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?

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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