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Behind the Scenes, Pope Francis Is Moving

Pope Francis

In the modern era, great popes must know how to use the media effectively, and Francis so far seems to be mastering his trade. After a brief period out of the headlines, he re-emerged this week with some razzle-dazzle moves, using the unique powers of the papacy to communicate his message through a sometimes hostile media.

First, there were the canonizations. Popes can make saints, and the media loves personalities. Canonizations are to the papacy as cat videos are to Buzzfeed; the question isn’t whether to do them, it is whether you can do them well. Pope Francis seems to have what it takes.

In proclaiming two recent popes as saints, Francis shrewdly made everybody happy and strengthened the Church’s brand. The canonization of John Paul II was expected; where Francis showed skill was in coupling that announcement with the unexpected canonization of John XXIII. John Paul II is a conservative hero, beloved by conservative Catholics for standing up for orthodox doctrine, fighting Communism in Poland, and imposing order on the somewhat chaotic church he inherited.

But John XXIII is beloved by liberal Catholics; he was the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council and proclaimed it his mission to update the church for modern times.

Putting the two announcements together gave Francis a much bigger media ‘pop’ than he could get from either one alone, and it gave him street cred both with Catholic liberals and the media types who generally lean left. It was a smart piece of work and also a good one; both popes were genuine heroes of faith who were widely admired by non-Catholics and even non-Christians.

The announcement also helped Francis address what could have been a PR problem; he has also just released his first encyclical, much of which was already written by Benedict prior to his retirement. In the sections he wrote, Francis put a clear stamp on the document, but he seems to willing to continue exploring the theological themes that were important to Benedict. That will make conservatives happy, but Benedict is, as they say in Hollywood, box office poison, so the Pope was wise to release the encyclical while the media was focused on the canonization stories.

Francis’ biggest short term challenge is to manage what looks to be a difficult process of Vatican housecleaning. The Vatican’s house bank has been at the center of repeated financial scandals and has become a serious liability for the Church. Pope Francis has moved very ably to put himself on the right side of this unfolding story, making some personnel changes and appointing a respectable council of advisors to help him clean up the mess. The inclusion of the American legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon on the panel adds weight to the oversight group and is a refreshing example of a woman being called to a serious, high profile mission in the Vatican. This is good, solid decision making and paired with the two recent resignations of senior bank officials, there’s hope that reform might finally come not only to the bank but to the Vatican as a whole.

To understand all of this, and put it in a wider perspective, interested readers should read Damien Thompson’s very insightful piece comparing Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and Francis. A taste:

Both men were plucked from senior but not prominent positions in their churches with a mandate to simplify structures of government that had suffocated their intellectual predecessors, who also resembled each other in slightly unfortunate ways. Rowan Williams and Benedict XVI seemed overwhelmed by the weight of office; both took the puzzling decision to retreat into their studies at a time of crisis in order to write books — Dr Williams on metaphor and icon-ography in Dostoevsky, Benedict on the life of Jesus. When they retired, early and of their own volition, their in-trays were stacked higher than they had been when they took office. Their fans were disappointed and the men charged with replacing them thought: we’re not going to let that happen again.

Thompson notes that Francis and Welby are both clear examples of the increasing alliance between Catholics and Evangelicals, an alliance formed not only over political battles over culture war issues but also over an increased interest in each other’s liturgical, theological, and ministerial traditions.

Neither man has done everything his supporters want him to do, but they’re both still new to the job. We hope that between the two of them they can do much to revive faith in the West, pushing their churches towards an idiom that can appeal to the next generation.

The world stands in urgent need of inspirational religious leadership; we must hope (and some of us will pray) that the new Pope and the new Archbishop show the way.

[Image of Pope Francis courtesy of Getty]

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  • wigwag

    “But John XXIII is beloved by liberal Catholics; he was the pope who convened the Second Vatican Council and proclaimed it his mission to update the church for modern times.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    While it may not have been related to the decision to canonize him, Pope John, XXIII was also beloved by the Jews. While Pope Benedict was marching in the Hitler Youth, Angelo Giuseppe Roncali was saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews racing to escape from the Nazis. There are literally hundreds of thousands of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of these Jewish refugees alive today because of the courageous action that Roncali took in the 1930s.

    Roncali removed the description of Jews as “perfidious” from the Good Friday liturgy and he was the first Pope to apologize and confess the

    • Tom

      The part where Benedict was a teenager and John was an adult at the time should also be remembered.

      • wigwag

        It is true; Benedict was a child when he became a member of the Hitler Youth. Nothing in his later life demonstrated a sympathy for Nazis or Naziism. As Pope, Benedict did make some efforts to reach out to Jews and he was better than some of his predecessors when it came to Catholic-Jewish relations but certainly not as good as either Roncali or Karol Wojtyla.

        You should also remember that Benedict made some highly unpopular and deeply offensive decisions including the repopularization of the Tridentine Mass which includes a Good Friday prayer referring to the “blindness” and “darkness” of Jews (the Muslim Brotherhood could hardly have said it any more clearly).

        Then there was the decision to reverse the excommunication of the Holocaust denying Bishop Richard Williamson and the Beatification of Pius XII. The behavior of Pius during World War II was ambiguous at best and his role in the Orphans Controversy is viewed with suspicion by Jews for obvious reasons. It is hard for a Jew to understand why anyone would choose to revere Pius XII as a Saint.

        On the other hand, it is easy to understand why everyone would revere Roncali as a saint. I’m no expert in Catholic theology, but isn’t one of the signs of sainthood performing a requisite number of miricles? Roncali performed thousands of miricles; to see how many, just count the number of Jews he saved from the Nazis. Then count how many of their off-spring are alive today.

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