Pope Francis speaks to the media aboard the papal flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome July 28. CNS photo/Paul Haring

New Pope a man of style and substance

  • August 6, 2013

Less than six months into his papacy, Pope Francis still seems very new, very different to the world. In particular, his relationship to the media has caused a sensation.
Newspapers around the world have headlined the Pope's remarks on homosexuality with the "Who am I to judge?" soundbite.

Those remarks, the fact he would use the simple, direct term gay rather than technical language, even that he would spend 80 minutes chatting with reporters on an airplane without notes and without pre-screening questions, are just part of a deeper program to preach the Gospel in new ways, theologians and media experts told The Catholic Register.

"The general feeling around Pope Francis is that he's going to shake things up. What does that mean? Well, we'll just have to wait and see," said Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Archbishop Richard Smith. "But that sense of shaking things up seems to be greeted across the board as the right thing — as timely. And he's inviting everybody to be part of it."

Conversation with reporters in the back of a charter plane is a model for an evolving, informal, participatory style of papacy, said media scholar Eric McLuhan — son of media studies pioneer Marshall McLuhan.

"The Pope has several levels of style available to him. One is formal pronouncement, and those are usually for doctrinal matters. This clearly doesn't belong to that," McLuhan said. "This is much more conversational, a discussion of current concerns. It's very informal. And this would seem to characterize a lot of the movement of the papacy in the last 40 or 50 years — certainly since TV — the move toward using informal opportunities more frequently."

The informal papacy didn't start with Pope Benedict's first tweet from @pontifex or the 2011 launch of the Vatican's news feed at News.va. In 1896 Pope Leo XIII was the first pope to appear on film. Vatican Radio launched in 1931 and Pope Pius XI was the first vicar of Christ on the airwaves. Pius XII appeared on television in 1949.

Pope2you.net has offered a Facebook application since 2009. As the monarchical papacy of the First Vatican Council in 1870 has given way to a democratic age, the modern papacy has gradually learned to pronounce less and converse more.

"The style matters because it encourages dialogue," said King's University College theologian Mark Yenson.

Eric McLuhan's famous father Marshall (a rather conservative convert to Catholicism) distinguished between hot and cool media. Hot media included film, radio and the formal lecture — one-way communication that tends to present the most final and complete version of its subject. The more informal is any form of communication that, the more it invites participation, the cooler it becomes.

A lot can be said in 80 minutes – especially if you're the pope and you've got a plane-load of journalists hanging on your words. Here's some of what Pope Francis said on his way home from Brazil.

- "A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will - well, who am I to judge him? The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn't this (homosexual) orientation - we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else. The problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby."

- "It is not enough to have altar girls, women readers or women as the president of Caritas. Women in the Church are more important than bishops and priests, just like Mary is more important than the Apostles."

- "There wasn't a single incident in all of Rio de Janeiro in all of these days and all of this spontaneity. I could be with the people embrace them and greet them - without an armoured car and instead with the security of trusting the people…. Security lies in trusting people. It's true that there's always the danger that a crazy person will try to do something, but there's also the Lord. Sealing off a bishop behind bullet proof glass is also craziness."

- "This theme (divorced and remarried Catholics) always comes up … I believe this is a time of mercy, a change of epoch. It's a kairos moment for mercy … In terms of Communion for those who have divorced and remarried, it has to be seen within the larger pastoral context of marriage. When the council of eight cardinals meets Oct. 1-3, one of the things they'll consider is how to move forward with the pastoral care of marriage. Also, just 15 days ago or so, I met the secretary of the Synod of Bishops, and maybe it will also focus on the pastoral care of marriage. It's complicated."

- "I truly feel I have many limits, even sins."

When it comes to Pope Francis' press conference on the plane:

"That's very cool. It's entirely participatory," McLuhan said. "What the Pope is doing at the back of the plane is very highly participatory. They're having a talk. He's not being grilled so much as being tossed a topic."

Theologians welcome Pope Francis' emphasis on dialogue and openness to change.

"I have written over the years about the need for more effective ecclesial structures and my hopes for more extensive dialogue with the Church on questions of great concern to contemporary Catholics," said Saint Paul University theologian Cathy Clifford. "I now see such change not only as a theoretical hope, but as a concrete possibility."

Clifford points to signs that the coming Franciscan reform will devolve more power to national conferences of bishops and institute more serious synods which would give bishops a bigger say in what comes out of Rome.

"Pope Francis himself has spoken of the importance of collegiality and synodality. I expect that the international synod of bishops might become more of a deliberative body. As well, Pope Francis' initiative of establishing a 'Committee of Eight' cardinals, chosen from each continent of the world and from the Eastern Catholic Churches, may be a sign of moving towards some form of permanent synod or governing council," she said.

When Pope Francis speaks about the need for a theology of women, the comments don't magically resolve problems women have had relating to the Church and vice-versa, said St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta theologian Indre Cuplinskas. But she welcomes the implicit invitation to talk.

"As a Catholic theologian and a woman theologian, I'm happy to hear those kinds of open-ended comments used to engage Catholics in conversation," she said.

A false distinction between style and substance won't help anyone understand Francis. Dismissing the newness of Pope Francis as just a matter of style misses the point, said Smith.

"This Pope, he's deeper than style," the archbishop said. "This is a man of real substance, of real backbone. He's clearly a man of his own mind, a real take-charge kind of individual. He realizes he's Pope and that's it — he's leading the Church."

"Pope Francis is not indecisive. He knows where he stands," said Yenson. "But where he stands is something he brings into a dialogical space. That's an important model of leadership in society and in the Church."

While in Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, Smith said he was most moved by a ceremony during the vigil, leading up to the closing Mass. In a clear reference to the call to St. Francis to "rebuild my Church" pilgrims processed toward the altar carrying parts of a model church. They gradually assembled the parts into a complete church.

"When I watched that I thought, 'Oh my, the Holy Spirit is unleashing something wonderful now," he said. "Pope Francis has his own style and this is a new moment."
The Franciscan moment is all about the new evangelization, said St. Michael's University theologian Fr. Stan Chu Ilo.

"Evangelization that is new in method, new in expression and creating a new level of enthusiasm," he said. "I don't think it's about repackaging. It's about expanding our framework so that we can be open to the surprises of the Holy Spirit."

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