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What do people see when they see Francis?

The question posed in that headline is a paraphrase of one used by James Carroll in a new interview in which he discusses how Pope Francis is effecting a potentially “radical” change in how the Church is viewed by the world. “What do people see when they see you?,” according to Carroll, is the question Francis has, at least figuratively, put to his fellow clerics in seeking to emphasize simplicity and draw attention to the plight of the poor – and in the process do some much-needed image improvement at the institutional level.

Is it working? And are the pictures, images, and accounts of this papacy perhaps more carefully crafted and less spontaneous than they seem?

The answer to the first question, at least according to Carroll, is yes—mainly. There are tangible innovations like the survey on family life being conducted in advance of the synod this coming fall, which in asking for information on issues like contraception and divorce and remarriage “signals a shift already underway” in the way power may be exercised. There are the less tangible qualities attaching to the man himself—whose capturing of the world’s attention, Carroll says, can be explained by the fact that he “represents an ancient human need, an ancient human longing for symbols and signs of the mysterious experience we all have of life on this planet.” The only thing marring this picture is Francis’s response to the sexual abuse scandal, which Carroll describes as a disappointment and quantifies as “all too little.”

The answer to the second question is also yes, says Mary E. Hunt in a piece at Religion Dispatches titled “The Trouble With Francis: Three Things That Worry Me.” Things one and two are what she sees as the immutable hierarchical structure of the church and the status of women and gay people. Thing three is what, in an otherwise unsurprising critique, caught my attention: “the remarkable, even enviable public relations success, not to say coup, that the papacy of Pope Francis represents.” 

I am not suggesting that there is no substance to Francis’ agenda, that change does not underlie it. Conservatives would not be so hot under their collective collars if that were not the case. But I am cognizant of the very powerful public relations machine that has turned an ecclesial ocean liner on a dime, transformed an all but written-off patriarchy into one of the most inviting, benevolent monarchies the world has seen in modern times….

Surely some of the “credit” for this PR blitz goes to former Fox News and Time writer, Opus Dei member and Midwestern Catholic, Greg Burke. He became senior communications advisor to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in June 2012, well before the new pope took over. Mr. Burke is commonly associated with moving the papacy toward a more hip, social-media savvy approach to getting out its word. It works. Papal tweets are new. But more important than 140 characters at a time are the remarkable visuals, photo ops that don’t quit, moving gestures of a humble, caring man projected for the world to see and imitate. Only a craven critic would pass over these as trivial.

David Gibson wrote here about Burke and Pope Benedict’s then-new Twitter account just over a year ago, noting the early growing pains and concluding that “there’s no better communications strategy than having a good product to sell.” How much has changed since then? Many would say there’s a better product to sell. How much is a communications strategy helping in selling it? And how much faith should be placed in, or attention paid to, images like the one in this post? What are we seeing when we see this pope?

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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If Burke took over in June 2012 and nothing improved until after the election of Pope Francis, that proves one thing to me. It all depends on the material you have to work with. If Pope Benedict was every bit as unsuccessful in the media after Burke took over as before -- and he was -- that disproves the myth that the "very powerful public relations machine" backed by Fox and Opus Dei is the real power at work.

To intimate that Pope Francis is the media creation of his handlers who "turn an ocean liner on a dime" is more than ridiculous, it's a willfully obtuse conspiracy theory. Perhaps Pope Francis is getting the coverage he deserves. Given the intrinsically interesting and important message he has to offer, one can hardly quarrel with that.

It seems to me that what most of us see is an extraordinarily compassionate man who sees the potential for compassion in all the rest of us and inspires us to be open to the value of others -- all others.  The well-spring of his compassion is the grace of God, and he wants to share it.  Implicit in all this is his faith in God.

No, he hasn't tackled the most diffifult problems yet -- the lack of accountability of bishops and our acute theological problems.  But I suspect he is hoping to win over those bishops who might support him when finally he wields an ax against the worst of them and when he looks at the theologicla problems freshly.  Oh dear, the image of Frances wielding an ax is so painful!  But he must change, even remove, the truly dreadful bishops.  The question is, is he strong enough to route out the deadwood? I think he's trying to change those bishops first, but we'll see what happens, or doesn't.  Sigh.  But I think he'll make some progress with the theology.

(If he's not the great saint he seems to be, then oh, the sneers that will follow!)

I agree with Rita.

 It all depends on the material you have to work with. If Pope Benedict was every bit as unsuccessful in the media after Burke took over as before -- and he was -- that disproves the myth that the "very powerful public relations machine" backed by Fox and Opus Dei is the real power at work.

