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]