It’s hard not to be impressed by Pope Francis. He is warm and engaging and clearly has a shepherd’s heart. He lives simply, but in a big-hearted way. He is a passionate evangelist, who wants everyone to know Christ, and through him, the One who sent him.
The language of his homilies is vivid and often earthy. And alongside his simplicity and humility he shows himself to have enough grit and political nous to deal with the managerial and bureaucratic side of his role effectively. There’s a lot to admire there, and a lot to love too.
It might be expected that all of this praise is leading up to a “But…” clause. It isn’t. Pope Francis is impressive, and I regularly thank God for his election as Bishop of Rome. More than a year on, the so-called ‘honeymoon period’ with the world’s media and other opinion-shapers seems to be still going strong. This surprises me, but if it means that a Gospel voice is now more welcome in the global public square than previously, I guess I shouldn’t be complaining.
The media love-affair with Pope Francis sometimes takes on an almost comical character. I had to check that it wasn’t April Fool’s Day when I read recently that an Italian publisher has just launched a weekly magazine called Il Mio Papa (‘My Pope’). It’s for real alright. It’s a glossy magazine, very much in the style of publications like Hello! The idea is extraordinary.
Very ordinary things done by this Pope are reported by the world’s media as if they are earth-shattering novelties. It’s as if no Pope before him actually spent time with the sick or was generous to the poor.
Of course they did, but thanks to his personal charisma the media are particularly drawn to Francis. The worst of the adulatory media coverage, fawning and almost breathless in the style of a teen gossip mag, serves more to highlight the media’s religious and historical illiteracy than anything else. I find it irritating and amusing in equal measure.
None of this is to say that Pope Francis isn’t extraordinary in many ways. He really is. But the simpering tone of much of the media coverage often seems to suggest that he is some kind of über-liberal teddy-bear or hippy, embracing everyone, full of the language of love, but without strong views on anything much and willing to compromise on pretty much every aspect of doctrine.
There’s a clichéd rhetorical question often used to answer silly questions about the blindingly obvious – ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ Some sections of the media, and indeed of the Church too, seem to think that the answer to this question is ‘No’ in the case of the current incumbent. I’m sorry to disappoint those people, but Pope Francis really is a Catholic!
Atheist theorists argue that believers have ‘created’ God in our own image and likeness. While I obviously reject the claim that God is but a projection, the critique should not be dismissed in its entirety. Believers do often try to define God on their own terms, projecting their favoured qualities on to him. The same dynamic is at play in some of the froth spoken about the Holy Father. Because Pope Francis is warm and likeable, has an informal style and the common touch, it’s easy to project qualities and opinions on to him which bear absolutely no relation whatsoever to reality. The result is a caricature of the man and his message, not the reality.
This becomes particularly distasteful when the caricature is then used to denigrate previous Popes, particularly Pope Emeritus Benedict. Every time Francis does something differently to Benedict, even things as insignificant as walking where Benedict was driven, using Italian where Benedict used Latin, or carrying his own briefcase, certain commentators highlight it, with a not-so-subtle imputation of arrogance and pride to Benedict. Just as warm fuzzy characteristics get projected on to Francis, so do cold and authoritarian ones get projected on to Benedict.
This is a travesty and is unfair to both men. Some of the commentary, even from Catholics, comes dangerously close to implying that the previous papacy was almost a mistake, or that the Holy Spirit was having a coffee-break when the election took place.
It is a very short-term and one-dimensional view. It seems to doubt the possibility of God raising up shepherds for his Church at different points in history with differing gifts and characteristics, according to the needs of the time.But there’s something else which is positively diabolical about the kind of projection I’m talking about. Whether it’s domesticating Pope Francis or demonising Pope Benedict, one result is the same: The prophetic voice of both men is extinguished. Benedict gets written off as an irrelevant anachronism and Francis is rendered so warm and cuddly that he is completely unthreatening, even when he is saying the most challenging things possible about our use of money and our attitude to the poor.
Our projections are more comfortable to live with than the prophetic reality.
Martin Browne OSB is a monk of Glenstal Abbey and on Twitter @MartinBrowneOSB
Source: The Irish Catholic.