Rita - I agree that Francis should get at least some of the credit :-).

In a a television interview last night, Cardinal George was asked why the College of Cardinals turned to Bergoglio.  His response (I'm paraphrasing and summarizing) was: they were looking for someone who could come in and reform the curia, and who would have a heart for the poor.  That first point seems to be a reference to Benedict's pontificate.  He went on to note that a number of the cardinals apparently weren't aware of Francis' populist streak, his magnetic attraction to people.  So some of the "Francis effect" apparently was not planned or foreseen.

If anyone is interested in George's remarks, the interview is here.  His remarks on Francis start at about the 12:30 mark.


A response from someone to whom I sent the Hunt article:


Hunt is right - but also wrong.

There's been absolutely no change in any of the sorely needed matters of substance, it's all been surface and style. Certainly, moving away from the evil of clericalism means we have to dramatically downgrade the papacy itself, and the episcopal office, just as we need open up the priesthood to  married men and women, of any orientation. There;s also been a lot of double - speak and mixed messages: there've been diametrically opposed interpretations of Francis' recent comments about gay parents. 

But it's incorrect to assert that he has done nothing to change the fundamentals. His appointment of the advisory board of 8 has at a stroke downgraded the importance and power of the curia. By the time they have completed their deliberations on restructuring it, that process could well continue. The choice of new cardinals for next month's consistory could also further shift the emphasis from the centre to the dioceses. Even more interesting, will be his choices for the consistory after this one, and for his remaining appointments to the curia. For me, the crunch issue is will he appoint more women and lay men to more senior positions in Vatican governance - and signal to the bishops that they should do the same at at national and diocesan level? For now, it's too soon to tell, but he's only been in office barely nine months. The important thing is not how "little" he's done in those nine months, but what he will have achieved (or not) by the end of his term. Give him time, before judging conclusively. For now, he's clearly moving in the direction of a more comprehensive, enduring restructuring of church power structures. 

On the doctrinal issues (especially the sexual ones), and on women's ordination, he's obviously not changed anything - but he has very conspicuously opened up room for genuine and frank discussion and debate. It was notable that "Evangelii Gaudium" had nothing to say on sexuality in all its 225 pages - but in the preamble, he noted that some issues had deliberately not been covered, because they needed further study and reflection. Part of that process is the synod on marriage and family, and the global consultation that is preceding it. The synod has not been called to change teaching, but its conceivable (even likely?) that this period of study and reflection could demonstrate the need for that change.

He's ruled out the likelihood of women cardinals (for now), but even discussion of the possibility would have been inconceivable under Benedict or JPII - and that possibility remains open, for the future. He has explicitly said that we need to find ways to bring women more directly into the decision making structures of the church, but not yet said how. That too, presumably, needs more "study and reflection". Is it fantasy to imagine that could include rewriting the procedures for the conclave to it admit senior leaders of women religious (if not designated as cardinals, then in some other way)? Or similarly, could we see their counterparts taking up seats alongside men in what our now called national "bishops' " conferences?

On both these counts, sexuality and including women in church decision - making, Pope Francis is directly encouraging open discussion. Who knows where that will end?

Rome wasn't built in a day, and nor can the Vatican be unbuilt in one. He's only just begun.

I thought I was putting in block quotes, but I didn't.

Having Eucharist in another church and greeting people as they came out---that is not something an Opus Dei public relations person will concoct. That this PR person will find constructive and creative ways to publicize a fantastic disciple of Christ is quite believable and proper. 

What Rita Ferrone said at the start. The focus on Greg Burke is kind of hilarious. He's great at what he does and a fine fellow (when he's not fomenting global conspiracies for Opus Dei).

But he didn't engineer the Francis Effect. His job is to ride it without hurting himself, I think.

The great lesson of Francis' papacy: a good message and messenger works. Practice what you preach. Simple.

The appointment of cardinals is, of course, crucial in determining the course of any papacy.  We should hear in the next week or two who the next 14   cardinals will be.  Plus, Fr. Tom Reese tells us, " This year, another 10 cardinals will turn 80, followed by another 5 in 2015 and 13 in 2016. Thus, by the end of 2016, not counting deaths, he could replace 42 members of the college."

The synod in October on the family will really be where the rubber hits the road -- or the brakes will be scrunched.  Francis has already indicated that he wants to *share* power with bishops from around the world, so if the bishops persist in their phlegmatic ways in October, I think he will likely permit them to continue more conservatively than many of us would like.  

Bear in mind, however, that the old cardinals and bishops will be dying off, and there is no indication that Francis will replace them with more conservatives.  So keep an eye on all the beanies, folks, both purple and red.  Change will probably take time, but, after all, this is the Catholic Church, and it usually it moves like a sloth.  

