Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Disconcerted by Francis #3
I know from recent personal experience how the media can destroy or at least badly one's reputation. Whatever Pope Benedict did from the moment he stood on the balcony of St Peter's wearing his black jumper under the Papal cassock with his black plastic watch on his wrist the media hated him. The build up to the Papal visit here in the UK indicated a flop, the media spread stories of massed anti-Pope demonstrations, even the prospect of arrest, every interview tried to suggest he personally was responsible for clerically child abuse rather than the one who chose to deal with it, then he arrived and his gentle courteous humility seemed to change hearts.
Cardinal Suenens visited the seminary I was in after the election of Pope John Paul II, I met him in the corridor and in brief conversation asked what Cardinals did after electing a Pope, his answer was, 'prepare for the next Conclave'. The speed of Pope Francis' election would suggest that he had already secured the block vote of the Curia, and probably a proportion of the Italian electors before he even entered the Conclave. As runner-up to Ratzinger in the previous Conclave his election was probably not such a surprise to him, and those who had taken part in the previous Conclave, as it was to most of us. It would be foolish to think that likely candidates for the Papacy do not think through, and even discuss with others, the first few months of their tenure if the are elected.
Considering the negative media coverage of his predecessor it would be not unnatural for Pope Francis to have considered, and received advice about his image before his election, nor would it have been foolish or cynical for this to have been discussed during the Conclave and in an image conscious age one of the things Cardinal-electors would have been concerned about a new Pope's ability to project a positive image.
'Spin' is a fact of life, being thought well of is in many ways a Christian virtue. Cardinal Hume used tell his novices when Abbot of Ampleforth, 'The Community is commanded by Christ to love you, you therefore have a duty to make yourselves lovable', as with novice monks, so with Popes. Building up support for himself within his diocese and Italy is a wise and prudent thing to do, and for Pope Francis doing the things Italians love, kissing every baby, hugging every granny obviously comes easily. The large black camera that has appeared on the back of the Popemobile ensures that every kiss every embrace is seen by thousands. Popes should be seen as lovable. Being the son of Italian parents is almost as good as actually being Italian and probably the best Italians can hope for in any future Pope and is certainly not a hindrance to filling St Peter's Piazza.
Certainly Francis' message is simple: show mercy and humility, love the poor, be good, don't gossip etc. it is a message even a cynical journalist can understand without it needing to be interpreted, he says the things one might expect any parish priest to say. In a culture where it is quite possible to be a good Catholic and anti-clerical, the slightly subversive Pope plays well, complaining about priest's cars and wanting to fight against Vatican corruption plays well.
The press are always going to do the 'compare and contrast' bit between Francis and Benedict, it is natural and it is also obviously a concern for those inside the Vatican. To some the comparison is disconcerting, it highlights shifting sands, to others to others it is a source of hope or more likely wishful thinking but behind the obvious public image of Francis there is something quite enigmatic, we see him through the media which having been given a certain lead then builds up its own momentum. The reason for expressing these thoughts is that a couple of days ago El Pais came out with the headline: Pope Francis contemplates appointing a female cardinal which has as much substance behind it as so many other speculative pieces about the Pope or his plans for the future but it is emblematic of many of the headlines that appear in the popular media.
As far as Francis' plans for the future are concerned, we know he wants to reform the way in which the Curia operates, we know he wants the Church to be more concerned about mission, there is little more that we know. The amazing thing is that six months into his Papacy for most of us he is still enigmatic, one day saying we say too much about abortion, the next day addressing that very issue, or another talking about freedom from laws, the next excommunicating an unrepentant dissident. For me Francis remains a disconcerting enigma, the problem is separating the spin from the reality.
He cannot change dogma, he can change its expression and presentation, the more he is presented as being likely to change fundamentals of discipline and the way in which ordinary Christian live their faith, the more disconcerting he becomes. The more the media present him as subversive, the sooner he will be forced to show himself as the stable Rock on which the Church is built. A Pope can't base his Papacy on subversion, we know from scripture what happened to house built on sand.
I would put forward one speculation of my own, perhaps in the reform of the Curia Francis himself doesn't yet quite know what he can do, beyond a few small steps and if I am right in my suggestion that he was elected by the Curia's block vote, he doesn't know himself what the Curia will allow him to do either, they of course are the real masters of spin, and illusion too!
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