little bit, in the direction of the previous ones!

Quite remarkable that Francis has hired Mckinsey and Co to help with Vatican PR. Ditto for the banker, Bruelhart, who was hired to fix Vatican finances. Shows that Francis who shows the simplicity of doves knows how to be shrewd as a serpen. 

Revealing indeed is the constant animus Bob Imbelli exhibits towards James Carroll. 

'Revealing indeed is the constant animus Bob Imbelli exhibits towards James Carroll."

Wondered the same - is it because they both live and work in Boston?; is it because Carroll is a former priest?  Will be the first to acknowledge that Carroll can by hyperbolic but, then, there have been moments when many of us have been hyperbolic, exaggerated, frustrated, etc.; including Fr. Imbelli.

In reply to Carroll's quoting Lombardi and the snarky reply about an expresso break and then listing Benedict's books, from a recent talk by Richard Gaillardetz:  Francis: Pope of the Council:

- ".....what’s significant is that Francis has received, or carried forward, elements of Vatican II’s teaching that tended to be neglected by his predecessors. They brought forward certain things that are quite significant.  Francis has been bringing forward other elements of the Council’s teaching that were not so significant.  So it is important to think about the context in which each of these popes received the Council’s teaching.  For John Paul II, of course, the context was communist Poland; and his reception of Vatican II’s teaching was very much mired in all of the political dynamics around countries behind the Iron Curtain, and religious freedom, and so on.  Benedict was receiving the Council’s teaching from within the heart of Western Europe and the crises of faith that was going on, and is continuing to go on, in many parts of Western Europe.  Francis’ reception of the Council is quite distinctive, because it is marked by three characteristic features:  He is a Latin American - an important element of his reception of Vatican II’s teaching is that he read the Council through the lens of CELAM,1/ the very influential Episcopal Conference for Latin America that gave us the Medellin documents and Puebla; and Aparecida, where Francis played a major role, helped shape, in decisive ways, how Pope Francis has thought about the teaching of Vatican II. 

Second, he was the longest serving bishop since Pius X (with one exception - JPII at 14 yrs) and was the president of a bishops' conference.

Third, he is a Jesuit which gives him a distinctive charism, approach to ministry, and a preferential option for the poor and mission."

R. Gaillardetz ends by contrasting the *ultramontane papacies* vs. *papacy of persuasion*.  He explicates:

"JPII was the quintessential post-modern pope in his use of image to teach effectively.  But you see the ambiguity, don’t you?  On the one hand, he’s still trying to keep forward the pope as expositor and policer of doctrine (centralization of an ultramontane papacy); on the other hand, he’s sympathetic to John XXIII’s persuasive papacy.  There’s an ambivalence there."

"Benedict continues the one; he fails miserably at the second.  If JPII was a master of the symbolic gesture, Benedict was not.  He thought an important symbolic gesture was to rescind the excommunication of four Lefebvrite bishops, but didn’t bother to check that one of them was a holocaust deniert?  He didn’t get how to use the papacy symbolically.

And indeed, this is part of my argument that I don’t think Benedict was suited to the demands of a modern papacy, to be honest with you; and I think he wisely, at some point, stepped down so that he could do what his real passion was: theology, writing, teaching.

Francis, I think, marks the culmination of this trajectory.  So, where Paul VI, JPII and Benedict are caught between two worlds: sometimes they’re the pope as policemen; sometimes they’re the pope as the one encouraging persuasion and dialogue.  Francis, I think, has largely put to bed the pope as policeman.  I’m not saying he’s not going to pronounce on Church doctrine, and he’s certainly affirmed Church teaching, but there’s none of the policeman’s feel to it.  This is a pope who believes he teaches best by persuading.

He ends with: 

"We have long been comfortable being a teaching Church; Pope Francis wants us first to be a humble listening Church."

So, instead of nitpicking Carroll or the snarkiness (*Of course, after all these years one knows the slant that Carroll will bring: the re-cycling of the teenage meeting with John XXIII, the animus against the "reactionary" nature of subsequent papacies, the constant presence of the Major General Father, the inchoate longing for some undefined "transcendence."*);  we might want to pause and actually try to listen to Carroll's (in all his human weaknesses) context, attitudes, and emotions.  And it appears that others (R. Gaillardetz, president of CTSA and head of BC's systematic theology) have also noticed that Francis' substance is different from Benedict, et alii. (other writers also use youthful stories; others can calmly describe JPII and Benedict's styles as well meaning but wrong-headed; others may like to quote from the Major General Father (do you really get tired of reading from Pedro Arrupe; and Imbelli lives with the Jesuits and teaches at BC?); and don't we all really have an *inchoate longing for some transcendence that we can't quite define? 