Has anybody else besides me noticed the expressions on the faces of the clergymen who stand at the sides and behind of the Pope?  They invariably seem delighted by him.  Except for the truly iron-hearted, he must have come as a very welcome blast of fresh air to the denizens of the Vatican  :-)

Re:  Francis, the Effect ....

Maybe in the eyes of many, it is a case of "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king."

Ann:  is not sloth one of the seven deadly sins?  Per the WikiFountain of All Knowledge ...

Sloth (Latin, Socordia) can entail different vices. While sloth is sometimes defined as physical laziness, spiritual laziness is emphasized. Failing to develop spiritually is key to becoming guilty of sloth. In the Christian faith, sloth rejects grace and God.

Sloth has also been defined as a failure to do things that one should do. By this definition, evil exists when good men fail to act.



Jim McC. --

I was just noting the fact, not what ought to be.  Sigh.  I must admit, though, that I'm conservative enough to realize that not every new idea is a good one.  Unintended consequences and all that.  So I think that Francis is being quite prudent in going slower than some of us would like.  He hasn't even been in office a year yet.

It is unfortunate that Pope Francis seems to say media-friendly things while seeming to undermine the actual teachings of the Holy Catholic Church on such issues as homosexuality, sex outside of marriage etc.  Don't you think he seems more focused on the person's life on this earth, rather than where Popes' usual focus is and ought to be - on their immortal souls??

This enthusiasm for a pope nobody even knows yet always smacks of criticism for Pope Benedict XVI.  It strikes me that this may be the reason we lost such a saintly man to lead us.

What do people see when they see Francis?

Well, not Emperor Palpatine--and that sure the hell doesn't hurt!

(n.b. I sat on that for almost 5 whole days, which took a lot of discipline)

I'm starting to wonder about Pope Francis' committment to making bishops accountable for their actions.  He just named 19 new cardinals.  None have been notable critics of the way the scandal has been handled by the bishops, though maybe some of those named have been privately critical.  Sigh.

This does not sound good for accountability in the sex abuse scandal:


Claire --

No, it doesn't look good.  I wonder if the Vatican is refusing to extradite the Polish cardinal because it fears suxh a precedent --  some have tried to have Pope Emeritus Benedict prosecuted for cover-ups, and i've seen it said that he's living in the Vatican rather than, say, Castel Gandalfo so as to avoid being extradited.  

Ann: unrelated. The church hierarchy has been completely silent on cover-ups up until now, but under pope Benedict action did happen in cases not of cover-ups but of sex abuse. In this case, the ex-nuncio is accused of sex abuse. If Benedict was still pope, he might have done something about it. Regarding the sex abuse scandal, I fear that Francis might be a step backwards from Benedict.

I am amazed that, although I thought the sex abuse scandal was my number 1 priority for the new pope, I still find myself swayed  by Francis in spite of myself. 


Claire --

Point well taken.  At  least when Benedict finally realized the seriousness of sexual abuse he acted strongly.  I'm starting to think that  Francis either hasn't yet realized the depths of the problem or he is waiting for a more a politically opportune moment to act against the worst of the bishops.  Given his apparent compassion in other matters, it's hard for me to believe that he doesn't see the seriousness of the problem. 

Maybe he's waiting to act against the enablers until he has more support among his fellow bishops, and it's going to take some time to convince them that most of them have been at least somewhat in denial about their own roles in the scandal..  Catholic bishops generally don't seem to realize that  laws apply to them.  But I daresay that once he has established a more collegial Vatican, there probably will be more bishops willing to support whatever measures he then decides to take.  The coming Synod of Bishops might be the best opportunity for him to act.

As for the Polish bishop,  maybe Francis is keeping him for himself.  The Vatican's dungeons have been famous for eons.  (Or make that infamouss :-)  Having his face justice there has a certain poetic and theological appeal.

Given his apparent compassion in other matters, it's hard for me to believe that he doesn't see the seriousness of the problem. 

He does not "get" why women do not appreciate being given Mary as their sole model and being denied official responsabilities. I suspect he also does not "get" sex abuse. He has his blind spots. I am not as optimistic as you are.

Claire --

In David Gibson's article yesterday at RNS on the new cardinals he reminds us that last year Pope Francis removed Cardinal Rigali from his post in the Congregation for Bishops, the most powerful body in the Vatican.  That is a stunning move.  Cardinal Rigali's record in the Philadelphia scandal is one of the very worst in the U. S.   So maybe Francis does have  the scandal high on his to-do list.  We'll see.



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