Let the real Francis stand out
The following was the reaction of Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, the former Vatican governor and foreign minister, to the Pope’s address to the Roman Curia earlier on last week, which quite naturally made the headlines: “To be honest, nothing like this has ever happened before.”
It is customary for the Pope to meet the officials of the Roman Curia at this time of year to exchange Christmas greetings. During this meeting the Pope addresses the gathered cardinals, bishops and monsignors about the state of the world, the main events and projections of the pontificate. Instead Francis spoke about the Curia, and, to boot, about the “illnesses we encounter most frequently in our life in the Curia”.
He listed 15 different illnesses or diseases. The news bulletin released by the Vatican Information Services minced no words when titling the report: “Francis: a Curia that is outdated, sclerotic or indifferent to others is an ailing body.”
The Pope, quite naturally, departed from tradition for a reason. He is fully conscious of two things: structural change without personal conversion leads to a cul-de-sac and his plan to radically reform the Roman Curia – a reform mandated by the cardinals during their pre-papal election meetings – is opposed by many high officials within the same Curia. Some express their dissent underhandedly while others, as is their right, do it publicly. Cardinal Leo Burke, who before his recent re-assignment was the prefect of the Church’s highest court, had said that there is a strong sense among many that the Church under Pope Francis “is like a ship without a rudder”.
Francis is also conscious that bureaucracies can help you or break you. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI can speak volumes of the great difficulties he had encountered. The findings of a report he had commissioned a short time before his historic and prophetic decision to resign had agonised him. He felt he was “too weak and tired” (his words to a German newspaper) to deal with the challenges and internal backbiting at the Vatican. The report kept secret by Benedict was then passed on to Pope Francis. He now seems determined that the Vatican bureaucracy will not do to him what it did to Benedict.
Pope Francis is fully conscious that given his age he does not have all the time in the world to enact the reform. Consequently he has to act fast. “Fretta, fretta” (Hurry, hurry) are the words Francis told a person helping out in the administrative and financial restructuring of the Roman Curia.
But the interpretation of the words and actions of the Pope is somewhat skewed by the media coverage which has created a Brand Francis, which is different from the Real Francis.
In line with this media construct, people have fashioned their own image of Pope Francis, sometimes independently of who he really is, and consequently interpret his words and actions within the perceptual frame provided by the media.
The Pope is conscious of the dialectic between Brand Francis and the Real Francis. In a recent interview with the Argentinian paper La Nacion, he sounded irked by the situation. He said:
“Look, I wrote an encyclical… and an Apostolic Exhortation, I’m permanently making statements, giving homilies; that’s teaching. That’s what I think, not what the media say that I think. Check it out, it’s very clear. Evangelii Gaudium is very clear.”
Most people unfortunately will read or follow media reports – or, more probably the headlines and the summaries – but will not bother to read Evangelii Gaudium.
A few examples of media distortions suffice.
A common media tactic, for example, is the pitting of Benedict versus Francis, the former portrayed as a vicious conservative while the latter as anti-establishment. Charles Moore in his op-piece in The Spectator (December 13) put paid to this perverse dichotomy.
“The Church needs both, like Christmas after Advent, Easter after Lent. Things are, in the Christian view, very bad, yet all shall be well. Put the two men together, and you have most of what you need.”
According to the media, the Pope believes all religions are equally good. Media reports lauded his prayers in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul last November as an example of his ‘syncretism’.
The Vatican press office burst the bubble, informing us that Francis prayed the same prayer as Benedict XVI had prayed in the same way and in the same place!
The media broadcast Pope Francis’s address to the Academy of Sciences as a radical development of Church teaching. He said that “evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation,” and that God “created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness”. Was this revolutionary? Pope Pius XII wrote the same thing 64 years before in the encyclical letter Humani Generis.
This December we were told that Francis said that pets can go to heaven. (Incidentally no one seemed to have mentioned that the logical flipside is that they can also go to hell!) The Pope said no such thing. Religion News Service tracked how this false story made it to mainstream media; but the route is too complex to go into.
The truth is that in an interview with Il Messaggero, the Pope has criticised modern societies who favour pets over people spending vast amount of money on animals while children go hungry.
The good news is that the Real Francis is much better than Brand Francis, albeit it is not easy to pin him down. He is a man of surprises. Behind the generous smile there is the shrewd Jesuit. The metaphors he uses and the symbolic acts he performs have fired people’s imagination and many feel at ease to project their dreams or fears onto him.
Moreover, the same metaphors augur a better vision for the Church. Those who are emarginated from the Church and its structures are his main target audience. He wants to help them rediscover God’s love in their lives.
There are those who do not like him and those who oppose his reform programme. He is fully conscious both of the various contending groups in the Church and the difficulty to synergise them. His final speech to the recent Synod is a masterpiece of a bridge builder.
Lajolo’s comment at the beginning of this piece gives a definitive direction. This pontificate will present us with many more things that we have never seen before.