Mr. deHaas,

to paraphrase Bill Clinton, it all depends what you mean by "constant." I have criticized James Carroll on this blog over the years, but "constant?" I've posted much more about Francis (mostly appreciative) than about James -- and we've only had Francis for nine months, whereas it seems we've had Carroll "in saecula saeculorum."

Which leads me to your long (very long) quotes from my colleague Richard Gaillardetz. I don't know that I have much substantive disagreement with him, though I would seek to nuance what appears to me to be too strong a contrast between papacy as "expositor of doctrine" and "persuasive papacy." It risks dichotomizing "dogmatic" and "pastoral" in a way Vatican II does not endorse.

I would not dream of suggesting that Benedict and Francis are cut from the same clerical cloth. There are such obvious differences. And I agree that "style" has substantive significance. What I object to is the praise of Francis to the denigration of Benedict -- which is much more than expressing civil disagreement and is spiritually corrosive (hence my quote from "Evangelii Gaudium" in our previous exchange on this blog).

Since you raise it, may I correct a misconception. You say: "Imbelli lives with the Jesuits" (why does that have overtones of "swims with the fishes?"). In my now twenty-eighth year of happy association with Boston College, I have always lived and continue to live in Sacred Heart Parish, Newton Centre, staffed by diocesan priests.

Finally, one hopes that "an inchoate longing for some transcendence that we cannot define" is a mark of man and woman created "in the image and likeness of God," (though it can certainly be muffled by the sort of consumerist and unregulated capitalism that Francis deprecates -- persuasively?). But IF that is all that Christian faith consists in (I highlight "IF" in case the Catholic League is monitoring this thread), then, with Flannery O'Connor, I say: "the hell with it!"

For some further takes on Carroll's of Christmas past: here and here.

Hmmm, maybe these Paul Baumann and Tom Baker characters aren’t so bad after all.   Thanks for singing a few Christmas Carrolls, gentlemen.


Thank you, Fr, Imbelli - guess I was surprised by your Carroll remarks especially given this post from you on December 16th:

Mr. deHaas,

You seem to have been gifted with insight into Father Barron's heart. May I suggest that we might profit from Pope Francis' insight in Evangelii Gaudium:

"98. How many wars take place within the people of God and in our different communities! In our neighbourhoods and in the workplace, how many wars are caused by envy and jealousy, even among Christians! Spiritual worldliness leads some Christians to war with other Christians who stand in the way of their quest for power, prestige, pleasure and economic security. Some are even no longer content to live as part of the greater Church community but stoke a spirit of exclusivity, creating an “inner circle”. Instead of belonging to the whole Church in all its rich variety, they belong to this or that group which thinks itself different or special."

Let me just end with you also considering this quote from Francis since you *have been gifted with insight into James Carroll's heart*.

Mr. deHaas,

I was not presuming to read Carroll's heart -- only his writings.

However, I will try to take my quote from Evangelii Gaudium to heart.

Indeed, it may make a good New Year's resolution for us all.


To be honest I don't agree with everything James Carroll writes. He does at times throw out the baby with the bath water as Tom Baker points out. Though I would not consider Nicea (one of the first 7 councils called by the emperor) the last word. Nor Chalcedon. It is just that you hardly acknowledge any of Carroll's legitimate criticisms. And appear extra vicious towards him. Contrast this with the rather idolatrous posts that you have laid upon us with reference to John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Each of them had serious flaws which should not be ignored.  Francis does seem more on point with the anointing of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. But even with Francis one should not lose critical thinking where everything he says is considered gospel truth. 

Looking at Paul his letters are full of attempts at persuasion. His anathema is only for those who  deny the Good News and then he leaves them to be prayed for. In the light of the church of dogma we can use more persuasion. 

Other than that we can all take your quote from Evangelium Gaudium to heart.

^ Oh, ouch...

(Btw, the only reason Francis got the cover of Time was because Queen Bey's album didn't drop for another week.)

Thanks to a kind and good friend - need to add a clarification that Fr. Imbelli probably was nice enought to skip over:

James Carroll references his major general father  - I attributed to the former Jesuit superior general, Arupe, but forgetting Carroll's book, An American Requeim.  This is about Carroll, his military father, and the Vietnam War coming betweeen them.

Surprised at the "animus" James Carroll arouses in various blogger priests -- Robert Imbelli, "Z," Martin Fox.  It seems out of proportion.  

His biography from his web site:


Yep, you know something is amiss when your opinions match Fr. Z - that should be a call to stop and reconsider.  Resigned priests are still *persona non grata* especially if they dare speak about the church (altho they are still baptized faith filled members in most cases).  Clericalism and *omerta* reigns - even if subtlely.




A family friend (who who had been in the seminary with my father) was a really capable and much beloved priest.   At the time of Vatican II he was head of a major order and became one of the non-voting members of Vatican II.  He speech to the assembled bishops helped persuade them to adopt the document on religious freedom, a tremendous change in Catholic teaching.   

I asked him later if he was in favor of women priests, a radical notion at the time.  He liked women, so I wasn't surprised when he answered Yes.  But he quickly added very emphatically that he was against married male priests.  It was an over-reaction, I  thought, especially considering his usual openness.  But apparently he thought that priests who were laicized were traitors.  Sad.

he thought that priests who were laicized were traitors

I once attended an Episcopalian church for a while. It was closest to my home and, as my children were very young, convenience was primary. I learned that the pastor had been a Catholic priest - that was reassuring, comfortably familiar. Then he had fallen in love, got laicized and married. That seemed natural. Then he had become an Episcopalian priest - why not? Ministry was his vocation and training, and that seemed a bit surprising but not unreasonable. But it turned out that at that point I had reached the limits of my understanding. After I had been going to that church for a few months, one day he announced that he was getting divorced, because he and his wife had fallen out of love. Thereupon I decided that the Catholic parish was worth the inconvenience after all.

You have to admit that it's not a plus, when someone makes a solemn promise and then rescinds it, even if there can be legitimate reasons, and even though, when it is done in doubt rather than with arrogance, it might transform them into better Christians (wounded healers).

But requiring a promise that is beyond many or most people's ability is just asking for trouble. Shouldn't the dislike of broken promises, of "traitors", turn one against mandatory celibacy for priests? 

 "You have to admit . . ."


"Who am I to judge?"


Gerelyn, I realize I don't know much about the subject, but I imagine it as similar to a divorce: It's a wound, not a plus (except in its transformative potential). Do you think that it is less serious for a priest to leave the priesthood than for a married man to get divorced? If so, then I'd have to rethink my statements.

Sometimes it seems to me that people in our society are too quick to say that there is nothing wrong with broken promises, and give a blanket, too-quick approval.

Is it not possible to disapprove of mandatory celibacy but to also disapprove of broken promises of celibacy, while recognizing their possible, even frequent, legitimacy in practice? Do you think that is not consistent? 

I asked him later if he was in favor of women priests, a radical notion at the time.  He liked women, so I wasn't surprised when he answered Yes.

That's priceless.

Why priceless, Mark?  As I see it priests who are against women priests are those who fear and dislike women to start with.  If a priest likes women, if he doesn't have the hang-ups some priests have, he's more likely to be open to the possibility.

I dined yesterday at Papà Francesco restaurant across the road from La Scala (where I then hear Diana Damrau singing Violetta). The honeymoon continues on Italian tv, and I predict his popularity will last as long as John Paul II's which was immense and unbroken for a long time. 

The only problem is that we are getting diet of Francis, Francis, Francis and nother else. Are there no other inspiring voices in the immense Catholic world?

corr. "and nothing else"

As I see it priests who are against women priests are those who fear and dislike women to start with.

I'm surpised to read something so facile from someone like you.   (And I only use the gentle, "facile," because you are a woman and I like you. ;-))

In fact quite a few women are against women priests. 

And quite a few women and quite a few men are against priests at all.

See, e.g., Why Priests? by Garry Wills.

Yes, some Catholic priests and bishops have failed us terribly lately, but let's not throw the oysters out with the shells, or something like that :-)  Seriously, having communal offering rituals presided over a priest is so common in mankind I wonder if it could even be founded on a genetic inclination. There are also priestesses, and Rome should take a look at that pattern of human behavior.

I correct my reference to Papà Francesco restaurant -- it is named after its owner, since 1980, but the Pope's popularity has given it a boost.

Mrs McAleese's remark that even "kick the pope" unionists love Pope Francis is heartening -- but it's still not very clear what all this popularity means. Never forget that John Paul II was very, very popular as well.

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